Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nowhere to go but up for downtown Ferndale

Downtown Ferndale has nowhere to go but up--literally.  The downtown is land-locked by residences on all sides with virtually no undeveloped land on which to build or pave.  The only way to add more square footage for new businesses, retail, residential, or anything else worth attracting is vertically with taller buildings and dare we admit, taller parking.

Being land-locked, our downtown has only three options; build up, demolish the homes that constrain its growth, or stay the way it is.

Downtown Ferndale is exactly what it is.  A commercial area surrounding the intersection of Woodward and Nine Mile roads, with a mix of bars, restaurants, retail, services, and a few multi-unit, multi-floor condominiums.  With the present restrictions on space, the downtown can only change its face by replacing or reusing existing buildings and parking lots.

The 3-60 Project, which proposes multi-use, multi-story, parking-included developments on both the north and south sides of Nine Mile Road west of Woodward (the green-glass-looking buildings in the picture) proposes a disruptive change to the character of our downtown.  The rub is in speculating whether that change is good for the community or bad for the community.

There are two ways to increase our population.  Increasing the birth rate and subsequently the ratio of persons-per-dwelling, and increasing the number of residential units.  City council and the zoning boards can do little about the former except to have babies themselves.  But government can do something about the latter, increasing the number of residential units, provided they have a partner in the private sector willing to invest in building new residential units--either single or multi-unit.

Office space increases the city's population during business hours, with a little spill-over outside business hours as workers stop for a beer, a yoga class, do a little shopping, or a have their hair done before going home.

But one question that needs to be answered before proceeding with 3-60 (or any other similar development) is what is our downtown's capacity?  And by that I mean, how many people can all our downtown businesses accommodate at one time?  Let's pretend the 3-60 project increases both our city's population and its downtown daytime population--how many seats are available in restaurants?  How many people can shop in its retail?  How many people can fit in a kick-boxing class?  Will our downtown's capacity be overwhelmed?  Are there enough parking spaces for all the new visitors along with the old?

Lastly, it must be admitted that if the 3-60 project proceeds the downtown area will temporarily lose parking spaces it can ill-afford and some businesses may not survive.  Those that do may experience some loss of income.  That's regrettable but unavoidable with any plan.  The potential upside for businesses that do survive, and for new business that replace the old, will be more profitable and durable businesses.

So in the end, city council must decide if they want a new downtown with a new look, but at the expense of some of its existing businesses and its current character.  To protect itself and the community, the 3-60 developers will have to enter some kind of covenant with the city that guarantees the job will be complete.

Before voting one way or another, the council should negotiate that contract and expose it to public comment.

And of course, voters will have the final say on whether they agree with council's decision or not, and will have to live with the consequences either way.

Whatever happens in the short term, this project will finally provide some interesting fodder for this year's council elections.