The secrets to reviving struggling downtowns? Taller buildings, narrower streets and on-street parking can help

Downtown Birmingham, Michigan.

Downtown Birmingham, Michigan.

by Dan Rafter

It was plain to see: The downtown business strip that had so long thrived in Birmingham, Michigan, was struggling.

Bob Gibbs, an urban planner and chief executive officer of Birmingham-based Gibbs Planning, pointed to the luxury mall that had opened two miles away and had grabbed the major tenants that had lined downtown Birmingham for years. At the same time, the city had lost 25 percent of its population during the prior decade.

Another challenge? The city of Birmingham had built a large ring road that circled downtown. This led cars away from the center of the city, and its businesses, hurting the shop owners who relied on downtown traffic to bring in retail sales.

Retail sales had dropped by about 30 percent in downtown Birmingham, Gibbs said. Vacancies dotted the business strip.

Downtown Birmingham – which served a city of more than 20,000 located about halfway between Detroit and Pontiac – needed a change.

That was in the late 1990s. Today, though, downtown Birmingham is thriving. The city’s central business strip has been lauded as one of the most walkable and pedestrian-friendly downtowns in the country. And for Gibbs, the successful revitalization of downtown Birmingham should serve as a blueprint to other urban areas struggling to provide a boost to their struggling downtowns.

“The downtown was really hurting. But city officials were willing to make changes,” said Gibbs, one of the leaders of downtown Birmingham’s revitalization program. “Today, the downtown continues to do well. It was all about making it a walkable destination point.”

The changes that Birmingham city officials approved might have been controversial at the time. But they worked. And they could provide a strategy for other cities hoping to boost their downtown business strips.

The city agreed on a 20-year plan, beginning in 1996, that would gradually introduce improvements – both those designed to slow traffic and increase parking in downtown Birmingham and boost the charm of the strip’s streetscape – throughout the two decades.

That plan was scheduled to come to its official conclusion in 2016. And the result? It’s been a positive, with the downtown booming today.

Big and small steps 

The city took several steps that eventually paid off for downtown Birmingham. First, it added on-street parking on the main road traveling through downtown Birmingham. It also benefited from five parking garages spread around the edges of downtown. This might not seem like such a big deal. But it did allow the city to raise the price of on-street parking in downtown Birmingham.

Gibbs said that the city boosted its parking-meter rate to $1.50 an hour in downtown Birmingham. This encouraged more shoppers to park in one of the parking garages, which were less expensive and charged nothing at all for the first two hours that cars parked inside them. It became less likely that business owners would now park their cars in front of their own shops all day, leaving street spaces open for those shoppers who didn’t mind paying the higher meter fee but who also wouldn’t take up a parking space all day long.

Traffic calming was important, too. The ring road surrounding downtown was a four-lane highway with wide radiuses, allowing cars to zip along at 35 miles-an-hour. The city removed the road’s outer two lanes and put in parallel parking. This made it easier for pedestrians to cross the street and reach downtown.

A key zoning change made a difference, too, Gibbs said. Previously, builders could only erect one- to two-story buildings in downtown Birmingham. That proved unwieldly, with the price of real estate making it too expensive for developers to build such small structures.

The city changed the zoning to allow buildings of up to five stories if the first story of these buildings was devoted to retail, Gibbs said.

This made a big difference. Gibbs said that downtown Birmingham saw a building boom after this change, with about 30 projects built in the area in just two to three years.

“There was a giant uptick in demand for new retail and housing,” Gibbs said. “It had been hampered before that because of the zoning issues. Many cities are afraid of five-story zoning. They want to keep it to two or three. That is a mistake. Some cities refuse to go with five-story zoning. Many won’t do traffic calming. They don’t like narrow streets and on-street parking. But changing those can make a positive difference.”

The city invested, too, in a streetscape program, to make downtown more charming to pedestrians, and a downtown park complete with its own fountain.

“This made the area an attractive hub for people to gather in,” Gibbs said. “It was all very positive.”

Gibbs said that the numbers speak for themselves. Birmingham’s office vacancy rate downtown is in the 3 percent range, he said. Throughout the area’s suburbs, that rate is a far higher 25 percent.

The retail market here is thriving, too, Gibbs said, with specialty shops and restaurants powering the strip’s rejuvenation.

“The downtown has been filled in with restaurants, smaller shops and a nice night scene,” he said.

There are two cinemas downtown and a 25o-room luxury hotel that help, too.

“Southeast Michigan doesn’t have a major downtown shopping destination like Boston and San Francisco have,” Gibbs said. “Without a major downtown shopping district, Birmingham and other small towns around here are the alternative to a core shopping district downtown. So a lot of second-tier specialty national chains do well in downtowns like this.”

Gibbs pointed to retailers such as furniture store West Elm and women’s athletic wear company Lululemon as examples of second-tier national chains that do well in downtowns such as the one serving Birmingham.

 

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