Starting the next chapter in Detroit’s suburban story

This week, Strong Towns' members and readers respond to the questions: Is it possible and/or worthwhile to retrofit suburbia, or would we be better off abandoning underused suburban spaces? How might we go about retrofitting big box stores for future use?

Strong Town's member, Richard Murphy, works for the Michigan Municipal League and wrote this essay with his colleague, Lisa Donovan.

Rush hour in Detroit's inner ring suburbs

Rush hour in Detroit's inner ring suburbs

As mid-century suburban development stares down the end of its life cycle, is retrofitting it possible and worthwhile, vs. abandoning it? From a vantage point in metro Detroit, where our history has made us a case study of over-investment in car-centered landscapes, we face little choice but to identify sustainable directions for these areas’ next life cycles. The question is what mix of strategies can be used to achieve that retrofit.

The auto industry obviously played a major role in driving metro Detroit’s development. Industrial prosperity drove the creation of a large middle class, with single-family homes and car ownership following—even much of the core city of Detroit was originally developed with broad swathes of single-family homes, rather than a more diverse palette of building types. The region’s role as part of the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II drove in-migration, with an estimated 350,000 workers surging into the Detroit area just in the first 18 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Post-war, the combination of pent-up demand, plentiful jobs, and federal incentives drove rapid suburban growth.

Today, 28% of the Detroit region’s housing stock still dates to this 1940s and 1950s boom, compared to 16% nationally, using the latest Census ACS data. Our median housing unit dates to 1966, ten years older than the national median—at 50 years old, this makes our median housing qualify as potentially historic. The region is also heavily skewed to single-family detached homes, making up 71% of our housing stock compared to 63% nationally.

As many of our communities decide that this development pattern is unsustainable, we see a range of strategies emerging. Where traditional downtowns and smaller town centers exist, we see communities reinforcing these by encouraging additional development in and around them—or in other cases, trying to create dense pockets for the first time. Some communities have not changed direction fundamentally, but are making tactical, opportunistic changes, as in the case study below. And it’s not just in Detroit that areas of vacant, obsolete structures are being demolished.

Michigan Municipal League's Suburban Summit, in action

Michigan Municipal League's Suburban Summit, in action

In these efforts, the age of our suburban development is often an asset: these communities tend to have pre-cul-de-sac street grids and smaller lots amenable to incremental infill. Many communities have taken advantage of state grant support for residential market analyses with a specific focus on near-term, local demand for “missing middle” options, as well as the state’s “Redevelopment Ready” program that provides technical assistance to identify and remove local regulatory or procedural barriers to infill.

At the Michigan Municipal League, we have to say “yes”, retrofitting obsolete development is possible and worthwhile—for many of our member communities, it’s critical to their futures. And the pace of development and rising prices in places like downtown Detroit, Ann Arbor, Birmingham, and Royal Oak shows reason for hope: We are seeing the same demand for urban options as other parts of the country. The recent “Foot Traffic Ahead” report on walkable urban development shows metro Detroit behind only New York and Boston in its trendline, breaking with historical patterns.

Our organizational role in these efforts is to offer our local governments new ideas and technical assistance—featuring Joe Minicozzi at our state-wide convention of local officials last year, and holding workshops with Ellen Dunham-Jones ( who wrote Retrofitting Suburbia) for our mid-century suburban communities—to encourage local experimentation, and to lift up successes. One of those “Suburban Summits” was held in just such a success: the new city hall of Westland, Michigan, a metro Detroit suburb of 85,000 people. The League has highlighted this project as an example that any of our communities can learn from.

Westland’s City Hall — a Big Box Retrofit

Westland has solved two problems at once by transforming a long-vacant electronics store into a stunning new city hall. As added bonuses, they saved tons of construction debris from heading to the landfill and revitalized the city’s primary shopping and dining area.

Circuit City, pre-retrofit

Circuit City now Westland City Hall, post-retrofit

Westland’s city hall was originally built in 1964. Over the years, the high water table under the 13,000 square-foot building created serious, costly structural issues. The basement frequently flooded and substantial erosion of the sub soil was causing the building to sink. On top of that, the city had outgrown its office space, with operations spread across five different buildings. This situation was inconvenient for residents and a downright deterrent to developers and companies considering doing business with the city.

What to do?  A 2012 needs analysis revealed that it would cost about $15 million to renovate the existing city hall or $15 million to erect a new building from the ground up.

That’s when a third option came into play: an empty big box store adjacent to the regional Westland Shopping Center in the city’s “shop and dine” area. City officials were able to negotiate an attractive sales price for the long-vacant Circuit City store. Combined with the cost to retrofit the building, the final price tag was $12.1 million, considerably less than the other two options.

Interior of the new Westland City Hall

Interior of the new Westland City Hall

Following months of meetings with city staff and residents regarding the building’s design and function, and 12 months of construction, the new city hall opened for business on Sept. 26, 2014. The 64,000 square-foot city hall now houses all city departments in one modern, attractive, energy-efficient building. 

Westland hoped that city hall’s modern architectural elements and sustainable landscaping features would set the bar for other buildings, and has seen progress with nearby development. Westland has seen $15-$20 million in private investment since the city hall project began. Local businesses, inspired by the city’s investment, are making changes like updating their facades, and new businesses are moving in.

Westland Shopping Center, the city’s primary retail hub, has been the beneficiary of a lot of that positive buzz. When potential tenants see the city investing in itself, they are encouraged to come into the market. The mall is now as full as it has ever been.

But what good is a new city hall without an engaged staff to keep things humming along for all the residents and businesses? Michele Halis suffered constant mold-induced headaches in the old facility. Now, in the brand new building with a skylight over her desk and great access to the mayor and other employees, those headaches are history. She’s much happier with her work environment and so are all of her co-workers.

Westland has also added some new hardware to its city hall— a shiny trophy on display in the lobby. The trophy was presented to city officials at the Michigan Municipal League’s 2015 Convention when cities from all over the state voted Westland’s big box retrofit the winner of the annual Community Excellence Award.

While the landscape of Westland remains predominantly suburban, projects like this are steps toward upcycling and intensifying obsolete developments: an important shift from our historical habits of build-and-abandon.

(All photos by MML staff)

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About the Authors

The Michigan Municipal League is a member organization of 540 city and village governments across the state of Michigan.

Richard Murphy, with the League’s Civic Innovation Lab, supports members with research and technical assistance programs.

Lisa Donovan is a communications specialist who edits the League’s semimonthly magazine “The Review” (where a portion of this article previously appeared); she previously worked as a commercial real estate broker.