#MiTransWorks v. #MiTransFail

A recent trip to Toronto made one thing abundantly clear with respect to transportation networks in cities.  Namely, the sizes of streets need to fit the scale of their neighborhoods.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the emerging Queen Street West area of the city. It’s a great urban place, a section of the city that had experienced a prolonged and steady decline only to have new life pumped into it by people looking to share an edgy urban environment.  Similar neighborhoods include Adams Morgan in D.C. and Corktown in Detroit.  What makes Queen Street West work (or, more appropriately, the one thing I am focusing on in this blog) is that the size of the infrastructure in the area directly represents the neighborhood around it. One and two story commercial buildings sit comfortably on a street that has public transit, biking, pedestrian sidewalks and only two or three lanes of traffic.  The feel of the street has a decidedly “neighborhood” vibe.  Quirky, too.

Small and Appealing- Queen Street West #MiTransWork

Contrast that vision to what one you might experience while driving down Michigan Avenue in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. The area is home to, among other things, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, one of its most popular local restaurants, and a group of small businesses that survived and re-purposed themselves after the closing of Tiger Stadium over a decade ago.  While the current development on this stretch of road pales in comparison to Queen Street West, many of the same elements and leverage points are abundant in both places

What isn’t the same is the street itself. Michigan Avenue is bulky at nine lanes, built for a different era. The one and two story commercial and mixed use properties that dot its landscape do not face a road that states that its a “great place to live” or “open for business”  like Queen Street.  Instead, the large road has turned a quaint Victorian neighborhood into a faceless drive through for motorists and a tough traverse for those on foot or bicycles.

Michigan Ave

Wide n Ugly- Michigan Ave. #MiTransFail

Shrinking Michigan Avenue would have a huge positive impact for the entire neighborhood.  Adding bike lanes, transit and pedestrian elements would be even better.  Similar neighborhoods in cities across the world are seeing communities reinvigorated because of these simple strategies. More of it needs to be done in places like Detroit and elsewhere.  It makes an urban neighborhood cheaper to maintain, better for business and more fun to be around.

Too often we see government and civic minded groups concentrate their efforts on grand plans that take decades to implement while failing to see the easy stuff that is right before their eyes. A street, a pedestrian, a bicycle, a new customer… a neighborhood reborn.

  • Let me start off by saying Michigan Ave in Corktown is too wide. However, the street’s width is a result of many years of community development that encouraged sprawl. When the City of Detroit becomes willing (and has the money) to address old fashioned code and zoning issues then these types of problems can be addressed. The Corktown community has always been organized and willing to discuss these things in the context of Michigan Ave and in our neighborhoods. As for Dan’s article, may additional comments are as follows:

    I’ll start with a quick history lesson and an summary of cause and effect/how we got here. Roads were build to move vehicles, as roads were built people could travel further from their home because they could go farther than their bike or horse could take them. As people traveled farther out from the city center, they asked for new/more roads to be built. More roads were build based on that demand. As people traveled farther from the central city they began to buy property where it was cheap and they could afford to build homes. This in-turn drove the need for more roads. Thus, big, wide and fat roads didn’t happen magically. They were a clear result of urban sprawl.

    Here, while I agree in principal that a narrower street would be beneficial, the solutions aren’t as easy as implied by Dan’s article. Mr. Krauss was spot on. Dan from MML should know that creating skinny pedestrian friendly streets also requires the building and land use to cooperate/change. Zoning changed and redevelopment in a “non” suburban style is essential. Revisions to the City of Detroit (and MDOT reqts – Mi Ave is an MDOT road) code and zoning are essential to move Corktown into the 21st Century.We have an opportunity to create a smart, green (and dare I say food / energy secure) community with amazing transportation elements that serve our entire community and city.
    As Joseph accurately points out, Michigan Ave was widened during an era when cars were king. Buildings were removed to make way for the widening and the true character of the street was lost, forever. To bring that character back from the outside of the ROW in toward the middle would be damn near impossible. Queen Street in Toronto, by my estimates, has 66′ from store front to store front. Of that you have 12′ sidewalks on each side of the street and a 42′ roadway. Michigan Ave, by my estimates, is 118′ from store front to store front (in-front of Slow’s) 12′ sidewalks on each side of the street (same as Queen Street) and 88′ for roadway. Double the width of Queen. You can’t just pick up the buildings and sidewalk and move then in 20′ on each side. The 66′ ROW present in Toronto will never be replicated on Michigan Ave. You will always have 118′ between buildings.

    To make the street feel skinny, a median would need to be constructed. Signals would need to be moved, drainage altered and left turns eliminated. Essentially it would need to look like Livernois north of I-96, which by my Google estimates also has the same 118′ ROW from store front to store front. Data I could find on the Livernois project put this 2 mile project cost at $1.5 million.

    Lastly, some of Dan’s assertions are problematic. Per his article he state’s “Shrinking Michigan Avenue would have a huge positive impact for the entire neighborhood. Adding bike lanes, transit and pedestrian elements would be even better.” There are bike lanes and there IS transit on Michigan Ave. Perhaps he means light rail, but he used the term transit which is broad and include bus service, which is present.

    Overall, yes, Michigan Ave. is too wide. It was built to support traffic volumes of the 1950’s and those days are gone. But it is not fair to blame the road as the problem, it is society and our auto dominated culture. Changing this requires a change in land use, a change in city zoning standards, and a change in social demands. OH yeah and lots of money. To make Michigan Ave look like Queen Street you would need to revisit Joseph’s comments and remove all the development on one side of the road, move the curbs in 40′ feet to get the same 66′ ROW Queen Street has. I

  • Might we consider turning the 9-lane street into diagonal parking, a serious bike lane, 2 lanes, middle parkspace, then 2 more lanes, bike lane, and diagonal parking? We could have a dog park (fenced in, of course) running 9 blocks up and down Michigan Avenue!!!

  • The manner in which Michigan was widened makes it difficult to repair. Instead of taking frontage from both sides of the street, the *entire South side* was demolished to double the street’s width. As a result, the viable, multi use 19th Century buildings are all on one side, and marginal and unlovable suburban-style crap has been built on the other.

    To repair the street and make it a district once more, there not only must be the will to narrow it, but also the capital to demolish or build in front of the current buildings on the South side with buildings matching the scale and purpose of those on the North. And to do this for the roughly mile-long stretch through the neighborhood would require a very high demand for new construction.

    Adding a little frontage on both sides would improve things for pedestrians, among which I count myself, but would be adding frontage where none ever existed to one side, and adding more potential parking for the suburban buildings on the other.

    Finally, the stretches of Michigan to the East and West would need consideration. West of Rosa Parks, urban-style buildings exist on both sides, but are still under scaled compared to the road. And East of Corktown there is a wasteland of superblocks before reaching the middle of the CBD, where there are fewer lanes but a wide roadbed.

    I’d love to see the road repaired and become urban, but it must be done with properly urban new construction as a component.