Impact Detroit as a Catalytic Converter

Monica Chadha and Virginia Stanard discuss how Impact Detroit develops novel and interdisciplinary approaches to design by involving a variety of stakeholders throughout the planning process, resulting in meaningful programming that activates the community and encourages imaginative interactions with the built environment. Monica Chadha most recently shared her expertise at the 10th Sustainable Cities Design Academy as a Resource member on the Greensboro, NC team and also participated as a Resource member in 2011. The Greensboro team brought the Integral City project, an arts-led economic development project fostering connectivity and collaboration throughout downtown Greensboro, to the event. Virginia Stanard will soon participate as a Project team member in the upcoming 11th Sustainable Cities Design Academy. She will work on the Bloody Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment Project, a creek daylighting and redevelopment project of a 3,500-acre site. Virginia joined Monica for Sustainable Cities Design Academy in 2011 as a Resource member as well.

Impact Detroit as a Catalytic Converter
Impact Detroit—a new interdisciplinary initiative realized through the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture—comes out of the fact that architects and designers cannot address community needs in isolation. In 2011, we had the unique opportunity to create Impact Detroit as an organization that could develop an interdisciplinary approach to improving the built environment.

Through the current evolution of public interest design as discussed in the recent AIA Latrobe Report, “Wisdom from the Field: Public Interest Architecture in Practice,” the practice of architecture is broadening. Architects are looking to address the needs of the general public, particularly in under-served neighborhoods, and see their work as part of a holistic approach to community development. Impact Detroit partners with community organizations, design experts, civic leaders, and residents to pursue the goals of public interest design—a human-centered approach to design that considers social, economic, and environmental realities and is fueled by the active participation of the public. Additionally, we seek to formalize these relationships by bringing together people and organizations from different disciplines early on in community-driven initiatives and for a longer period of time. This approach develops a continuum of experiences that builds local capacity and contrasts the practice of hiring consultants to work intermittently on projects.

Another challenge with long-term community initiatives is precisely that—they are long term. When these initiatives are planning-driven, they tend to look towards two, five, and ten-year goals. Through our research and feedback from the community, we have found that there needs to be implementable strategies early on and often. In other words, robust planning and immediate change do not stand at odds with each other. People want to see results and progress throughout the process, and proper planning that is also open to community involvement makes room for these visual milestones. This is very much in line with the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach to placemaking that is taking place all over the country.

One of the many forms of placemaking is the emergence of “pop-ups.” Recently, Detroit has become a hub for these temporary activations of space. Pop-ups provide the opportunity for existing and emerging enterprises to test new markets in neighborhoods, where the storefronts would otherwise remain vacant. In Detroit, these efforts have spanned the city and can last anywhere from a week to several months. Organizations such as the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation have been fostering business and social enterprises by utilizing these pop-ups to cultivate the community’s vision and goals and to learn more about its economic potential.

Local Storefronts along the Livernois Corridor. Courtesy of Impact Detroit.

Our most recent project has been facilitating and implementing initiatives along the Livernois Avenue Corridor. Through its Livernois Community Storefront project, Impact Detroit has developed and utilized strategies to promote a sense of community and a connection to place by activating a vacant retail space along a historic, yet struggling commercial Corridor. Livernois Corridor boasts a rich musical legacy dating back to 1933, with Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, America’s oldest operating jazz club, anchoring the Avenue. Historically known as the Avenue of Fashion, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Livernois Avenue was one of the top regional destinations for shopping. However, since the 1970s, the area’s decline has contributed to high vacancy along the Corridor and retail leakage into the surrounding suburbs. To address these concerns, local leaders partnered with the Urban Land Institute in 2011 to develop “Reviving Livernois Avenue as a Thriving Urban Main Street,” a study that inspired the formation of the Livernois Working Group, which serves to coordinate efforts and connect projects to partners.

The Livernois Community Storefront
Today on Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion, a new summertime pop-up beckons passersby with its bold, yellow invitation: “LIVERNOIS COMMUNITY STOREFRONT.” The storefront is the latest in Detroit’s temporary pop-up movement, but the difference here, at least for now, is that nothing is for sale. Instead, this vacant storefront serves as a community hub showcasing local business and culture. On any given day in the Storefront, one might encounter a neighborhood association meeting, an event hosted by the Extra Mile Playwrights Group to collect oral histories of the area, or a Livernois SOUP fundraiser for a local neighborhood project. In June alone, over 800 people stopped by the Livernois Community Storefront to participate in a conversation or attend an event.

Catalytic projects such as the Livernois Community Storefront represent a layered and collaborative approach by partners and investments that is essential to placemaking efforts in Detroit today. A myriad of people, projects, and plans have led to the Storefront project. Namely, the recent façade improvements guided by the University Commons Organization; the forthcoming Livernois Streetscape Enhancement Project; Hatch Detroit’s new citywide neighborhood retail initiative, which will provide opportunities for Livernois entrepreneurs to grow by using approaches such as “crowd entrepreneurship” to help develop neighborhood retail; and other community-driven opportunities.

Light Up Livernois Event. Courtesy of REVOLVE Detroit.

The Launch
Impact Detroit has been involved in these efforts since the early stages, and out of these interactions grew the idea to focus our efforts on the Livernois Corridor. In close collaboration with REVOLVE Detroit, the neighborhood retail initiative of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and Challenge Detroit, a professional development program where young professionals live, work, play, and give in metro Detroit for one year, Impact Detroit launched the Livernois Community Storefront project this year with a two-day program. It opened on May 31st with a “Light Up Livernois” community event featuring a fashion show of local retailers as well as music and art. Saturday events included yoga and pottery classes, a theater performance and fashion workshop, food from local vendors, and the Livernois Community Parade. Importantly, many of the participating vendors such as Treats by Angelique were interested in starting a business on Livernois, and the weekend event provided an opportunity to showcase their work while celebrating local culture and marketing the area to new and infrequent audiences.

The work that Impact Detroit is doing in the Livernois Corridor will extend over a minimum of three years, which is critical. Our approach is that the work evolves from the ground up and over time in order to build relationships and meet the needs of the community. We seek to avoid situations where professionals are brought in intermittently for a single phase of the work. This approach is also utilized in our ongoing efforts to support the local College Core Block Club as well as the University Commons Organization, whose mission it is to improve the physical and economic character of the Livernois/McNichols Corridors. University Commons and local businesses have also been integral partners in the Livernois Community Storefront project. Other local partners include the University of Detroit Mercy, Marygrove College, and neighborhood organizations.

How else is this pop-up environment different than the others? Often times, the preparation for a pop-up space is concealed until a surprise reveal, but the doors to the Livernois Community Storefront have been open throughout the entire pop-up process, encouraging an atmosphere of continuous public engagement. Here, visitors are drawn inside by the creatively designed wall map of the neighborhood, the community bulletin board, or the art gallery. Many long conversations with passersby have begun with, “What’s going on here?” “Can I hang up my flyer on your bulletin board?” “Is a business going in here soon?” or the nostalgic statement, “I remember when…”

Many have also had ideas about what should happen in the space, both short and long term. Thoughtful arts and culture-related programming that appeals to a range of age groups has been critical to the Storefront’s success. Following the “Light Up Livernois” event, the Storefront has become a place for the community to meet, to host events, and to plan for the Corridor’s future.

Plug-in and Pop-up
By opening up the pop-up process and weaving arts and culture into the effort, Impact Detroit has reached more people in more varied and meaningful ways. The Livernois Community Storefront project has become a means for civic engagement, sparking residents to imagine possibilities for the space and Corridor that reflect their concerns and values, as well as a catalyst for action in a city where many have planning fatigue. The Livernois Community Storefront disrupts a pattern of inaction and is a manifestation of change people can see immediately. It offers motivation and provides hope.

Community members attend Paint Your Own Pottery by Art in Motion at Light Up Livernois. Art in Motion is one of the permanent businesses selected to participate in REVOLVE Detroit’s “Art + Retail on the Ave.” Courtesy of Impact Detroit.

REVOLVE Detroit will build on this momentum with its recent $200,000 grant from ArtPlace, a national collaboration for creative placemaking, to further utilize the arts as a catalyst for community and economic revitalization on Livernois. REVOLVE will activate ten vacant storefronts and public spaces by matching local and national designers and artists with local university students, residents, and entrepreneurs to create temporary and permanent installations in these spaces.The community had an opportunity to weigh in on the proposals at the Community Gallery event held at the Storefront on July 25th. The ten spaces will be activated early this fall, culminating in Light Up Livernois: Detroit Design Festival, the Detroit Design Festival’s inaugural event on the Livernois Corridor on September 20th. Going forward, the Storefront’s success will depend on local management for programming, staffing, and funding—perhaps led by University Commons or another community development entity. There also needs to be a strategy in place to sustain the projects and businesses along the Corridor, extending beyond these initial activations.

What will be the impact of the Livernois Community Storefront on the community and on the larger trend of pop-ups? It is that thoughtful, collaborative, and temporary actions can lead to the making of lasting and meaningful places through innovative and creative approaches to partnerships, programming, community engagement, and design. The Livernois Community Storefront exemplifies what is possible when a community plugs-in and pops-up.

The Livernois Community Storefront endeavor has been generously sponsored by the Surdna Foundation with additional support from the Kresge Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Surdna Foundation has also provided funding for a future storefront activation. Team members from Impact Detroit and DCDC include Spencer Jaskiewicz, Joe Raffin, John Quaine, Elizabeth Grabowski, Krista Wilson, Irene Figueroa, Virginia Stanard, Christina Heximer, Dan Pitera, and Monica Chadha. Finally, the development and implementation of the work would not have been possible without the contributions of DCDC’s Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow, Ceara O’Leary.

Monica Chadha is an alum of Sustainable Cities Design Academy and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). She practices architecture and community revitalization in Chicago and her work focuses on bringing high-quality architecture and design to under-served communities. In 2009, she co-founded Converge:Exchange, an organization which brings together design professionals, community groups, and activists to share experiences and develop innovative design strategies to impact the built environment.

Virginia Stanard is a Detroit Project Team member at the 11th Sustainable Cities Design Academy. She is the Director of Urban Design at the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), a multi-disciplinary, non-profit architecture, and urban design firm at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. At Detroit Mercy, she is Co-Director of the Master of Community Development program and an Adjunct Professor. Virginia has developed economic and physical revitalization strategies and civic engagement processes for a range of clients including cities, philanthropic foundations, neighborhood groups, and developers at DCDC. Recent projects and initiatives include the Livernois Community Storefront, the Bloody Run Creek Greenway Redevelopment Project, the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework Plan, and Impact Detroit.

Featured image courtesy of Detroit Future City.

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Posted in: Adaptive Reuse, Center for Design & the City, Civic Leaders + Government, Community Engagement, Creative Placemaking, Design Leadership, Economic Development, Infrastructure, Partnerships, Preservation, Print, Public Spaces, Sustainability, Sustainable Cities Design Academy
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