Planning April 2013


Detroit Releases 50-Year Framework Plan

The Detroit Works Project, a consortium of planning professionals, consultants, designers, residents, and civic leaders, released its highly anticipated plan, the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, to the public in January. Approved by Mayor Dave Bing, the several-hundred-page document was created with the input of 30,000 conversations with the public through meetings, town halls, and open houses that began in 2009.

Initial implementation funding of $150 million over five years will come from the Kresge Foundation (with additional support from the Kellogg Foundation). Kresge funded the creation of the Detroit Works organization.

The plan envisions an urban community of established neighborhoods and creatively revitalized vacant land. Detroiters living in less populated areas would not be required to leave but eventually could find themselves living near forested parks with hiking trails; they would also have the option of taking incentives to move to denser areas.

Detroit Future City is comprised of five elements: economic growth, land use, city systems, neighborhoods, and land and building assets. With a 50-year horizon, the plan creates five different neighborhood types with a map showing where the neighborhoods would be located, but the framework is meant to be just that, according to Heidi Alcock, CEO of Michigan Community Resources, a nonprofit that runs the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign and helped to lead the civic engagement component.

"Detroit Future City is not meant to be as granular as a neighborhood plan," says Alcock, noting that neighborhood plans connecting to the framework, such as one in Brightmoor, are already under way.

One of the basic tenets of the document is that the most viable districts will receive the greatest resources. "The fundamental challenge for economic development strategy and growth is not a matter of the physical scale of the city, as is often claimed, but the lack of employment density," the plan states. The authors assume that Detroit's population will continue to fall from 713,777 (2010 census) to around 600,000 to 615,000 by about 2033. The plan calls for establishing seven major employment districts.


Linking space and economics

"Components of the 50-year land-use vision include, from top to bottom, multiple employment districts; transportation connections; open space and parks; and distinct, attractive neighborhoodsThe framework's linking of economic development with a visualization of potential job centers is fantastic," says June Manning Thomas, FAICP, a professor at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. A veteran of both evaluating urban redevelopment and working directly with Detroit neighborhoods, Thomas says that the team did their homework. "Nobody has done this kind of analysis recently to my knowledge, marrying economic analysis with spatial analysis in Detroit, and it is very exciting."

Marja Winters, the city's deputy director of planning and development, says that Detroit Future City could be the basis for the city's revised master plan, which the skeletal planning department staff (down to just four employees due to budget cuts, according to Winters) will be working on through 2014. The last master plan was approved in 2009; state law mandates an update every five years. Winters says implementation of the plan will require changes in the zoning ordinance.

Implementation will present challenges. One factor could be conflict between the need to consolidate uses and the cost of land. John Mogk, professor of land-use law at Wayne State University, says that the plan is reasonable as a whole, yet faces conditions that are changing continuously. Moving quickly is imperative, but the process could be bogged down because there "will be landowners who won't sell or will demand exorbitant prices for sale," he says, referring to speculators and absentee owners, not home owners.

The financial crisis is another big hurdle. In March, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr as the city's emergency financial manager. In that position, Orr assumes the powers usually held by the mayor and city council, and he has the authority to sell certain city assets and file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

— Corry Buckwalter Berkooz

Berkooz is a writer and planner in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


News Briefs

The grades are in: D+ overall for American infrastructure, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which issues its report card every four years. Roads, transit, wastewater, and drinking water each got a D, while rail and bridges both received a C+. Read the full report at www.infrastructure


Cook County, Illinois, is the latest — and largest, say local leaders — place to launch a land bank to deal with vacant and foreclosed properties in Chicago and its suburbs. "What's really troubling is that 10 percent of housing units in Cook County are vacant," and 85,000 foreclosure cases are pending, noted county board president Toni Preckwinkle at a public forum in February.


The oil and gas boom is fueling population growth in pockets of the Great Plains and West Texas, according to the Census Bureau. Midland, Texas, was the fastest-growing metro area last year and adjacent Odessa — both are in the Permian Basin — ranked fifth overall. Austin-Round Rock, Texas; Casper and Cheyenne, Wyoming; Manhattan, Kansas; and Bismarck, North Dakota, were also in the top 20.


Philadelphia University is launching a masters program in geodesign in the fall — the first of its kind in the country. Geodesign is defined by Esri, which pioneered the concept, as "a design framework and supporting technology ... to leverage geographic information, resulting in designs that more closely follow natural systems." Claudia Goetz Phillips, the school's director of geodesign and landscape architecture, calls the approach "imperative to addressing 21st century urban issues."


Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities, a new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, describes how seven communities across the country have made use of smart growth strategies to meet the needs of residents. Go to equitable_ developmentreport.htm.


Voluntary Contributions Questioned

In what some say is an unprecedented lawsuit, a group of residents in Princeton, New Jersey, have filed suit against Princeton University accusing the Ivy League institution of increasing its voluntary annual contributions to the municipality in an attempt to curry favor with the borough's zoning board.

University vice president and secretary Robert Durkee differentiates the payments from PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes), saying that no set figure has ever been arranged with the municipality and that the institution already pays taxes on some of its properties (such as parking lots) that are not tax-exempt under its nonprofit status, as well as some (like student housing) that could qualify as exempt. The university's contribution for 2013 will be $2.475 million, a substantial increase from its $1.7 million commitment.

Additionally, Durkee claims that "discussions about this year's contributions were entirely separate from those about the project for which we were seeking zoning approval." Still, in a May 2011 New York Times article about municipalities asking nonprofits for more contributions, Durkee was quoted as saying (via e-mail) that "it would be difficult to justify continuing contributions at existing levels to local officials who not only refuse to help the university achieve a key educational objective, but in some cases have sought to prevent the project from going forward."

The controversy concerns the university's planned Arts and Transit development, a $300 million project that's been on the drawing boards since 2006. The project promises a new Steven Holl-designed arts facility that will include a theater as well as classroom and faculty offices, along with community enhancements such as new public plazas and streetscaping and improved traffic circulation. It also calls for the conversion of an existing train station into a restaurant and the subsequent rebuilding of a new transit stop a short distance away from its current location.

Lee Solow, AICP, planning director for the Regional Planning Board of Princeton, says the "relocation of the station was a big deal for us, but after we did a lot of traffic analysis and heard more details about the plan, our questions were satisfactorily answered." The only zoning adjustment necessary, according to Solow, pertained to allowing educational use for the site, which was zoned commercial.

"We have a very good working relationship with the university," Solow adds.

— JoAnn Greco

Greco is a Philadelphia freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Planning.


Better Blocks, One by One

Over a weekend in April 2010, Jason Roberts, Andrew Howard, and a bunch of friends transformed a block in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas during a living charrette to show residents and city officials the potential for a walkable neighborhood. Now they call themselves Team Better Block and they're using the same approach elsewhere.

In Dallas (and for less than $1,000), they opened pop-up retail shops and a temporary cafe in empty storefronts. They added planters with trees, shrubs, and flowers to create sidewalk seating. They illegally painted bike lanes and crosswalks, then posted a list of the antiquated city ordinances that prevented the area from having the kind of vibrant town square feel Roberts saw during his travels through Europe.

After they tore down the project, some businesses moved into the area. City officials began looking to change zoning regulations and remove licensing fees for things like awnings, sidewalk cafes, and streetscape improvements including planters, bike parking, benches, and light fixtures.

San Antonio's Alamo Plaza is getting a $1.2 million cash infusion for upgrades identified by local people working with Team Better Block

That area, along with their second Better Block project in Dallas, has received about $1 million in economic development funding. "It was exhilarating for me," says Howard, who has more than a decade of experience as a planner. "As a long-range planner I think I'd had one project built in 10 years. To actually go out and do one was amazing. I felt an accomplishment and high that day I'd never felt in planning."

Momentum is building following other Better Block projects.

  • In San Antonio, where $1.2 million in bond money is set aside for improvements to Alamo Plaza, Howard and Roberts brought together fractured, competing groups to create cultural interpretation and events in addition to the usual mix of pop-up stores, seating, planters, and cafes to test project ideas, resulting in a 32-page report.
  • In Wichita, Kansas, and St. Paul, Minnesota, city planners are using the Better Block approach to speed approval of complete streets plans.
  • Brownsville, Texas, is also using Better Block programs on a continual basis (its first project was completed last year), leading Mayor Tony Martinez to say that the city was on its way to finally rebuilding its downtown after a decade of inaction.

Howard calls the Better Block idea "speed dating for urban renewal," noting that identifying passionate local residents to push the next stages of renewal is key. "A Better Block project is only as strong as the community that takes part," Roberts adds. "For an area to turn around, there has to be that sense of ownership."

— Jim Morrison

Morrison is a freelance writer in Norfolk, Virginia.


Looking to infuse art into the city's landscape, Brentwood, California, is working with students from the local Liberty High School Arts and Humanities Academy to transform a few utility boxes into public art. Currently under way, the artwork should be completed by late April and is expected to last for 10 to 20 years. The project, paid for through a five-year grant from the city, is in its second year, notes Craig Bronzan, director of the department of parks and recreation.

— Tan Hoang, AICP

Hoang is a land-use planner for Science Applications International Corporation, which monitors development around the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley.


Revenues High on Marijuana

An unexpected source of revenue — marijuana — is bolstering the balance sheets of an increasing number of states and cities across the nation. It remains an illegal drug in the eyes of the federal government, but its sale is permitted in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

Last November, voters in Colorado and Washington State approved the legalization of marijuana, the first two states in the country to sanction its recreational use.

Both states stand to reap a huge windfall in tax revenues from sales. In Washington, the drug will be taxed three times at 25 percent total; the grower, processor, and retailer all will pay. Estimates have marijuana delivering the state about $500 million in annual tax revenue.

Colorado limits taxes to 15 percent of the wholesale price through 2017, but it still will bring in about $60 million. Both Colorado and Washington plan to use the revenue to build new schools and pump dollars into their general funds. That was a key selling point in getting voters to support the legalization initiative.

A medical marijuana dispensary in Denver

Meanwhile, medical marijuana has quietly been a growing source of revenue for many states and cities as well. In some states, such as California, the medical marijuana program has been around for nearly two decades, and officials there and elsewhere have found new ways to squeeze more money in taxes and regulatory fees from the programs.

In New England, Maine and Rhode Island have led the way as the first of the region's six states to allow the state-sponsored sale of medical marijuana. Last year, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut joined them; legislation is pending in New Hampshire.

In 2012, five of the eight dispensaries allowed under the law opened in Maine, producing $265,655 in sales taxes. The state also collected an additional $488,700 in regulatory fees, according to data provided by Maine taxation and health officials. The sales tax in Maine is five percent, and all marijuana sales are taxed because it is not a prescription drug.

Rhode Island, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate, is expected to collect about $1 million in tax revenues from its three planned (and allowed) dispensaries this year. "We welcome any revenue," says David M. Sullivan, Rhode Island's tax administrator. "Every little bit counts." The dispensary sales are subject to a seven percent sales tax and a net patient revenue tax of four percent that is based on gross sales.

As the number of patients continues to grow, each state will see their sales tax revenues rise.

— W. Zachary Malinowski

Malinowski is an investigative reporter for the Providence Journal.

State Annual state revenue Number of dispensaries; patients
Alaska (1998) $30,000 0; 1,246
Arizona (2010) $10 million-plus (projected) 124 planned; 33,601
California (1996) $100 million (projected) 2,100; 553,684
Colorado (2000, 2012) $60 million (projected) 800; 107,666
Connecticut (2012) No data 10 allowed; no data
Delaware (2012) No data 0;21
District of Columbia (2010) $400,000 (in first four years) 1 planned; no data
Hawaii County, Hawaii (2000) $100,000 0; 11,695
Maine (1999) $754,355 (2012) 5; 16,444
Massachusetts (2012) No data 35 allowed; no data
Michigan (2008) $9 million 0; 122,349
Montana (2004) $700,000 0; 8,717
Nevada (2000) $500,000 0; 3,558
New Jersey (2010) No data 1; 239
New Mexico (2007) $700,000 11; 8,188
Oregon (2008) $7 million 0; 54,589
Rhode Island (2006) $700,000 (projected) 3 planned; 4,926
Vermont (2004) $100,000 (projected) 3 planned; 661
Washington (1998, 2012) $500 million (projected) 0; 99,943


Images: Top — Components of the 50-year land-use vision include, from top to bottom, multiple employment districts; transportation connections; open space and parks; and distinct, attractive neighborhoods. Image Detroit Future City. Middle — San Antonio's Alamo Plaza is getting a $1.2 million cash infusion for upgrades identified by local people working with Team Better Block. Photo courtesy Team Better Block. Bottom — A medical marijuana dispensary in Denver. Photo O'Dea at Wiki/Commons.

Meghan Stromberg is Planning's news editor. Please send information about possible news stories to, or call her at 312-786-6385.