ULI’s Dearborn plan a blueprint for rejuvenating struggling downtowns

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Guest post by John Petz, Urban Land Institute Michigan

In Dearborn, Michigan, a once bustling commercial block has fallen on tough times. The Wagner Hotel block in the West Downtown District suffered multiple vacancies and a fire during the last economic recession–and has been struggling to rebuild since.

Any redevelopment plan for the Wagner Hotel block would need to overcome some inherent structural challenges, including the complexity of 13 distinct parcels and nine different owners, and the lack of a unified vision for what the future of the area might look like. But, for an area that was part of a vibrant commercial district as recently as a decade ago–and has the potential to serve as a prominent and even iconic gateway into the west end of downtown Dearborn–the Wagner Hotel block was well worth the special attention and thoughtful approach required to craft and execute a sophisticated redevelopment strategy.

ULI Michigan, a nonprofit research and education organization committed to creating and sustaining thriving communities across the state, recently partnered with the City of Dearborn to do just that, commissioning a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP)–part of ULI’s prestigious Larson Center for Leadership program–to provide land use and development counsel on this important issue.

The committee, composed of a diverse cross section of up-and-coming land-use professionals, put forward a number of recommendations for revitalizing the Wagner Hotel Block. The proposals ranged from enhancing the pedestrian experience to partnering with anchor institutions. The results of the Dearborn TAP not only provide an impressive case study example of creative and holistic urban redevelopment planning in action, but can also serve as an instructive guide for other cities looking to implement similar initiatives.

History and possibility

The eighth largest city in the state and the second largest in Wayne County, Dearborn is home to major employers, including Ford Motor Company, and includes natural resources, such as the Rouge River and park system, vibrant neighborhoods with historic homes, and educational assets including University of Michigan–Dearborn and Henry Ford College.

One of two downtown districts, West Downtown Dearborn is adjacent to one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and is home to the historic Wagner Hotel. The Wagner Hotel was built at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street in 1896 by Anthony Wagner and his son, Charles Wagner, who were brick manufacturers. The hotel closed in the 1920s, and the structure has been used by various businesses throughout the years, including the Dearborn post office.

Vision and vitality

Working closely with officials from Dearborn, ULI worked to develop a series of recommendations that would maximize the social and commercial potential of the site, integrate the district into the larger downtown Dearborn backdrop, modify existing infrastructure to create more walkability and less interference between vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and realize the connectivity potential between this site and several major hubs.

ULI’s market analysis indicates that a comprehensive private redevelopment of the entire block is not likely viable (despite the obvious appeal that a single unified solution might present from the city’s perspective). The TAP report concludes that the Wagner Hotel block project should take a phased development approach, with the first phase focusing on city-controlled properties that can catalyze activity and generate excitement. This would include the demolition of the former La Shish building to facilitate the extension of the pedestrian mews across from the north side of Michigan Avenue on to the south. The report also calls for the City of Dearborn to coordinate with the existing multiple property owners at the western end of the block on façade improvements, at least until market conditions make a more comprehensive solution more viable.

Enhancing the pedestrian experience is also a focus at the rear of the Wagner Hotel block, on West Village Drive. The TAP report calls for eliminating visual disorder by removing the fencing and parking spaces, which are not needed because of the ample parking in an adjacent public lot. It suggests restricting vehicular traffic from the pedestrian plaza, and creating main entrances along West Village to the buildings due to the traffic issues on Michigan Avenue.

One of the key elements of the plan involved demolition and the construction of new leasable space in a five-story mixed-use development slated to include restaurants, small-scale retail, flex-office and residential properties. The new building would complement area anchors and bring in more than $1 million in annual rental revenue within two years. Restaurant and retail would encompass 26,000 square feet on the ground level; flex-office space would occupy 5,000 square feet on the second level; and residential, including studio, one- and two-bedroom units, would be present on levels two through five within 14,440-square-foot floor plates. At the end of year one, the ULI panel projects that total rental revenue of all spaces would reach $968,188, and that number is expected to increase to $1,433,644 by the end of the second year.

The plan suggests that Dearborn partner with area anchors, such as The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company, to sponsor and host special events that would help transform the area into a true community destination.

Finally, the TAP recommendations included the creation of common branding to unify the area, establishment a consistent Dearborn brand, reflect the district’s rich history and promote a sense of place and connection. Design elements, including new wayfinding and signage, would be used as tools to help integrate environments, reinforce the asset identity and make the area easy to visit, traverse and market.

Lessons and legacy

While specific design and development recommendations in the ULI Dearborn TAP report are unlikely to apply to different municipalities and in development contexts, there are a number of concepts and best practices that could be helpful for any municipality looking to take a strategic approach to its real estate/redevelopment challenges:

Diverse and doable

There are two unique components to ULI’s TAP recommendations that apply to not only Dearborn, but to all TAP studies. TAP takes a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving, with all aspects of the real estate profession brought to bear to address community development/redevelopment challenges. A wide array of specialists provide input and insight into the process, including developers, architects, planners, engineers, civic and non-profit groups, and even attorneys and marketing professionals. The result is a diverse range of perspectives and a holistic approach. The second trait that distinguishes ULI’s TAP work is that the solutions generated are always both practical and implementable–delivering a roadmap a community can follow.

Get key stakeholders involved

Complex redevelopments require the participation of key stakeholders, especially when there are many owners involved. In Dearborn, business leaders, developers, and city officials were interested and wanted to be engaged. No project of this size is done in isolation, and the City of Dearborn, local businesses and anchor institutions were all part of the development calculus. Their literal and figurative buy-in can dramatically accelerate the pace of development and the quality of the finished project. Private companies are increasingly recognizing the synergistic value of a vibrant community, and the importance of investing in their home bases.

Don’t displace existing successes

Do not neglect existing tenants. Find a way to integrate success stories into your new vision. They can be enormously important assets, and are often best served by a phased approach that preserves their social and commercial vitality while allowing them to be a part of the newly emerging and revitalized mixed-use landscape.

Involve the municipality

Getting the municipality on board in a meaningful way can “jump start” a project–particularly in cases where one or more of the project components is a public space asset. Oftentimes when the public sector takes the lead, it demonstrates to private sector owners that there is a legitimate commitment to the development/redevelopment vision, establishes a sense of progress and momentum, and ultimately encourages the investment of private dollars.

Encourage pedestrian scale development

While there are a number of subtle design strategies that can enhance the pedestrian experience, one of the most important prerequisites is close coordination with traffic officials. When posted speeds are too high to allow for safe and easy pedestrian movement, that can be a significant drag on redevelopment and may hamper the prospects for long-term success.

Ultimately, development and redevelopment planning that embraces these principles and practices will contribute significantly to revitalization projects that improve the livability, viability and economic vitality of communities across Michigan and around the country.

John Petz is director of real estate and public affairs at ULI Michigan.

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