KALAMAZOO — Southwest Michigan’s largest city is radically rethinking how its street network connects its people to neighborhoods, businesses and major institutions.
In a January agreement with the Michigan Department of Transportation, the city of Kalamazoo accomplished a long-standing goal of getting back under local control the major streets through its downtown and into adjacent neighborhoods. Now, officials want to reconfigure the streets into a multi-modal part of the city’s urban center.
“These streets were really designed to move the maximum number of cars as fast as they can, and that does not necessarily align well with having a walkable downtown neighborhood,” said Andrew Haan, president of the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership.
The city’s neighborhoods, campuses and downtown are divided by several high-traffic state trunklines, that until recently were under MDOT’s jurisdiction.
Kalamazoo now has control of sections of Stadium Drive, Westnedge Avenue, Park Street, Michikal Street, King Highway and M-43.
The jurisdictional transfer reflects the “Imagine Kalamazoo 2025” master plan and strategic vision, which was approved in 2017. With the plan, the community expressed its desire to be more connected, offering accessible and convenient transportation for everyone. During more than a year of discussions with MDOT, officials decided the city should operate key road segments, allowing it to make potential future changes to ensure the streets are easier and safer to navigate, which is intended to spur economic activity.
On Jan. 7, the Kalamazoo City Commission voted on an agreement with MDOT and to accept nearly $11.7 million for maintenance of the streets, which will help over the next 10 years, Haan said. The funds cover the amount MDOT would have spent on major repairs to the roads as the city is now responsible for those maintenance costs.
In concepts shared over the years, the city proposed reverting one-way streets back to two-ways, Haan said. This is something residents and business owners highlighted as a community priority. Reconfiguring the streets has been a topic of discussion for about 30 years, with local control of streets being a major first step in achieving that goal.
A 2018 study from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found the conversion to two-way streets would help calm traffic and assist the performance of underperforming retail sectors downtown.
“The wishes of the community simply just did not align for them to continue to operate as state highways,” Haan said. “The local vision was simply not compatible with that.”
Local control of the streets presents an opportunity to increase the connectivity of people to downtown Kalamazoo.
Outside of downtown, some neighborhoods had state highways running through them, with vehicles traveling 50 mph on residential streets, Haan said. This impeded the possibility of those residents to safely travel by bicycle or foot.
Reconfiguring streets gives the city the ability to connect these residents with downtown, sparking more equity in the area, according to Haan.
“A lot of people think about cycling improvements because people want to, on nice days, ditch their car and ride their bike to work,” he said. “Well, there’s people who only have a bike, and they need a safe way to get to work or to the store.”
In a separate but related action, the Michigan Strategic Fund board provided assistance for infrastructure improvements to Kalamazoo alongside local control of the main trunklines.
Kalamazoo’s Downtown Economic Growth Authority in January was authorized to capture a portion of state taxes generated within the district.
The MSF board in January approved capture of up to $11 million of future tax revenue or a maximum of 15 years, whichever is reached first, for Kalamazoo’s corridor improvement authority, the Downtown Economic Growth Authority.
“That funding essentially allows for transit-oriented infrastructure improvements, like changing one-way to two-way streets,” said Greg Tedder, chief community development and marketing officer for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “There’s opportunity to integrate multi-modal transportation, like bike lanes, integrated bus stops, streetscape improvements, stormwater runoff — a lot of things that go along with the larger investments made in downtown Kalamazoo.”
Kalamazoo worked under the Corridor Improvement Authority Act to find alternative means for a tax increment financing district.
“Part of what we pledged is that the funds that come from the state would be dedicated to infrastructure improvements that align with the jurisdictional transfer of the streets,” Haan said. “Ultimately, it’s going to allow for much better infrastructure downtown that fits with the vision of having a walkable downtown.”
Since it was first authorized in 2005, more than 30 corridor improvement authorities have been created across Michigan. A 2010 amendment was part of a group of bills intended to promote, facilitate and finance investment in public transit-oriented development. The amendment made capture of state taxes available to any corridor improvement authority that contains a transit-oriented development or facility.
In 2018, lawmakers adopted the Recodified Tax Increment Financing Act, replacing the former corridor improvement authority act and requiring new reporting requirements.
According to the Michigan Strategic Fund, commercial corridors have “significant potential” to promote economic growth and drive private investment, leading to increased tax revenue for state and local governments.
Without TIF to support those projects, the upfront investment required by the public and private sectors would make projects financially unfeasible.
It takes time to build value in the TIF program, Haan said. The district should capture about $75,000 in the first year, but after multiple years, it would have significant resources to fund infrastructure projects annually.
Public workshops on next steps for the roadways will occur throughout this year, with actual reconfiguration remaining on an unknown timeline. Some projects could be five years out, Haan said, but “small intervention,” including improvements to crosswalks, temporary bike lanes and other changes, could happen as soon as the seasons change.
“We’re committed to moving this forward and are grateful for our partnership with the state,” Haan said.