Place-Based Development: What Developers and Communities Want

Demographics are changing, markets are changing and communities are changing.

Loft apartments as part of a mixed-use development in Pontiac, MI. Photo courtesy of MML’s The Review.

By: Mark Wyckoff, FAICP, MSU Land Policy Institute; and James Tischler, AICP, Michigan State Housing Development Authority

Demographics are changing, markets are changing and communities are changing. Talented workers have skills that are in high demand, and they can live anywhere they want. They will not choose your community unless it is a high-quality place with a lot of amenities. Jobs increasingly locate where there are an abundance of talented workers. Thus, creating a quality place is the first step to talent and job attraction and improved economic competitiveness. But, developers will not build what is needed unless the community makes it easy for them to do so.

Placemaking required to create quality places

Placemaking is the process of creating quality places where people want to live, work, play and learn. There needs to be several quality places in each region for the region to be economically competitive. Creating quality places is a constant process of placemaking that focuses on public spaces and the interface of private spaces with public spaces (building facades, “build-to lines,” height and parking especially).

Barriers: Limited master plans

Most master plans are old or outdated. They are not based on contemporary analysis of demographic changes or informed by recent market trends. They focus primarily on land use and infrastructure and fail to consider urban form and the value of amenities (parks, trails, entertainment venues, well-equipped public spaces, good transit, etc.). In addition, they have no section on placemaking or priorities for public investments, and no clear guidance on plan implementation.

Outdated zoning ordinances

Most zoning ordinances are older and more outdated than master plans. Most still have a strong separation of land uses, cater to cars and not people, and require excessive parking. They also limit density and mixed use in locations where they should be the highest. Most ordinances permit by right the suburban development forms in downtowns and along key corridors, which kill walkability and the ability to densify. Most require a special use permit or other special approval, even though these are the very contemporary development forms that add interest to urban places. Most make it difficult to build downtown and easy to build at the periphery of town. And lastly, most ordinances are not sensitive to the time it takes to get through development review and approval. Review procedures that take a long time and/or require a lot of public review are a disincentive for mixed-use development.


Underregulation includes regulations in downtowns and key commercial corridors that allow one-story buildings, instead of requiring two to three stories. Underregulation includes not permitting “missing middle” housing and only permitting single-family homes, duplexes and garden apartments.

Overregulation includes downtown rules requiring onsite parking; planned unit developments for mixed-use buildings; and prohibitions on sidewalk dining, street performers, bicycle parking, angle parking or sandwich signs.

The result is low-quality development or no development--often in the downtown, where the best-quality development is most needed. Buildings with long economic lives and character, adaptable to many different uses, are being replaced with comparatively cheap buildings with short economic lives and little adaptability. Such changes reflect a temporary view, instead of building and maintaining a quality place that is resilient and adaptable to changing markets and demands.

What developers want

All developers want predictability and clear development regulations, but the best developers want a real partnership with the municipality: Evidence that the master plan has broad stakeholder support; that the planning commission and council are on the same page; that the community supports quality development; and that the community will get approvals right, and in a reasonable amount of time.

What communities must ensure

The community should not, however, take whatever a developer offers. Instead, it should ensure quality development in conformance with plans and regulations. It should ensure that concerns of disadvantaged persons are adequately considered, while engaging citizenry and businesses together to create a common well-articulated vision of the future of the area and updating of regulations. It means a well-trained and coordinated staff, planning commission and council.

Five essential principles

It comes down to the following “musts”:

  1. Put people ahead of cars downtown, at key nodes and along key corridors.
  2. Communities must be walkable and bikeable.
  3. Increase residential density downtown, at key nodes and along key corridors.
  4. Allow mixed-uses downtown, at key nodes and along key corridors.
    1. Retail and personal service on first, second and third floor residential; offices on second floor if building is four or more stories.
    2. No onsite parking requirement in most cases.
    3. Encourage mixed-income residential units.
    4. Put building form over land use when it comes to regulation outside of single-family residential areas.
      1. Allow no one-story buildings downtown or at key nodes, and probably not along key corridors.
      2. No parking in front of buildings unless on the street.
      3. Have fixed-route transit from downtown to key locations if the population is more than 5,000.

There is more you can do

Municipalities can increase the likelihood of quality development by doing target market analysis (TMA); developing charrette-based master plans; and using form-based codes.

The TMA method analyzes the whole range of household and building types. Charrettes permit broad public participation, and often achieve both public and developer approval in a much-shortened time frame. Form-based codes are development rules to achieve a specific urban form.

In short, municipalities can achieve the above by creating streamlined development review procedures to “by right” status, tied to market-analyzed, stakeholder-engaged, charrette-facilitated, master plans and form-based codes.

What is a charrette?

Charrette is from the French for “cart” or “chariot.” Nineteenth century Parisian student architects worked in teams up until a deadline, when a charrette was wheeled among the students to pick up their work for review, while they were working furiously to apply the finishing touches. They were said to be working en charrette, in the cart.

In municipal planning, the charrette is a multiday, collaborative planning event that harnesses the talents and energies of all affected parties to create and support a feasible plan that represents transformative community change.

Photo courtesy of MML’s The Review.

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