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    • Welcome to Cake, and a conversation about urban planning in Birmingham, Mich. I hope to engage both those directly involved in Birmingham's evolution — residents, visitors, officials, planners — as well as the wider community of those interested in New Urbanism and the evolution of a small city.

      An admission, right off the bat: I start this conversation with a strong point of view that has been expressed on Facebook, Nextdoor and in several letters to editors and the City Commission. I will most likely reproduce some of that content below. That doesn't mean I am unwilling to engage with people with whom I disagree. In fact, I hope everyone will feel free to engage here. One of the reasons I chose Cake as a platform is that it is perhaps the most evolved among social network sites devoted to healthy conversation.

      So get in a comfortable position and read on. Learn the platform; it is incredibly simple. And by all means, join the conversation.

    • Welcome to Cake, cmballer. 🎂

      It was great talking to you this morning about what we can do to help. It's only in the last month or two that urban planning has entered my consciousness, probably because mayor Pete from South Bend rose to national prominence.

      Now I find myself fascinated with New Urbanism and what you're doing in Birmingham, so I will definitely follow this conversation.

    • I suspect it will be a while before a reasonable number of people join this conversation, so in the meantime, it makes sense to provide some background.

      First, thanks go out to Chris MacAskill, co-founder of Cake and founder of one of my favorite websites, ADV Rider. We spoke for around an hour and a half today, and it was fascinating. Chris was in the room 20-some years ago when Tim Berners-Lee pitched hyperlinks to Steve Jobs at Next. Cake is his attempt to correct many of the failings of social media. It is a work in progress, but the content on Cake is contained either in "conversations" like this, where anyone can join in, or in "panels," where only those invited may talk, but anyone can listen. Within a few days, Cake will be giving panel audiences the ability to ask questions. At some point, I hope to convene some panels to discuss the issues Birmingham faces, but Chris' advice was to start simple with a single conversation, and then see where it goes.

      If you know me, you may remember the Birmingham Buzz. I edited the Buzz from 2001 to about 2006, and in its early days it featured a lively discussion board. It was a blog before blogs, and it was reasonably influential in catalyzing change in Birmingham. Several staunchly anti-development members of the City Commission were unseated, sensible development standards were restored, Booth Park was redeveloped, an Architectural Review Committee was established, the Bistro Ordinance was enacted and more -- virtually all of it as a result of work by the Buzz and its supporters.

      For the past decade or more, I've been mostly quiet. I've kept one eye on city government, occasionally attending city meetings to advocate for one position or another. For example, a couple years ago I pressured the City Commission to develop standards and institutionalize its review of requests for lot combinations, which until recently were approved by staff almost as a matter of course.

      More recently, the beast was stirred by the work of one of Birmingham's notorious ad hoc committees. This one, called the Ad Hoc Parking Development Committee, was charged with finding a solution to the city's never-ending parking problem. I call these committees "notorious" because with the good intent of engaging ordinary citizens in the business of the city, it invariable, well, engages ordinary citizens in the business of the city. That is, ordinary citizens with little to no expertise in the business they are asked to attend to.

      Disagree with me. Please. That is the beauty of this platform. (I will try to make this invitation often.)

      As will become clear in one of my already-written, but soon-to-be-republished-here pieces, the committee decided to focus on a piece of property that has stirred my passions for almost 20 years: the public land located at the north end of Bates. That land contains the N. Old Woodward parking structure, a surface parking lot and, hidden behind a fence at the north end of the property, a ravine and the Rouge River. It doesn't take much imagination to see the potential of this property. Just drive, walk or bicycle to the top of the N. Old Woodward structure and look down upon it. Now, what potential you see may depend on your point of view. A developer might see dollar signs. An outdoor enthusiast might see a good bit of nature in the heart of downtown. Somebody looking to park as many cars as possible might see a gigantic parking structure. Somebody looking for a more youthful, slightly less affluent population, might see an opportunity to build a couple hundred apartments. A downtown merchant looking to increase business might see an opportunity to dramatically expand the retail environment, bringing in lots of new customers.

      You probably get where I'm going with this. Those and many other points of view are surely represented among Birmingham residents and taxpayers. But, alas, it seems only the few members of our ad hoc committee, our City Manager, and an already overburdened City Commission, have had a say in deciding what might occupy this jewel of a site.

      In fact, with a master plan rewrite looming, they decided to move forward with this project -- estimated to cost around $130 million -- without subjecting it to that time-tested process. Remember the 2016 Plan? The Parks Master Plan? The Triangle District Master Plan? The Rail District Master Plan? The charrettes? Not now. Not here.

      City Planner? Sidelined. Planning Board? They usually look at projects long before they hit the drawing board in earnest. But construction drawings are well underway for this project, and the Planning Board hasn't seen a thing. Residents? If they were willing to attend daytime meetings of the ad hoc committee, they could have spoken up, but few did.

      One party has spoken up loudly, though. Ara Darakjian, the developer who brought Robert A.M. Stern, the world-renowned New York architect, to the table, is speaking up in the form of a lawsuit. He brings credible claims of conflict-of-interest and inside dealing against the city, City Manager Joe Valentine and City Commissioner Mark Nickita. The lawsuit is a sideshow, of course, a symptom of the slipshod way in which the city naively approached this proposed public/private partnership.

      So the old beast has been stirred, and he hopes to stir others -- for and against. If this is the highest and best use for the Bates St. property, and it makes sense to omit it from the master planning process, then let those opinions be heard. Come one, come all.

    • You might be interested in looking at a couple of websites, Chris. Congress for the New Urbanism has a ton. And the DPZ website is interesting because DPZ handled our master planning process in 2016, and has been engaged to help us update the plan this spring and summer.

      For everyone, The Birmingham Plan website has been set up by either the city or DPZ or both. It's an excellent resource for all the master plans Birmingham has done since 1929.

    • I’m coming up to speed late on this issue, but one thing you pointed out rings true...the lack of practice in the art by those seated to oversee the process. This is often true of those occupying pubic office or commission/board seats. It’s the nature of the beast. The best if those public servants seek out and learn from the expertise of professionals and experts. If they don’t practice this...then it’s a crap shoot on outcomes.

      What’s interesting to me here is why this was not opened to a wider development community. Seems like such a valuable property would attract substantial interest with plenty of alternative options to choose from and work with. If there’s any question about conflict of interest those questions should be fully examined and if found true...time to reload. Nothing good comes out of a broken process.

    • As one of the more popular responses to that NYT article pointed out: What's your point, who needs a car right now if you live in New York City? As one reader said, "I live outside Albany - miles from a grocery store."

      I don't have it that bad. I live a mile from Baldwin Library and at 71 will still have the ability for many more years (hopefully) to make that trek on foot. Many of our neighbors, living further away, not so much.

    • Hello,

      I have joined this topic in the hopes that there will be respectful comments that help widen the views & options for this amazing site in Birmingham. We can all work together to offer constructive opinions/ideas. Birmingham's business parking problem needs to be addressed however at what cost? I agree Clinton Surface lot 6 could become a natural expansion of the Rouge River experience. I watched the City Commission meeting held 3/26/19 which was very informative as to the history of the current North Woodward parking structure proposal. Much thought has gone into this however I am not in favor of the direction it is heading. The 2016 Master Plan with the Bates Street extension with a building/development at the river's east side is a problematic concept to me. I would prefer to preserve the east side of the Rouge River for public access. Call me crazy but I think that scheme should be studied. The North Woodward parking deck reconstruction should not jeopardize this land by leasing it off for commercial development. Activating the street & following the 2016 plan Master Plan does not justify this approach in my mind.

    • Hey, Bert. The 2016 Plan sketched out, very roughly and in 1996, the idea that is being proposed today. I seriously doubt that in 2019 Andres Duany would suggest that his thumbnail sketch was done in stone, or that it should be done to achieve an increase in parking as its primary objective, or that it should be done without community input. There's another city meeting scheduled for Monday, April 15, at 7:30p at City Hall. I hope you can make it.

    • I attended the commission workshop last night on the development agreement for N. Bates. As a student of urban design, I continue to be amazed at the lackadaisical attitude toward the overall program for the site. City Manager Joe Valentine announced that after consultation with residents of surrounding streets, the city and developers are willing to make "accommodations" on the form and density of what they are calling buildings 3 and 4, the ones along the river and at the corner of Bates and Willits. He didn't give any more detail. So if you thought you knew what the project would look like, or thought the developers were working on a thin profit margin, think again.

      You might have thought commissioners would have said, "Wait, what?" or some such expression of surprise. I was particularly disappointed in Commissioner Mark Nickita, who used to be a champion of New Urbanism and good, cohesive urban design, but he was uncharacteristically quiet when Valentine dropped his bombshell.

      If they weren't surprised by a sudden, vague change in design, they did seem surprised to learn that once the development is built, the team of trusted locals they've chosen could sell it off in an instant to... anyone.

      Valentine is talking about taking up to five years to develop the entire site, and suggesting that the city can move forward on the parking deck and hold off for years, if necessary, on the rest of the site. It begs the question: If all we wanted to do was build a $60 million parking deck to replace the existing one, why do we need a public/private partnership? A big part of the idea of getting developers involved, I thought, was to help defray the cost of the deck and other public improvements, but that doesn't seem to be a big part of the thinking at this point, or at least one that's been defined in any way.

      Given that the city is ceding authority to the developers on design and land use and the apparent dearth of hard-nosed negotiating skill, I am not hopeful about the economics. The city has hired Jones Lang Lasalle as an adviser. But although it has already committed to spend $575,000 on a deal that might never happen, we have not heard from JLL yet in public. Should we be concerned that the city has committed to spend more than half a million dollars without any economic analysis?

      The award for Most Courageous Commissioner last night goes to Carroll Deweese, who was willing to question timing of a potential bond vote. Deweese, saying he has been pressed by constituents, asked several times why the city is moving so quickly toward an Aug. 6 vote. Plans for the site won't even be completed by then, and so voters will have no idea what they are voting on, other than a blank check. Deweese's questions came both before and after Planning Board member (and urban planning professor) Robin Boyle pointed out that community impact studies will be required. Those take months, to say nothing of public hearings on rezoning and preliminary and final site plans. And remember, they are planning to divvy the site into four different parcels, with four separate developments, with potentially four separate sets of hearings. Why the rush? We never got a good answer. "Because" was about the extent of it. Take it from a professional salesman: I suspect the rush has something to do with a false sense of urgency created by those most interested in "selling" the deal. When Deweese pressed the point, he was ruled out of order by Mayor Patricia Bordman.

      Out of order? His questioning was absolutely in order, since the discussion focused on a crucial part of a process that seems to be going haywire. Deweese's critical questioning, unfortunately, was in relatively short supply last night. What was not in short supply was a disregard for the public. After almost two hours of presentation, the few members of the public who wanted to comment were told they had two minutes each, and the mayor conspicuously kept a timer in her hand to enforce the rule -- at one point brandishing it embarrassingly to a member of the public who had not yet gone past his allotted time. And while Valentine and the commission saw fit to conduct the workshop without the presence of Planning Director Jana Ecker or City Attorney Tim Currier, he and the mayor made sure Police Chief Mark Clemence was there to sufficiently intimidate anyone who considered breaking Bordman's two-minute rule. This is a commission that clearly is not interested in hearing any criticism.

      I don't have to see any more shenanigans to urge a NO vote on the bond -- assuming the commission has the bad sense to rush it onto a ballot -- until professional planners are hired to consult with the community on what is best for us. If an above-ground monster parking deck is deemed best, so be it. But I'll be arguing for underground parking across the entire site, paid for as much as possible by a developer who then would get the right to build something we deem appropriate on top of it.

      And by the way, it is no secret that Restoration Hardware is interested in coming to town. According to Dave Stanchak, Chief Real Estate and Development Officer, in addition to the Bates site, they have looked at the Barclay, Peabody and Hunter House sites. Anyone familiar with the kind of spectacular projects RH has executed -- -- should drool at the opportunity to have them come here. Take a look at the Chicago store. They have a knack for weaving their galleries into the urban fabric, and a sense of design that could extend easily into the public spaces and down along the river. Given that we have an entire 3.8-acre parcel to work with, why wouldn't the city invite them to get involved in a truly spectacular urban design project? Seems to me that RH and Andres Duany would be a dream team.

      We can only hope. Dreams, vision and the courage to have them are what we need about now at City Hall.

    • We have just skimmed the surface of possibilities for this site.  The existing surface lot 6 is under-utilized City land full of potential where the public could enjoy access to Booth Park & Rouge River views.  Please do not limit this area to an urban plaza squeezed between buildings. There is no rush to zero in on plans for a 9 story parking deck with 3
      levels below grade (premium cost) to add 250 plus parking spots to the existing
      car count. The City leaders stated they can still use the proposed deck plans if
      the deal does not go through. The $250,000 approved for plans (design development)
      to establish the developer's GMP (guarantied maximum price), will need further cost
      to complete drawings & specs (construction documents) required to actually
      build the project. We have heard the money for the plans is not from the resident taxpayer
      but reserves from the parking assessment district. Shouldn’t we be using this
      money for a parking deck plan that has a cohesive fit for the site & it’s
      surroundings? I have my doubts that the proposed Parking deck in the North
      Woodward Deck proposal is a relevant design for this location. We should be
      focusing on a designing a brilliant parking deck structure independently &
      without strings attached. I will be regretting the day when potentially spectacular public land is leased off for commercial private development of the Bates Road

    • WOW - a stand alone Restoration Hardware building in Birmingham would be a 'once in a lifetime opportunity'. In other RH locations they own their property and building. Why would RH be interested in a 'leased' location in Birmingham? Additionally sounds like an intense use requiring much of the parking. Other 'stand alone' RH locations have bars and restaurants.

    • It is really a shame, and quite puzzling, that the public has almost systematically been excluded from the process of planning for this parcel. This despite the fact that the public will ultimately have its say when it votes on a bond issue (or when four city commission seats are up for grabs in November). Bert, I know you are a regular at planning sessions, and I value your input a lot and appreciate the time you devote. It's a shame that more people don't show up at the commission's meetings, but that's a fact of life. People get involved only when they are invited to participate meaningfully. It takes a lot of fortitude for people like you and David Bloom to sit through a two-hour (or more) meeting only to be told to keep your comments to under two minutes! (This when commissioners Bordman and Nickita regularly drone on repetitively about the most mundane topics.) Despite that, it important that residents start talking about this and get involved. And it is not too late to influence change! Trust me, as someone who has managed to influence plenty. The best way by far is to contact any or all of the city commissioners directly, and show up at meetings and speak out. And very important: Plan to participate in the upcoming master planning process. You can see the opportunities here: Mark your calendars now.

    • What do you think of this? In the development agreement that was the subject of Monday's workshop is this sentence, referring to the bond issue: "Developer will pay to the City the sum of up to Twenty Thousand and 00/100 ($20,000.00) Dollars in order to defray the cost of such special election."

    • is a new forum, and a new kind of forum, and so I have the luxury of being able to communicate with its founder, Chris MacAskill. He wrote to me the other day the following, which has been edited slightly by me, because our conversation covered several topics:

      "Looks like you're starting to get some engagement in your thread about urban development in Birmingham. It has about 1,000 views. ...we only count one view per day for each person, no matter how many times you return on the day to check for new posts, or whatever. ..Feel free to quote the number of views. I wish we had more details like how many unique people visited the conversation to share with you. With forums, as you probably know, there's a vast gulf between people who post and people who lurk. As far as follower counts, dunno if you saw that yesterday Jack Dorsey of Twitter was being interviewed by Chris Anderson, who runs TED. Jack was lamenting that follower count was probably his biggest mistake when designing Twitter, because it led to all kinds of behavior that detracted from the quality of conversation."

    • You may have seen signs popping up around town inviting Birmingham residents to participate in the master planning process coming up in May. The May dates on the signs are very important indeed. But what the signs don't say is that the planning process is actually beginning in April, with a bunch of meetings around town to which residents are also invited. You have to visit the planning website for details at These discussions in April will help set the agenda for the charrettes to follow. In addition to a slew of meetings to be held at Baldwin Library and the Adams Road fire station, there are also meet-ups planned at Dick O'Dows (Tuesday, April 23 at 8:30 p.m.), Vinotecca (Saturday, April 27 at 2 p.m.) and Hazel, Ravines, Downtown (Tuesday, April 30 at 5 p.m.).

    • We hear that City Manager Joe Valentine, fearful that a bond issue will not pass muster with voters, is kicking around the idea of funding a new N. Old Woodward parking structure without running it past voters. What do you think about that? 

      If this is true, Valentine may not understand that opponents of the bond, who would be persuasive among voters in an election, are not necessarily opposed to bonding. What we oppose is the lack of sound planning that has gone into the Bates project and, to a lesser degree, the blatant favoritism bestowed upon Woodward Bates, along with the city's failure to negotiate much of anything to insure that we get a fair deal. 

      We know that Valentine is not a "vision guy," and so we are pretty sure that he just wants to get his parking lot built. The best way to do that with the least amount of friction is to submit to a planning and design process that CAN pass muster with voters. Trying to get his deck by doing an end-run around residents will just aggravate the situation and foment a revolt against him and the City Commission. 

      What would such a planning process look like? Well, anyone trying to put this matter behind them as quickly as possible is in luck, because Andres Duany is about to ride into town on a white horse. He can take a careful look at the site, obtained residents' opinions about how it should be developed, and give us -- maybe by the end of May! -- a report that will include his best recommendations. And since we also know that Restoration Hardware is interested in coming to town, and that they are capable of doing amazing work, getting them involved (or at a minimum designing them into a program for the site) should be easy.

      The City Commission should push Valentine in this direction when it takes up his request Monday night for approval of a development agreement with Woodward Bates. The agreement should be tabled while it let's planners and residents have their say.

    • Notes from Monday's commission meeting, which you can watch here:

      * The vote was 5-2 in favor of going forward with the development agreement. The commission was assured it was "non-binding." Commissioner Stuart Sherman framed it as a decision whether to "continue the conversation," and four of his colleagues bought the argument. Unfortunately, it was unclear whom the discussion is to include or what it is going to be about. So far they have avoided involving the public in any conversations about planning, program or design. I actually consider the vote a minor victory, since the heretofore unanimous commission is now fractured, with Rackeline Hoff and Carroll DeWeese in the minority, making a variety of reasonable arguments against the agreement. As Leonard Cohen famously said, "There is a crack in everything... That's how the light gets in." The light is getting in. (He also said, "But they've summoned, they've summoned up, A thundercloud, And they're going to hear from me.")

      * The discussion of the legal document proceeded for quite a while with a site plan of the project, as usual, projected on each side of the commission room. But wait, what? Look carefully. There were changes. A new 12- to 15-space surface parking lot occupied the northwest corner of Willits and Bates, next to the church. The building next to it was stepped down from five to four stories toward Warren Court, and the building at the northeast corner of Willits and Bates had been cut to four stories from five. The changes amounted to a reduction of 20 percent or more to those two private parts of the project -- apparently the "accommodations" to neighbors mentioned but unexplained a week earlier by City Manager Joe Valentine. They remained unexplained until a member of the public, Linda Taubman, took to the lectern. Until Monday night, Taubman had been a vociferous opponent of the project. All that opposition melted away into a pool of sticky sweet praise for her former nemeses as she announced that the development team had saved the view from her penthouse aerie atop the Google building. God Bless Victor Saroki, she intoned. Apparently lost on most of those assembled was the irony -- how willing was the city to negotiate and appease a single wealthy resident when it won't deign to involve we mere residents in the development of this precious piece of PUBLIC PROPERTY! You have to wonder about the profit margins built into the project when the developers are willing to lop off 20% of a building to appease a single resident.

      * The city is making it up as it goes along. In addition to the aforementioned changes, it's now being described as a two-phase project, with the parking structure and other public components comprising Phase One, and the rest a Phase Two. Given the opposition, the city administration is quite open about declaring that Phase Two might or might not ever get done, and could look like what is currently proposed, or not. IT WANTS ITS PARKING DECK, AND IT WANTS IT NOW. Consideration for the entire site, whether the parking deck will even work as proposed, or what residents might want, is not part of the calculus. Warren Ct. resident Cathy Frank asked politely when and how residents might get their say. The official response was a bunch of gobbledygook from Valentine about project timing, and when the public might see further iterations of the development team's plans. The real answer is Aug. 6 or Nov. 5 or whenever the commission decides to ask voters to approve a bond issue. That's it. Residents who don't live in penthouse apartments overlooking the site will get an UP or DOWN vote, nothing more. I'm guessing you know how I'll urge you to vote.

      the design of the deck and road are as critical to the discussion as any of the elements and should be subject to the same scrutiny as any development.u

      * Mark Nickita made a speech singing the praises of the 2016 Plan, asserting that the Bates project fits perfectly within the plan. That's arguable. Although I have been a strong supporter of the 2016 Plan for a long time, I have to agree with Paul Reagan that it has failed in several of its primary goals. It has not brought many new year-round residents into the downtown, and it did not revitalize retail, especially in relation to Somerset Mall. The form-based aspects of the plan have been very successful -- the parts that dictate how big the buildings should be and what they should look like. But in terms of land use planning, the city has failed to achieve balance. Office workers are overloading the parking system, filling otherwise unleased retail space, and there's a glut of million-dollar-plus condos that are mainly dark at night. Retailers struggle. Part of the solution to the city's parking problem (if it even has a real problem), is to tweak the downtown zoning ordinances and expand the parking system into the Triangle District. The zoning ordinances need to do a better job of balancing use (retail/office/residential), and lighten up on parking requirements for residential uses. I guess you could make the argument that the Bates project fits the "plan," insofar as it is corrective of the city's failure to achieve balance in implementing the plan. But Nickita didn't -- couldn't -- defend the massive, above-ground deck that dominates the site, and the lack of an overall program. He seems to be leading a commission with target fixation. There is no vision, nor a desire to explore the amazing opportunities presented by the site -- opportunities that may not be perfectly in line with, but can be perfectly compatible with, the 2016 Plan.

    • As long as a considerable amount of money is being spent on plans a cohesive approach to the parking deck design should occur. We have a lot of talent in this town & the chosen concept should be a model architectural design students can aspire to. We need to have some fun here!

    • As I watched the April 22 Commission meeting can't help but think that the City still needs to take control of this project instead of the developer. The last parking deck-Chester Street, was quite the role model of an interesting design solution. The stepped levels, stair towers, columns & beams, concrete & brick materials, etc., are all a testament to quality architecture. Should there be a new deck at the North Old Woodward site it should be done through a fair design selection process.

    • On August 6th, voters will be asked to consider a bond proposal for the demolition of the North Old Woodward Parking Structure, the construction of a new parking structure and the extension of Bates Street to North Old Woodward, now known as the Birmingham N.O.W. Project. Take a look to learn more.