Place-making: Creating a community in a Detroit first-ring suburb

September 26, 2013  |  Dan Rafter  |  Print Article  |  Email this Article

Southfield city officials are working to create a pedestrian-friendly city center.

Southfield city officials are working to create a pedestrian-friendly city center.

The Detroit suburb of Southfield sprang to life during the auto-dominated post-World War II era. This means that highways and freeways dissect this first-ring suburb. That’s good for getting around. But it’s not so good for anyone who wants to take a walk.

Officials with the city of Southfield hope to change this with their Southfield City Centre plan. The goal is create a center to the city that is walkable, one filled with restaurants, shops, offices, apartments and public spaces. The hope is that this will help Southfield attract and retain the young professionals who want to live in a pedestrian-friendly urban environment.

The good news for Southfield? It already has many of the building blocks in place. The city already boasts 27 million square feet of office space. It has a population of 72,000, one that swells to about 175,000 during the day when the area’s office employees are at work.

There are also colleges here, most notably Lawrence Technological University, a university that is partnering with the city to help create an environment in which its students might decide to stay in Southfield after they earn their degrees.

“We have been working on place-making,” said Terry Croad, the city planner for Southfield. “We’re filling gaps in our sidewalk system. We’re upgrading our public transit. We’re adding more benches and trash receptacles.”

The city has also passed an Overlay Development District ordinance that gives it more flexiblity when it comes to zoning setbacks.

“Now our city center doesn’t have to be just auto-dominated where all the buildings are 75 feet from the road. When we had that, we’d get seas of parking lots surrounding single buildings,” Croad said. “Now we can have buildings up closer to the street. We can create more scale for pedestrians. We can negotiate setback requirements and density.”

Arbor Lofts is one of the recent success stories of the Southfield City Centre. This former office building, converted to loft apartments is now leasing. Lawrence Technological University is leasing 100 out of 171 beds in the conversion for its students.

“We have young kids and professionals living and sending their money in Southfield after 5 p.m. and on weekends,” Croad said. “Lawrence Technological has a town-and-gown concept that they want to create. We are working with the university to create a sense of community.”

And that’s the ultimate goal of the Southfield City Centre: As Croad says, the district has a number of large vacant parking lots. The hope is to fill these lots with mixed-use developments with office and residential on second and third floors and retail and restaurants on the first.

“We want to provide alternatives here,” Croad said. “We want people to come to school here, start a business here, buy a home here and start a family. The City Centre plan gives us the best opportunity to reach those goals.”

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