Madison Heights officials ponder potential of a downtown

City would have its own unique take on the concept, officials say

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published April 26, 2016


MADISON HEIGHTS — With only a couple of years left before the Downtown Development Authority’s 20-year tenure is up, officials in Madison Heights are beginning to think about what can be done to give the city something it hasn’t had: a proper downtown.

The benefits of a downtown are clear: People are drawn to business communities that are walkable, dense, varied and vibrant. A downtown can attract visitors; visitors may become residents. And where people go, businesses follow.

But city officials say that it’s not realistic to expect Madison Heights to have a downtown like Royal Oak where the businesses have zero setback — one shop after another, side by side, up and down the street. There are many businesses that already have 30-40 feet between properties, which means there will always be a bit more distance to walk from one attraction to the next.

Still, officials feel that Madison Heights can have its own unique take on a downtown area. Perhaps something could be done to make amenities more accessible, slowing down traffic and increasing walkability. Or maybe it’s a matter of attracting different types of businesses, arranged in different ways that will draw more people to the city. Maybe it’s a matter of improving curbside appeal, or perhaps it’s all of the above.

At the April 11 City Council meeting, Councilman Robert Corbett commented on the issue.

“I’m often reminded (by constituents) that Madison Heights doesn’t have a downtown, and we really can’t (in the traditional sense), the way we’re constructed — the age of the community, and the way we’re currently laid out,” Corbett said. “But I think we have a number of things starting to come into focus over the coming years. Maybe it’s an opportunity to revisit the thought, not of a downtown as we think in the Rockwell-esque, Royal Oak, Rochester version, but maybe something more appropriate for Madison Heights.”

He noted how the DDA will be expiring in the next few years. Rather than renewing its current boundaries of Gardenia (11 1/2 Mile) to 10 Mile, and Groveland to Brush, perhaps it could have its focus shifted to include the 12 Mile area.

In a phone interview following the meeting, he added, “I don’t think half-steps will do it. Not website redesigns or minor improvements. I think the existing DDA has not much farther to go. I think, to be effective moving forward, we have to expand the boundaries and take a fresh look at what we can and cannot do. My approach is strictly about redesigning the DDA.”

He pointed to Hazel Park as an example of what can be done. In Hazel Park, several new businesses are garnering local and national acclaim, such as the restaurant Mabel Gray, and these are drawing new visitors and businesses to the area.

“A few seed businesses can make people look at vacant lots three doors down and try to replicate it,” Corbett said.

As he said at the April 11 meeting, “The key is it needs to be organic. You can’t have people from the outside coming in and telling Madison Heights what you need to do and how you need to do it. We need to develop industries and businesses and attractions that will work in our area and reflect who we are. We can’t go back and blow up that whole one mile and go to zero setback, which is a key element of the usual downtown. … So it will be quite a bit different. The public needs to be involved.”

Mayor Brian Hartwell agreed that public feedback will be key. In an email following the meeting, he noted that the DDA board approved the concept of an interactive town hall on the topic to take place sometime in August. Around the same time, Hartwell will hold eight mini-town halls that will correlate with the meetings of different charity groups.

“The future of Madison Heights is dependent on our ability to attract and retain new families, entrepreneurs and growing industries,” Hartwell said. “Cities have the ability to affect quality of life and economic development through strategic planning. The key to all development is demand. How can a city generate buzz around moving to, investing in and building its neighborhoods? The old-fashioned planning model that built Madison Heights was zoning: Put all houses here, put retail uses there, hide industrial far over there. Now that the city is nearly fully built, we need new models of planning to spur demand.”

In soliciting feedback from the public, Hartwell said he will frame the discussion around eight points in particular. These include physical design and walkability, transportation, environmental sustainability, arts and cultural amenities, entrepreneurial activity, diversity and inclusion, adult and child education, and technology and communication.

“Our city is unique. Its challenges are unique. The primary focus of city planning will be rooted in public discussion. The outcomes of city planning will be shaped by the community’s needs,” Hartwell said. “City employees in the Economic Development Department are world-class experts ready to implement our residents’ vision. If you want Madison Heights to grow for the future, now is the time to speak up.”

Stay tuned for more details on the interactive town hall and mini-town halls this summer.