By Alan R. Madeleine
A man, a plan, a Caniff… Hamtramck?
Not exactly a perfect palindrome for Hamtramck’s newly drafted Master Plan, but if it’s as perfect a plan as it looks like it could be, Hamtramck may benefit for as long as, well, Panama has from its famous ditch.
The city’s Master Plan weighs in at a whopping 237 – pages, that is. It is a beautifully composed document printed in multiple colors, with photos, blueprint-style sketches, and charts galore. Almost a work of art, really.
That’s what 100 Gs will get you. Now, before you start squawking about city money washing away down the drain, understand that every dime of this project was paid for with grants.
Jason Friedmann, Director of Community and Economic Development and the city’s point man on the master plan project, explains. “In 2008, the state passed legislation called the Planning Enabling Act. It basically says that all of Michigan’s cities have to update their master plans every 5 years.”
This act essentially condensed Michigan’s previous three separate planning acts for municipalities, townships and counties into one. It is virtually essential to grant writing nowadays, both from the state and private foundations, to have this planning in place. Logical, as the people in charge of giving away the money want to know that a city has a concrete strategy for best utilizing these grants.
Hamtramck is one of eight cities in Michigan designated as a City of Promise, a Granholm program meant to funnel grant monies to this select group to improve safety and personal security, enhance school productivity, reduce unemployment, improve citizens’ health, and promote cultural opportunities. Other recipients include Detroit and Highland Park, Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, Benton Harbor and Muskegon Heights.
Of the $104,000 needed for this master plan, $90,000 was covered by the state through this program. The $14,000 balance was funded through a joint Federal and Wayne County CDBG, or Community Development Block Grant.
Still, why so expensive? Friedmann says it’s because they were fortunate enough to be able to hire one of the best firms in the country to oversee the master plan’s planning.
“After an extensive search, we went with a company called Interface Studio out of Philadelphia. They came in twice, and already had a better feel for the area than some of the companies we looked into that were more local,” Friedmann said.
Staffed by grads of Harvard and Penn, the company had also drawn up similar plans for like areas such as Chicago’s Wicker Park and sections of Brooklyn, places where there were higher concentrations of close-set commercial buildings with older infrastructure and cultural diversity, and still a fair amount of foot traffic.
“Local firms kept wanting to compare us to Ferndale or even Plymouth, but we found that Interface understood that we were really more like these other urban areas,” Friedmann said. He added that Interface Studios seemed to have the broader vision.
Interface did not have to go it alone in a strange land. They partnered with “local economic whizzes” (as Interface’s website called them) Anderson Economic Group out of Lansing (who concentrated on the regional context, particularly having to do with attracting businesses), and “transportation gurus” Sam Schwartz Engineering, who focused on street layouts, parking issues, and the like.
Some of the plan’s highlights include ways to do a better job of marketing the city’s various strengths, and short-term inexpensive fixes that can be implemented quickly.
Regarding marketing, Friedmann mentions that the “food culture” of the town was one thing to be highlighted. Not just the famous Polish restaurants, he said, but also the wide variety of ethnic grocery stores and the burgeoning number of Bengali eateries should be promoted, including to nearby areas such as midtown Detroit, notoriously lacking in food-shopping options. Likewise, the mere fact that Hamtramck is so centrally situated within the Greater Detroit region was a plus that could, it was thought, be played up.
Restriping streets (to suggest medians) was given as an example of a cheap way to improve traffic flow. “We may also paint ‘Welcome to Hamtramck’ on sections of the pavement as you enter the city,” Friedmann suggested, demonstrating the innovative thinking the plan has promoted.
Interface Studio’s impressive website touts their belief in “incremental steps to sustain momentum from the planning process and build confidence that positive change is coming.” Refreshingly answering his Philadelphia office phone himself, Scott Page, one of the principal planners involved on the project, knew what he was talking about when asked to comment on Hamtramck’s uniqueness.
“Remarkable. For two square miles, such a diverse mix of bars, restaurants, cultures. Our challenge was to involve all the groups. We tried to do this by way of a number of open public forums, one-on-one interviews with citizens and business owners, and the like.”
Even students were invited to chime in, with one forum for them held at the high school and another at city hall. A large-scale map was put up at City Hall, for residents to pinpoint exact areas needing changes made, and a companion model was made available by computer, for those more technologically-inclined. The thinking was not to just say, for example, that the city has an issue with litter, but to specify where that problem is the worst.
The city’s notorious cultural diversity posed another significant challenge to the team.
“When you have so much diversity,” Page continued, “there can tend to be, not conflict, but rather a sense of opinions being harder to coordinate. Some of the City Council members helped, for example, to involve the Bengali business owners” from the city’s east end.
Page feels the timing is “enormously important” for this plan to be put in place now, even as his firm also works on one for Detroit as well. Asked about working with Friedmann, he was effusive in his praise.
“Jason was great to work with. Clearly, he cares about your city. He has lots of hats to wear, and he manages to do so very effectively, in my opinion,” Page responded.
For Jason Friedmann, there is more work ahead. In a couple of weeks, the city will distribute copies of the plan to a number of interested parties in the area, including officials in Detroit and Highland Park, as well as Wayne County, SEMCOG (the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments), MDOT, the utility companies, and even the local railways.
The purpose of this exercise is to ensure that “neighboring communities are on the same page” with where they’re trying to ultimately “get to.” The county will assemble the received commentary from the disparate sources over the next 90 days, the Planning Commission will approve moving forward, and then the process will phase into something that Friedmann futuristically refers to as the “implementation matrix,” that is, that point where concrete steps can then be taken toward implementing, for now at least, those initial cost-free (or very low-cost) upgrades.
Serious grant seeking can then commence as well, particularly from cultural foundations such as Knight, Ford and Kresge. And those monies can start to really snowball into a positive overall impact.
For Hamtramck, a city struggling for years now on the edge of financial free-fall, one hopes that this Plan can be mastered sooner, rather that later.
For a look online at the master plan, go to:
www.interface-studio.com/isftp/HAM/HAMTRAMCK_MP_DRAFT.pdf or you can view a hard copy at either the Public Library or the City Clerk’s Office.
Review a recently completed Master Plan for the City of Hamtramck with site planning and site visioning this Wednesday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Hamtramck Public Library. Workshop presented by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).