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Imagine Flint Sets the Stage to Move the City Forward

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Imagine Flint Sets the Stage to Move the City Forward

Photograph taken of downtown Flint, Michigan. Six low-lying buildings in the foreground lie adjacent to a river that runs through the center of the photograph. A variety of low- and mid-rise buildings can be seen in the background of the photograph.
For the first time in more than 50 years the City of Flint adopted a master plan, creating a new vision for the city. Image courtesy of the City of Flint.
One of the nation’s symbols of industrial decline is charting a new course for its future. With the unanimous approval of its city council, the city of Flint, Michigan adopted a new master plan, Imagine Flint, in late October 2013.

This event marks the first time in more than 50 years that the city has approved a master plan. In 1960, when Flint adopted the previous plan, the city was a decidedly different place. Buoyed by decades of economic growth fueled by the auto industry, the city’s population then stood at nearly 200,000 residents. Since that time, however, Flint, like many industrial cities, has been shrinking, losing both thousands of jobs and nearly half its population. In addition, declining property values triggered by the nation’s recent recession have contributed to a fiscal crisis and a drastic reduction in the city’s capacity to provide services for residents.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of households in Flint declined 17 percent, from 48,744 to 40,472, while median household income fell 19.4 percent, from $28,121 to $22,672. During this period, the number of households living in poverty increased by 15 percentage points to more than 41 percent of all households.

Despite this drop in household income, a shrinking tax base, and the degradation of the built environment, Flint remains a city with many valuable assets. The new master plan will allow Flint to build on these assets and confront the city’s most difficult challenges including a large inventory of vacant and abandoned properties and an infrastructure built for twice the population it now serves. Thanks to a $1.57 million grant from HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities in 2010, along with additional financial support from local and national organizations, the city is taking steps toward addressing these issues. The grant is helping to fund a plan as well as the salaries of professional city staff that are working with residents, community groups, and local leaders to shape the future of the city. Imagine Flint recognizes the need to adapt to the changes of the last half century, and although it aims to encourage population retention and eventual growth, it retains the flexibility to adjust to population loss, should it continue. Whether the population grows or not, the plan’s goal remains to reposition Flint for inclusive, sustainable revitalization over the next 20 years.

Promoting Stability and Revitalization

The dramatic changes in Flint over the past 40 years are felt across the city, with the character and quality of many of its neighborhoods deeply changed. Understanding the conditions in the neighborhoods was critical to developing the goals and strategies within the master plan.

Early in the planning process, the city partnered with foundations, nonprofit organizations, and empowered citizens to inventory the more than 52,000 residential properties in the city. Using a method developed by the Genesee County Land Bank and Data Driven Detroit, residents were trained to assess parcel conditions across the city. Properties were classified in good fair, poor, or substandard condition. The inventory identified more than 11,000 vacant lots and approximately 6,000 homes that are in poor or substandard condition and contributing to widespread blight.

The parcel inventory gave community stakeholders a detailed picture of the nature and the extent of the challenges facing Flint, helping to inform a “place-based” approach to land use planning that strives to stabilize and repurpose areas of decline, while also growing the city’s assets. Rather than focusing on specific use designations for parcels in the city (residential, commercial, or industrial, for example), the place-based strategy uses 12 different place types to create unique, vibrant areas across the city.

Some place types aim to build on Flint’s assets, whereas other place-types commit to addressing longstanding challenges with innovative solutions. For example, the University Avenue Core place type is designed to support economic development opportunities just outside of the city’s downtown in an area anchored by Kettering University and the Hurley Medical Center. The vision for the University Avenue Core includes the development of business incubators, professional services, research and development facilities, and various housing options to accommodate both students and the area’s workforce. In developing this vision, staff from the university and hospital participated in identifying implementation strategies along the corridor, notes Kevin Schronce, associate planner for the city. The involvement of these anchor institutions in the process underscores the increasingly important role they play in Flint’s future.

Along with areas primed for growth, the place-based strategy identifies parts of the city that are suitable to transition to other uses. The city’s most beleaguered neighborhoods, now consisting of large tracts of vacant land, are identified as Green Innovation place types. Within these areas the city will support the development of green industries such as agriculture, alternative energy production, and green infrastructure that can support the city’s stormwater system. According to Megan Hunter, chief planning officer in Flint, involving the community in the assessment of the neighborhoods was important for developing and building support for the city’s bolder placemaking strategies. This allowed residents to see first-hand that some historically residential areas could function better in other uses.

Moving Forward

The adoption of the master plan marks an important step for the city as it charts its future. Over the next several months, the city will begin implementing the plan by rewriting the zoning code to facilitate the plan’s land use framework and developing detailed sub-area plans to guide revitalization efforts across the city. In January, Flint was named to the second round of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative. Federal staff will help to build capacity within the city and align programs and investments to maximize their impact with a specific focus on neighborhood stabilization, economic development and brownfield remediation, and violence prevention.



The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.