Hazel Park chosen for study by Congress of New Urbanism

Feedback will help city optimize its places and spaces

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published March 15, 2016


HAZEL PARK — The city of Hazel Park has been chosen for a study by the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) that will focus on the John R commercial corridor, which officials say will help them chart a course for improving quality of life in the city.

The study will take place April 12-14, and could result in ideas to enhance old buildings with new functionality and timeless design, as well as ideas for creating new public spaces and means of transportation. This could include a potential road diet for John R that may involve going from four lanes to three lanes to improve walkability and slow down traffic so drivers notice businesses in town.

The study will also assist city officials in pursuing grants, since their plan for urban development will have been vetted by CNU — one of two major schools of planning thought in the U.S., the other being Smart Roads of America. 

According to the organization’s website, www.cnu.org, New Urbanism is a planning and development approach that focuses on walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces.

This “human-scaled” urban design aims to counter the “sprawling, single-use, low-density patterns typical of post-WWII development, which has been shown to inflict negative economic, health and environmental impacts on communities,” the site states.

CNU champions a range of design principles that can be applied to all scales of development — rural main streets, suburban areas, urban neighborhoods, dense city centers, even entire regions.

It advocates for underutilized building types that encourage mingling, like shopfront houses and courtyard units, and it champions neighborhoods where you can walk from the center to the edge in five minutes.

Place-making and public spaces are a high priority — plazas, squares, cafés and porches where people can meet and interact. Multimodal transportation is also important, with accommodations for walking, bicycling, transit use and driving. The emphasis is on designing streets for people, rather than just cars.

CNU pays special attention to the organization of buildings in a neighborhood, which it says helps determine the neighborhood’s character and whether it’s alive and bustling versus windswept and vacant. It also looks at how each building benefits the other, treating a collection of buildings like a single organism with many different functions.

All of this plays a role in creating more vibrant, sustainable and livable communities. And it’s this kind of insight that officials in Hazel Park hope will benefit their city.

The study comes at a time when new attractions like Mabel Gray and Cellarmen’s are building buzz for Hazel Park, with more coming down the pipeline, as well as the ongoing construction of the Tri-County Commerce Center at Hazel Park Raceway, the largest redevelopment project in Oakland County. A renewed focus on pathways and public spaces could help tie it all together.

That being said, this is only the beginning of an involving process.

“This is not something you can wave a magic wand and change all of the sudden overnight,” said Ed Klobucher, city manager of Hazel Park. “Now is when you lay the groundwork for the future to deliver something great over time.”

Klobucher said form-based zoning is one element of New Urbanism.

“It’s constructing buildings that are timeless rather than trendy in the moment,” Klobucher said. “You want buildings that can easily be repurposed for a variety of uses. Good-looking buildings that have value unto themselves — not poorly constructed strip plazas that were clearly products of the ‘80s and now sit vacant as blighted husks. We’re looking for buildings that have good bones, good structure, and could be used in many ways. Could be a little bar, a coffee shop, a bookstore, an artist studio, a knick-knack place, the next office.”

These design principles will factor into how Hazel Park changes the appearances of its buildings over time, and the potential construction of new ones as well.

Then there’s the element of public space. Hazel Park is a densely developed community that already uses up nearly all available space, so options are limited, but there may be a way to reconfigure underutilized spaces or expand existing ones, such as the gardens around the library or the art garden with its sculpture exhibit.

“Maybe we can get more out of those spaces,” Klobucher said. “That’s one of the questions I have for the experts (at CNU).”

Klobucher said the timing is perfect since CNU is also holding its convention in Detroit around the time of the study, “so as a region we have an opportunity to highlight metro Detroit, and on a local level we can highlight what a cool town we’ve become within that region.”

Hazel Park applied for the study when the Michigan Municipal League sent out invitations to “legacy cities” — older communities that are fully built out. Hazel Park was chosen from among three communities for the study, the other two being Pontiac and a neighborhood in southwest Detroit.

“They (CNU) are bringing in national experts, as well as a local planning firm to analyze the city and talk to residents here,” said Jeff Campbell, assistant city manager of Hazel Park. “Then they will come up with revised plans and ideas. We might not take every recommendation, but they all help us in the future. These are real experts in a real organized effort. This is a huge opportunity for us.”