The hypermarket fills its out-lots.
by Sally Mitani
From the August, 2015 issue
About half the buildings on the out-lots between Meijer and Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. have taken shape, and some tenants are open for business. There's nothing in the six buildings that will make up Pittsfield Place to set a retail geek's heart aflame; the three buildings constructed so far house just eyeglass, haircut, phone, and quickie food franchises. Specifically, going north from Oak Valley Dr.: AT&T, Subway, Sport Clips, Eyeglass World, Five Guys, Menchie's (the one new guy in town, a frozen yogurt place), and Pancheros.
But to Pittsfield Township, these everyday shops and eateries have an entirely different meaning. First, they're adding to an existing retail cluster rather than popping up more or less randomly along the township's main roads. Second, they can be accessed not just by car but on the new sidewalks and bike lanes that connect homes to those nodes. And that's a step toward the township's long-term plan to knit itself into a full-service municipality with a strong sense of place.
"The big jump was between 1980 and 2000," says supervisor Mandy Grewal (pronounced "gray wall"). Pittsfield's population doubled in those decades, to 30,000 (it's about 35,000 now). Not surprisingly, such radical change caused repeated political paroxysms, first over a proposed "new urbanist" development that would have filled nearly a square mile in the middle of the township, then over the Walmart on Michigan Ave. Grewal, a former county commissioner who has a PhD from U-M in urban planning, rode that last wave of protest into office.
In the township's first burst of growth, developers rushed to throw up industrial parks, shopping centers, and housing developments. Reflecting the thinking of the time, all were strictly separated from one another. When Meijer was built in 1988, the big-box store and its vast asphalt desert of a parking lot were carefully buffered behind high, grassy berms. At first glance, ripping out those berms to make Pittsfield Place might seem like a step backward--but, instead of hiding commerce,
contemporary urban planners prefer to flaunt it.
The spacious, airy Pittsfield Township administrative building at Michigan Ave. and Platt has the happy hum of some kind of cool software company, with its relaxed, friendly employees and the pleasant chaos of a Thursday farmers' market filling the parking lot. Grewal, in a tailored skirt and high-heeled sandals, looking like the company's more serious CEO, says her job "is full-time and then some." She explains that when Pittsfield began extensively reworking its master plan in 2009, planners used a "heat density map" to find the biggest commerce clusters. "We didn't want to create any random, ad hoc development. Those areas would continue to be developed, and we could work on preserving existing green space." She goes on about "residential and retail services, interconnected by multimodal transportation" in a way that sounds a little PowerPoint-y, but she's no spineless bureaucrat.
Earlier this summer the township halted construction on Pittsfield Place because Versa Development wasn't adhering to the approved plans, which, above all, try to make commercial spaces friendly and welcoming. "For instance, instead of clear glass in the windows they were using blackened glass, which gives it an ominous look," she says. "There's a lack of awnings. The planning commission has dug in their heels. We're not changing the rules of the game--these are things that were in the plans, and we are holding their feet to the fire."
This Meijer out-lot development isn't a one-off. In fact, Meijer has an entire website called Meijer Real Estate to line up these kinds of projects on all its properties ("Join the many businesses that have grown with Meijer ..."), because other cities and towns too are curbing sprawl by channeling new retail development toward big-box store out-lots.
Scio Township's Meijer on Jackson Rd. has almost completed a less ambitious development called Scio Square. In mid-July, a Starbucks was open.
Grewal says the dispute with Versa over Pittsfield Place has been resolved. Retrofits are being made, and Versa should be able to resume work on the last three buildings shortly.
[Originally published in August, 2015.]
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