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"Bridging the Border" Capstone Earns Top MAP Honors

Monday, September 30, 2019

For the tenth time in the past 12 years, a Taubman College urban and regional planning capstone project has won the Michigan Association of Planning Outstanding Graduate Student Planning Project Award. The 2019 winner is “Bridging the Border: Collaborative Solutions to Enhance Kelly Road Retail.”

The Bridging the Border team of students worked with the City of Harper Woods, Michigan, and LifeBUILDERS, a Detroit-based nonprofit, to create a plan for revitalizing the Kelly Road commercial corridor. Kelly Road, which was once a vibrant business district connecting the suburb of Harper Woods with the Greater Regent Park neighborhood in northeast Detroit, has suffered from blight and vacancy in recent years.

Associate Professor Harley Etienne and Eric Dueweke, a lecturer in urban and regional planning, oversaw the group of eight graduate students who worked on creating recommendations to encourage entrepreneurship, support business owners, improve customers’ experiences, market the area, and diversify the types of businesses on Kelly Road.

The group conducted interviews with homeowners and renters living in Harper Woods and Greater Regent Park. They also utilized focus groups and surveyed Kelly Road business owners to better understand the needs of the community and the challenges facing retailers. In addition, the group assessed the physical conditions of the Kelly Road area to inform their recommendations about development and restoration.

“I think students and community leaders alike were surprised that residents and business owners on both sides of the Kelly Road border realized the necessity of working together toward shared goals, and indeed were willing to do so,” Dueweke said.

“Our partnerships with LifeBUILDERS and the Regent Park neighborhood in Detroit have been focused and strengthened through this planning process, agreed Joe Rheker, city manager for Harper Woods. “Other small cities may benefit by considering similar student projects.”

The group recommended pop-up shops in the next one to two years and created strategies to attract business owners to existing infrastructure within three to five years, including the possibility of a community-run coffee shop. In the long-term, they suggested cultivating partnerships between the Harper Woods Business Association and local or national community development financial institutions.

To market Kelly Road, the group created a plan for creating and advertising new, positive perceptions of the area. They suggested a logo for banners, marketing materials, and signage, as well as public community programs such as seasonal festivals. The group also recommended establishing the Harper Woods Business Association as a Micro-Business Improvement District (BID), which would allow property owners to pay fees for maintenance and cohesive marketing.

The project’s 42 recommendations were broken into short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. The suggestions are realistic, actionable, and transferable to other inner-ring suburban areas. “I hope this type of planning process can be transferable to other locations in future years,” said Wayne County Commissioner Tim Killeen. “Particularly impressive were the resident feedback meetings, held in both communities, which informed the plan report. The comprehensive recommendations for action presented in the plan were innovative, without being unrealistic.”

Dueweke explained that the collaborative approach was key to the project’s success. “As future planning issues and solutions become more complex and layered, we’re going to need more cross-jurisdictional efforts like this one,” Dueweke said. “The yellow dividing line in the center of a road doesn’t prevent your city’s problems from crossing over into my city.”

Dueweke, team member Anna Shires, M.U.R.P. ’18, and Associate Professor Joe Grengs, who is the chair of the urban and regional planning program, accepted the Outstanding Graduate Student Project Award at the Michigan chapter of the American Planning Association’s fall conference in Kalamazoo last week.