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SMART planning to make improvements to streamline service

Catching the SMART bus is about to become much easier, at least if Hayes Jones has anything to say about it.

The newly hired general manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation is looking at a couple of ways to use new technology to make traveling on the authority's buses easier and faster.

Among the innovations that could be in place before the end of the year is using a MapQuest-like feature on the authority's web site to plan out trips. The tool would not only tell patrons which buses to take but when they stop at their destinations or transfer to other buses.

Another possibility is putting the buses routes into real time. That would allow patrons with smart phones or laptops to check when their bus is on time or not.

The idea behind the two innovations is to eliminate waiting time for passengers and streamline their bus-riding experience. Jones also said at a recent meeting for Transportation Riders United that he and his staff are looking for ways to be more customer-service oriented by getting rid of small inconveniences and adding new services.

Source: Hayes Jones, general manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation

Writer: Jon Zemke

Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail line studies look to wrap up in April

As sloth-like as it seems at times, the commuter rail project connecting Detroit, Ann Arbor and Metro Airport is not on a slow boat to China. But then again, it's not using Maglev technology either.

Regardless, officials close to the project expect infrastructure capacity and fare-box studies to wrap up by April, giving the project a big boost toward becoming a reality.

"That's key because we're trying to nail down the cost of the project," Saundra Nelson, director of special projects for Wayne County, said in a speech to Transportation Riders United earlier this week.

Nelson pointed out that finishing these studies will get the project closer to concluding the second stage of a largely three-step assessment. The first two (what it is and what it takes) will be done, leaving the third (what it costs) left to be determined. Nelson was quite optimistic that the proposal will become a reality sooner rather than later.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which is spearheading the project, is negotiating logistics and improvements with the railroads that control the tracks and Amtrak for providing the trains. Organizers behind the proposal are looking at picking stops, arranging a shuttle service between the Metro Airport stop at Merriman Road and the airport's terminals and making sure delays are kept to a bare minimum.

Carmine Palombo, director of transportation for SEMCOG, gave a prognosis last year of establishing service by late 2009 or early 2010 while SEMCOG and the railroads sort out logistical issues.

The commuter rail line would utilize existing tracks with stops at Metro Airport, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Dearborn. It’s possible it could also be expanded to connect Royal Oak, Ferndale, Troy/Birmingham and Pontiac.

Source: Saundra Nelson, director of special projects for Wayne County
Writer: Jon Zemke

Brownstones of Birmingham looks to bring more density

"You are my density!"
Er, destiny.

's downtown is about to get a little denser if the Brownstones of Birmingham project becomes a reality.

The development, currently under review by city planners, will build four brownstones on the 500 block of West Brown Street, a few blocks west of downtown. The two buildings that stood on the now vacant 0.25-acre parcel were razed in 2004. A 2.5-story building would rise on the property.

The exterior would be composed of brick and limestone materials. Each unit would have 3,000 square feet of space and a three-car garage. The city has approved similar plans for the space earlier this decade, but they never materialized. A new developer is taking on the project.

Source: Jana Ecker, planning director for the city of Birmingham
Writer: Jon Zemke

Downtown Mt. Clemens gets new businesses as old ones expand

Yarn, wine and chocolate. Could be the making of an interesting evening. And all three of those things can now be had in downtown Mt. Clemens.

City Knits – a yarn, knitting and crocheting store – has opened in downtown Mt. Clemens' Cherry St. Mall building this month. This is the business' third store and its first outside of Detroit city proper.

"Although opening a third location was not in my plans, I recognized a great opportunity to provide continuity and fabulous yarns and tools to the dedicated community of knitters and crocheters in Macomb County," says Karen Kendrick-Hands, the owner of City Knits. "The walkable location in an urban setting, and support of the DDA clinched the deal for me."

Wine Sync opened at the end of November. The retail wine shop and tasting bar provides high-quality wines without the high prices. The store is located at the entrance to Cherry St. Mall directly off the red Roskopp Parking Lot.

Also, Mt. Clemens-based Champagne Chocolates has opened up a second location in downtown Birmingham. The chocolates will continue to be made in the Mt. Clemens store and shipped to the Birmingham location three times a week.

Source: Arthur Mullen, director of the Mt. Clemens Downtown Development Authority
Writer: Jon Zemke

MDOT looking for input on state's five-year transportation plan

State officials are looking for regular Joe's (or Josephine's) to give their opinion on where state transportation should go and how they want it to get there. The solicitation is part of the annual comment period for the Michigan Department of Transportation's Five Year Plan.

The plan covers how Michigan intends to spends its resources on transportation issues, such as road construction and mass transit, in the next five years. In the past this has mainly focused on road construction, but this year the emergence of the Detroit to Ann Arbor commuter rail project, Ann Arbor to Howell commuter rail project, Detroit Transit Options for Growth Study (aka Woodward mass transit line) and a host of local greenway initiatives are giving locals a variety of subjects to pontificate on.

You can make your opinion known where it counts here. The deadline for public comments is Dec. 21.

Source: Michigan Department of Transportation
Writer: Jon Zemke

Feds honor Metro Detroit's 100-mile network of greenways

It's not always a bad thing when the feds are paying attention to you. Such is the case when the Federal Highway Administration recognized the Michigan Department of Transportation with an award for "exceptional environmental stewardship" of its 100-mile network of trails and greenways in southeast Michigan.

"This award reflects our commitment to making non-motorized trails available as a transportation mode," says Kirk T. Steudle, director of MDOT. "Trails are a part of the transportation mix that is essential to protecting the health and well being of Michigan residents, and greenways contribute to enhancing quality of life."

The award largely recognizes the efforts of the Southeastern Michigan GreenWays Initiative. The public and private partnership has helped organize efforts to finance and develop a 100-mile network of greenways across Metro Detroit since 2001. The regional effort involves more than 75 municipalities in Warren, Oakland, Macomb, Monroe Washtenaw, St. Clair and Livingston counties.

Greenways provide recreation, transportation, conservation, tourism and economic benefits by creating non-motorized trails in developed areas that nurture and preserve green space. The GreenWays Initiative has worked to expand and enhance local greenways, helping leverage more than $82 million in investments in greenways from public and private sources. Although great progress has been made in recent years, Metro Detroit's greenways system is still behind leaders like Indianapolis, leaving plenty of work for southeast Michigan's leaders.

Source: Michigan Department of Transportation
Writer: Jon Zemke

Work progresses on latest addition to Birmingham's Triangle District

Chalk up another little victory for Birmingham's quickly emerging Triangle District with the construction of the 735 Forest Ave. building.

The three-story, mixed-use structure will house space for retail (first floor), office (second floor) and residential (third floor). The 16,500 square feet of new dense, urban building is undergoing construction under the direction of Birmingham-based Mosher Dolan Cataldo & Kelly.

The Forest Avenue Bistro will occupy the ground floor space. The restaurant will be run by Brian Polcyn who also owns the Five Lakes Grill in Milford. Mosher Dolan Cataldo & Kelly will occupy the office space on the second floor. There will also be 11 lofts on the third floor.

The building replaces three old single-family homes that had recently housed businesses until the developer razed them to make room for the project. The streets surrounding the new building will also be rebuilt in a downtown style that emphasizes walkability and openness.

"They will be brought up to Birmingham standards," says Jana Ecker, planning director for the city of Birmingham.

The building, one block removed from Woodward Avenue next to the new AAA building, is the latest addition to the city's Triangle District.

The area bounded by Woodward Avenue, Adams Road and Maple Road (just east of downtown) is experiencing development pressure yet lacked a clear vision and framework for growth until recently when the City Commission approved the Triangle District plan. The new master plan is expected to spur development on surface parking lots and underutilized lots that will create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use district.

Source: Jana Ecker, planning director for the city of Birmingham
Writer: Jon Zemke

Birmingham moves public art forward by approving new sculpture on Woodward

One coming up, 19 more on the way. That's the main goal of public art in Birmingham. City officials have approved the first major piece of the 20 expected to be installed throughout the downtown area by 2010 as part of its Cityscapes program.

"We hope it will improve the city's aesthetics and make it more attractive," says Jana Ecker, Birmingham's planning director. "It should help improve the city's character."

The first sculpture is set to go up where Woodward and Old Woodward avenues converge south of downtown near the 555 Building. The "Rou A Lou" sculpture by Mark di Suvero will grace the small portion of land for at least two years. It will be is installed by the end of this year.

Di Suvero is the foremost American abstract expressionist sculptor and his distinctive, large bold pieces can be found all over the world. His focus on I-beams and heavy gauge metal make him popular in this medium. Many of his pieces contain sections that are allowed to swing and rotate to give the overall form a considerable degree of motion.  His piece “Rou A Lou” incorporates a large tripod I-beam frame with three balls suspended 10 feet in the air.

"It's a pretty prestigious sculpture to have," says Joe Valentine, the city's liaison to the Birmingham Public Arts Board. "This will be a significant piece for the community."

Organized by the Birmingham Public Arts Board and the Cultural Council of Birmingham Bloomfield, the Cityscapes art on loan program provides a continuing installation of temporary sculptures at designated locations in Birmingham on a schedule of every two years.

Source: Jana Ecker, Birmingham planning director and Joe Valentine, the city's liaison to the Birmingham Public Arts Board
Writer: Jon Zemke

Birmingham's Shain Park expansion plans to go before City Commission on Dec. 10

Newly revised plans for the renovation of Shain Park in downtown Birmingham will go before the City Commission Dec. 10. The plans call for expanding and renovating the green space while adding 210 underground parking spaces.

Designs for the park include an expansion south onto a surface parking lot across Henrietta Street from The Townsend Hotel. The city expects to spend $7.5 million to install two levels of underground parking on the site and then expand the park's green space over it. The new underground parking garage will increase the total number of parking spaces on that space from 150 to about 210.

The plans also call for another $3.5 million investment to improve the park's infrastructure, such as aesthetically pleasing walkways and a band shell on the expanded portion. City officials hope to break ground next year and work it in with nearby sewer and street work. The construction will likely tie up the park for one to two years.

Source: Dennis Dembiec, director of engineering and public service for Birmingham
Writer: Jon Zemke

Birmingham/Troy transit center plans for development, possible streetcar line

There might not be a wrong side of the tracks when it comes to Troy and Birmingham but there definitely is a difference.

Look to the east and there is Troy in all of its sprawling, suburbanized glory. To the west is the more urban Birmingham with its grid-like neighborhoods standing in stark contrast to the subdivisions of its eastern sister. But local leaders have a plan to connect these two very different communities by creating a rail line from Troy's Somerset Collection and Pavilions of Troy to Birmingham's booming downtown and Triangle District.

Connecting these institutions is a planned transit center in Birmingham's emerging Rail District and a proposed small mass transit line. The transit center would be the stop for the proposed northern leg of the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail line.

The Rail District is planned to become a dense urban environment built with mixed-use structures similar to downtown and the Triangle District. That's a big change in direction for a place that has historically been an industrial area surrounded by traditional neighborhoods.

The proposed small mass transit line would utilize a permanent form of transit, such as streetcars. It would connect major institutions in both communities, such as downtown Birmingham, Somerset Mall, Pavilions of Troy and Troy's Civic Center.

Source: University of Michigan/Urban Land Institute Real Estate Forum
Writer: Jon Zemke

Users climb aboard Wireless Oakland, whole county coverage by next year's end

Now that the Wireless Oakland project has made free Wi-Fi, cordless Internet, available in seven communities, its organizers are gearing up to increase the coverage area to include the rest of the county by the end of 2008.

Leaders of the effort are encouraged by the useage statistics they have seen in the 18.5 square miles covered in Birmingham, Royal Oak, Madison Heights, Oak Park, Pontiac, Wixom and Troy. So far users have been logging 60,000 sessions per week in the area. That's well above the 21,000 sessions per week expected by this point in the project.

"We've had incredible useage," says Phil Bertolini, deputy county executive and CIO for Oakland County. "We've had 19 million minutes used since March. They're using 1 million minutes a week now."

The next step to making free Wi-Fi available to the whole county is finishing planning and engineering work for the initiative. Officials must also nail down private financing for the project before the end of the year.

Making Oakland County wireless gives free Internet access to the county’s 1.2 million residents and 300,000 daily visitors. Free Internet service is being offered at a 128Kbps by MichTel Communications, which will charge fees for faster download speeds and additional services.

Source: Phil Bertolini, deputy county executive and CIO for Oakland County
Writer: Jon Zemke

Environmentally friendly AAA branch in Birmingham set to open Nov 19

Chalk up another win for green building now that AAA Michigan is gearing up to open its new environmentally friendly branch in Birmingham on Nov. 19.

The new structure is the city's first building to go for certification for LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It sports a number of green features, such as high-efficiency mechanical systems, low-wattage light fixtures and energy efficient windows. The building's exterior is also designed with sun shades to keep it cool in the summer and light shelves to bring in more natural light.

"It's making use of the growing technology that benefits the environment," says Jim Rink, a spokesman for AAA Michigan. "That's something that we're committed to and we're glad to see it come to fruition."

The two-story structure is being built at corner of Woodward Avenue and Forest Street in Birmingham's emerging Triangle District. The building feature's a distinctive 40-foot glass tower in the center of its front façade. The 9,100-square-foot full service branch will house 32 employees.

Source: Jim Rink, spokesman for AAA Michigan
Writer: Jon Zemke

Burton-Katzman seeks approval for Birmingham Place plans

Senior citizens will soon have a choice on where they want to live in downtown Birmingham if plans for the proposed Birmingham Place building are approved this fall.

Bingham Farms-based Burton-Katzman Development Co. wants to build a four-story apartment building for senior citizens on the 100 block of Brown Street between Pierce and Henrietta streets. It would join The Regency at Elm as the second senior-oriented residence in downtown Birmingham.

"It's a senior building that is oriented toward seniors that want to stay in an urban environment," says Chuck DiMaggio, senior vice president for Burton-Katzman. "That way they can avail themselves to all of the amenities that downtown Birmingham has to offer."

The idea is to offer the building's residents the opportunity to be within walking distance of everything that in downtown, providing for a cosmopolitan lifestyle.

The 60,000-square-foot structure will have 17,000 square feet of ground floor retail space with 50 rental apartments on the three floors above it. The ground floor space will be available to a variety of uses, including traditional retail, restaurant and office spaces. Birmingham Place will replace a couple of one and two-story office buildings that will be razed.

Burton-Katzman, which is also behind the 325 Old Woodward building in downtown, hopes to get site-plan approval for the project this fall and begin construction as soon as next summer. Construction is expected to last 12 to 14 months. Since Birmingham Place is already being used as the name of another building, Burton-Katzman is working on a new name for the structure.

Source: Chuck DiMaggio, senior vice president for Burton-Katzman
Writer: Jon Zemke

New bank building set to rise in Birmingham's emerging Triangle District

The new building planned for Birmingham's downtown is about to change names and become a little bit bigger.

The development that has been known as the LaSalle Bank building on Woodward Avenue will probably be renamed the Bank of America building now that the sale of LaSalle to Bank of America is a go.

The building's developer is also working with city officials to turn the structure that will be bordered by Woodward, Brown and Peabody streets from three to four stories.

A Bank of America branch is set to occupy the first floor of the 80,000 square-foot building. The second floor will be set aside for a health club while the third and fourth floors will be used for Class A office space.

"Right now I am negotiating with at least two companies for the health club and there has been a lot of interest in the office space," says Harry Blackward, the developer. "The building would not have been built without Bank of America. It was the driving force behind this."

Blackward razed a couple of old structures to make room for the new building, including a 1920's bowling alley that later became a furniture store. A little strip mall was also torn down. Blackward hopes to start construction later this month or in early November and plans to finish in late 2008.

The new structure will feature a drive-through section and some space for a restaurant on the ground floor. Blackward also wants to widen the sidewalk on the Brown Street side so he can plant trees.

The building fits with what city leaders hope to see built in downtown and the Triangle District, an area just east of downtown bordered by Woodward Avenue, Adams Road and Maple Road. The area, which is in the shape of a triangle, has recently experienced development pressure, yet has lacked a clear vision and framework for growth.

Birmingham's new master plan for the Triangle District is expected to spur development on surface parking lots and underutilized properties, which dominate the landscape, to create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use district similar to downtown. A couple of developers, including Blackward, are working with city officials to make their projects taller, denser and more urban to fit in with the district.

Source: Harry Blackward, developer of the LaSalle/Bank of America building
Writer: Jon Zemke

Birmingham's Barclay Inn preparing for major renovations, expansion in Triangle District

The tip of Birmingham's Triangle District is in line to get a major makeover as the Barclay Inn plans to gut and expand its hotel at the site on the southeast corner of Woodward Avenue and Maple Road.

The preliminary plans call for razing and replacing much of the 1950s-era hotel with a more dense building while preserving the hotel's five-story tower. The new 30,000-square-foot structure will have space for retail on its first floor facing Woodward and hotel rooms above it. Details about how many rooms and what amenities it will feature are in the design process.

"We are literally working on it right now," says Chris Enright, president of the Christopher Enright Architects, which is designing the building.

The building is being expanded to fit in with the city's plans for the Triangle District, an area just east of downtown bordered by Woodward Avenue, Adams Road and Maple Road. The area, which is in the shape of a triangle, is experiencing development pressure, yet has lacked a clear vision and framework for growth. The new master plan for the area is expected to spur development on surface parking lots and underutilized properties, which dominate the landscape, to create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use district similar to downtown.

The current hotel there started out as a Barclay Inn but eventually became a Holiday Inn Express. It returned to Barclay Inn two years ago. Once the site plans for the renovation/expansion are approved by the city, the developer hopes to begin construction midway through next year and complete work within 9 to 12 months.

Source: Chris Enright, president of the Christopher Enright Architects
Writer: Jon Zemke

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