Walkable urban places growing in Michigan

Compact urbanism is not just a trend in big coastal cities but reaches deep into the heartland of Michigan.

By: Robert Steuteville, Better Cities and Towns

Compact urbanism is not just a trend in big coastal cities—but reaches deep into the heartland of Michigan. A study of the state's seven top metro areas shows that after decades of disinvestment, walkable urban places, referred to as “WalkUPs,” are coming back to life. 

According to a new report released by LOCUS (a program of Smart Growth America), Michigan Leadership Summit, George Washington University School of Business and Michigan State University, pent-up demand for walkable urbanism in Michigan is evident by rent and price premiums that have emerged over recent years. 

The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Michigan is the fourth in the series. The first three covered Washington DC, Atlanta, and Boston. Another WalkUP report examined the top 30 metro areas in the US. This was the first that looked at smaller and mid-size metros. 

The trend is nascent but clear in Michigan. In the current real estate cycle in Michigan, the authors find: "22 percent of all new income property development has located in the 2.7 percent of land that is walkable urban. This share of new development is up from only 6 percent in the 1990s real estate cycle and 12 percent from the 2001-2008 cycle."

The state's larger metro, Detroit-Ann Arbor, is the statewide leader in this trend with 30 existing and 10 emerging WalkUPs, many in the suburbs. 

Downtown and Midtown Detroit are undergoing one of the most dramatic revitalizations in the country. "Since Quicken Loans announced in 2010 it was moving its headquarters to Downtown Detroit from an Edge City location, a number of other companies have followed, including 3,400 employees from Blue Cross Blue Shield and 600 from Campbell Ewald, among others." Downtown and Midtown have seen over $2 billion in investments in new construction and renovation over the last three-to-four years.

Ann Arbor and Birgmingham are also booming. "More than 376 new apartment units, a Marriott hotel, and high-end condominiums are planned or already under construction in Main Street-Ann Arbor." 

Grand Rapids, with 5 walkable urban centers, leads michigan in percent of income property that is being built in these locations. In the other metros—Lansing, Jackson, Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Saginaw-Bay City-Midland, and Flint—the trend is just beginning but still evident, for example, in the reuse of old buildings. 

Statewide, this shift is evident in rising rent and price premiums. Across all of the metros, apartments rent for more per square foot when they are located in a WalkUP. The same is true for home prices, and rents for office space. 

“It would have been unthinkable 15 years ago that these metro areas within Michigan—the center of the car and truck manufacturing industry—would have seen any form of investment and development in walkable urban places,” said Chris Leinberger, president of LOCUS and Distinguished Scholar at George Washington School of Business Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis. 

National polls have shown that up to half of the population wants to live in a walkable place, yet only eight percent of the total housing stock in the Michigan metro areas is walkable, whether in the central cities or urbanizing suburbs. Furthermore, people under the age of 35, particularly those with college degrees, prefer walkable urban places. Attracting and retaining these educated young professionals is critical for economic development in Michigan.

Gary Heidel, chief placemaking officer at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) said, “We’re seeing many of the walkable urban places across these Michigan metros offering a strong combination of both economic opportunity and affordability compared to the drivable suburbs. However, as walkable development continues to grow, this may generate concerns over gentrification and displacement of low-income residents. Establishing plans in advance of this gentrification to preserve affordable housing is critical.”  

The authors conclude: "If this emerging trend in favor of walkable urbanism plays out in Michigan as it has in the other metro areas studied by GeorgeWashington University—Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C.—it will mean an historic shift away from the drivable development patterns that have dominated development for the latter half of the 20th century. The state could return to the walkable urban development pattern that predominated before World War II."

To see the full list of land use types, as well as the list of WalkUP economic and social equity rankings, download the report here.


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