Implementation Charrette: Small Developer Boot Camp in Kalamazoo

Here's the latest from our friends at Incremental Development Alliance.

The best laid plans…All need implementation

“A review and evaluation of Kalamazoo’s zoning regulations and processes should determine if changes are needed to support creative design solutions, such as assessing whether residential choices…are adequately addressed, or whether regulations are an impediment. The key for Kalamazoo is to provide opportunities for flexible living arrangements that fit the character of surrounding neighborhoods.” City of Kalamazoo Master Plan, 2010

How many times have you heard the term Master Plan?  Typically, Master Plans are for land use, transportation, economic development or housing.  Often, Master Plans contain all these elements regarding a focused geographic area, like a neighborhood or an entire town. In most of these documents, you can flip through illustrative chapters of maps, diagrams, charts, and descriptive text. At the back, usually on the very last pages, there is a chapter or a heading called “Implementation” – otherwise known as the best wild guess at how to get from the present day to this shiny new future state.  It is sparsely detailed compared to the rest of the volume. The Poor Implementation Chapter, never gets any love.

This week, Incremental Development Alliance is heading to Kalamazoo, Michigan for a Development Implementation Charrette and Small Developer Training Boot Camp. Each of these events by themselves is an undertaking, but putting them together in one week, in one city, is a bonanza of can-do thinking.

We’re going to engage with the rules, policies and processes in Kalamazoo in attempt to simulate what small developers and entrepreneurs would go through to improve the city lot by lot. In line with our cultivating neighborhoods approach, we will focus in one neighborhood, this time to the southeast of downtown called Edison. Amongst many activities, we’re going to look at all the Implementation Chapters we can find and see why the best laid plans didn’t quite get off the ground. 

Kalamazoo’s 2010 Master Plan is actually pretty decent and its implementation chapter isn’t terrible. However, our understanding is that the quote about zoning from the top of the article hasn’t gotten very far in implementation.  And we’re just days from 2016. It is still pretty hard to build small scale buildings that don’t fit the conventional molds. What can we do about that, Kalamazoo? Incrementally, that is.

With the onsite team of John Anderson, Jim Kumon, Monte Anderson, Gracen Johnson and David Kim, IncDev plans to provide a 1-2 punch of the Charrette and Boot Camp to jump start implementation around updating the land use code and corresponding private sector development.  Through investigation, experimentation, and training we’re going to help local leaders set the ground work for small scale development to flourish.  This includes our partners at the City of Kalamazoo, economic development engine Southwest Michigan First and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).  Each of those agencies are coming to the table to help identify immediately actionable tactics that can be made in both public and private sectors to create a better pipeline of neighborhood scale development.

When you google "Typical Nice Midwestern City"…

…Kalamazoo is what you find. It's a perfect setting for this engagement on incremental, small lot development. A town of about 75,000 people, anchored by a medium sized university, some major corporations, a hospital complex and close proximity to three large metropolitan areas--it’s a big enough city to have more than a dozen neighborhoods, but not so big to have a ring of suburbs which are separate entities. The crew here at IncDev love these cities between 50,000-150,000 people because they have enough resources to be self sufficient, but are not so large they can’t change their ways.

Kalamazoo’s core neighborhoods, including our focus, Edison, are composed of a walkable grid of small streets, have 100 year old buildings of great diversity and have a culture of small business and entrepreneurship.  The main drag through Edison--Portage Street--even just had a 4-3 lane conversion to calm its previous Stroad-ish, traffic sewer tendencies.  Thoughtful people are at work here, no doubt. Cost of living is also really affordable; you can buy a nice old house in the city for $150,000.

There are also a few challenges for Kalamazoo that provide opportunity for small developers:  Undervalued buildings, underutilized buildings and buildings in need of serious repair.  At 150K for something decent, you can imagine the bargain basement pricing for housing that needs serious TLC or signs of civilization nearby. If you can’t imagine, Zillow can help.

The Edison neighborhood has these issues plus it’s also the wrong side of the tracks. No, literally, its cutoff from the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods on three sides by railroad tracks. Plus a creek. Its physical isolation from the hospital, university and downtown is more perception than actual distance though. And it gives great cause to why its struggling commercial street could become amazing again – the neighborhood already has its own natural center and edge to incrementally start improving.

While Kalamazoo will be the focus, it is by no means is unique.  Similar situations exist in neighborhoods across other Western Michigan communities like Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Holland, Muskegon, Traverse City, and further east like Jackson, Lansing, and Flint. We will be lucky to be joined by others from almost all of those other towns to both learn and share what to do next.  

What Are We Doing There Exactly?

The Development Implementation Charrette is a fancy term best used to check the right boxes on a government form for: “Smart people barnstorming city sidewalks and the zoning counter for a few days to figure out what is holding up small scale development from happening in this town.”  Many curse words and compensatory throwing up of hands will ensue before composure is regained and brilliant suggestions are shared:

  • Here’s what any rational actor in the market is looking for
  • Here’s what is missing or blocking them from taking action
  • Here are some straightforward ways to right this ship

We’ll be meeting with city staffers, interviewing those in the business community and giving a few public lectures to inspire some radical thinking. Most importantly we are going test fit 6 real lots in Edison--three residential and three commercial/mixed use--with financial pro formas with real local data and proven building plans. If the numbers ‘don’t work’, we’ll be able to explain why and correlate those back to implementation steps. Some might be code, some financial capital access, some the housing market, some who knows what else. 

For instance, one item we’re already on the war path to fix is the residential lot size minimum of 7500 sq feet.  You read that right, minimum. 75 feet wide and a 100 feet deep, 60’x125’ or even 45’x166’ sized lots. Nothing against those size lots, maybe you even live on one that size. The problem is, particularly for the Edison neighborhood, none of the existing residential lots are that size. Not even close. Try 3500-4800 sq ft.  We’re still running the numbers, but that’s on the road to making 90% or more of the lots zoned single family in Edison non-conforming. That’s a typical thing that happens when rules get put in place 50 years after the place was built (33% of the city’s housing was built before 1939, 66% before 1960 – Almost all of Edison is in that 33% group).  We have a hunch this is not helping any residential buildings to get constructed or renovated in the city.

What’s that Boot Camp thing again?

We take people who care about their communities and neighborhoods and teach them the skills to tackle developing 1-3 story buildings with 2-20 units of residential or other mix of uses. It’s all about the people and buildings at the neighborhood scale.  This time around in Kalamazoo, it’s as intense as we’ve ever done: two eight-hour days (Friday and Saturday) with a few hours tacked on Thursday evening and Sunday morning. Thirty or so brave souls are keyed up to take their talents to the next level and then take them home for immediate practice. Our Kzoo event page has an overview of the full schedule.

I haven’t met any of these people yet, but from looking at where they work and their titles, many have day jobs completely unrelated to real estate, construction or design: photographers, publishers, salespersons, and software engineers among those.  Some are in the field though, several from housing non-profits, a few city planner/engineer types, a couple with rental units under ownership on the side - even two who moonlight as elected officials (gasp!).  This Boot Camp #5 has folks from over a dozen different Michigan cities and a good contingent from out of state. We’ll be broadcasting as we always do at #ssdevbootcamp and @IncrementalDev on Twitter as well as our Facebook outlets. 

We’ve got more Boot Camps coming in 2016, some one-day, some weekend, some hybrids of various other things like this week in Kzoo. As soon as we recover from this sprint, we’ll be launching the calendar February-July at locations across the country.  You can join our email list to get that announcement to when that goes live and future events in your part of the country.

If you are interested in a Boot Camp or even one of these Development Implement Charrettes coming to your town, hit us up at our Bring Us To You page.

The IncDev team is excited to be hitting the ground in Kalamazoo. We like you already. Your Master Plan is swell.  Edison is a diamond in the rough. Your regulations may be causing some impediments. We think you have a lot of promise – show us what you’ve got, Kzoo!

(All images courtesy of Jim Kumon)

Jim Kumon is Executive Director at the Incremental Development Alliance, a Minnesota based non profit cultivating prosperity in our neighborhoods at the nexus of real estate and economic development. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and toddler son. He can be reached at