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Developing Developments

September 20, 2009
Downtown Flint from the Stevenson Street Bridge.

Downtown Flint from the Stevenson Street Bridge taken in March of 2005. © Shaun Smakal

Pardon the rambling, train-of-thought styling of this post, but the topic could, literally, be edited into dozens of different topics…  Kristin Longley at The Flint Journal has posted a couple of interesting article to MLive.  One deals with Chevy in the Hole and the other with Buick City.

It would seem that they’re going to be forging ahead with one of the student-designed options developed by Masters of Landscape Architecture students from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.  The work they did can be found here on the Genesee County Land Bank’s website under “Reimagining Chevy in the Hole.”

The students’ work fell into two categories:  an ‘urban’ option and a ‘state park’ option, both based in-part on the Sasaki Associates, Inc. plan for the same location.  Sasaki has done a good deal of master planning (not to be confused with any city-wide master planning efforts) in Flint, covering plans for the Cultural Center, UM-Flint, downtown and the Flint River District (all of these can be found on the same Genesee County Land Bank page I referenced above) and much of it is complete crap.  The rest is some of the most monotonous, unimaginative, and insipid planning and design work I’ve ever seen—and I can assure you, I’ve seen a lot—with very little evidence of how these unique places influenced the generic, cookie-cutter results.  To their credit, Sasaki is very capable of producing some great work and have a considerable depth of experience in planning and design, we just don’t see any of that in what they’ve done here, and they’re fantastic at marketing themselves and their experience, because the Ruth Mott Foundation and others keeps going back to them with all this work.

One good thing that’s come out of Sasaki’s work is that they’ve at least established a base level of sorts in terms of information, presentation and design that others can take up and run with in their own way.  The students did a fantastic job of doing just that.  It was also one of the most transparent and engaging planning and design processes the City of Flint has ever seen and it was a pleasure being a part of it.

One of the points I made to Mr. Kildee and the students at their final presentation was that their illustrations of “urban” and “park” highlighted a limited notion of what those two things mean.  Their “urban” design, in keeping with what you see in Sasaki’s plan, was really more suburban in style, form and configuration than what I would consider to be an urban development and would both figuratively and literally spread the already anemic economic and residential development (this was long before the crash, mind you) even thinner.  What I suggested was that it was the “park” idea (which included not only ecological rehabilitation for the site and river, but also folded in notions of green infrastructure and sustainability which while not comprehensive, were very interesting threads to be followed) was much more urban because, like a Central Park in New York or a Forest Park in Portland, it would establish a huge asset to further economic development, giving Flint some well-defined edges, vision and infrastructure to support new ideas, development and investment in existing neighborhoods like Carriage Town, downtown, Mott Park, Grand Traverse, the Kettering campus, and others.

This topic is a huge one for the city, and I could spend weeks talking about Chevy in the Hole and the enormous potential it has for transforming the city and the many design and planning related tangents to it, so I hope that the city doesn’t blow this opportunity by rushing ahead with some cheap and quick option that does more for short-term political aspirations than it does for the long-term viability of the city, the site and it’s future.

Only knowing what I’ve read about Mayor Walling’s idea and having a general notion of where it’s coming from, I’m not really excited about the idea at all and not prepared to say much about it aside from thinking it’s better than a drag strip.

However, if that’s the qualification we’re going to start using for judging the redevelopment and future direction of the city, then we’re all doomed.

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