8 Mile-Woodward Improvement Committee to Select Design Group

8 Mile-Woodward Improvement Committee to Select Design Group

(Kevin Elliott, Dec. 6, 2020)

Detroit, Ferndale, MI – Beauty and safety are the focus of a proposed $100,000 plan to transform aesthetic features of the elaborate intersection at 8 Mile Road and Woodward that has long-served as an encampment for homeless people and panhandlers at the Detroit/Ferndale border.

The massive tri-level structure supports tens of thousands of cars going under, over and through the intersection, creating unintended shelter from the elements. The combination of overhead cover and auto traffic attracts people who use the space for panhandling, gathering, and sleeping. As makeshift shelters, debris, trash, and unsanitary waste accumulate, so too have concerns about the conditions at the intersection.

While short-term cleanups have been unsuccessful in remedying the situation, officials from Ferndale and Detroit began working together in 2018 to address concerns with the 8-Mile-Woodward Improvement Project.

Using a two-pronged approach, the cities are partnering with other interested groups to address both the needs of the homeless people that depend on the area, and those of the residents and commuters. The project calls for $100,000 for physical improvements, as well as $100,000 for human services to assist chronic homelessness in the area.

On Thursday, the Eight Mile Boulevard Association hosted an online Zoom call to give partners and the community an update on the human services aspect of the project, as well as hear pitches from design groups bidding to undertake physical changes at the intersection.

Detroit City Councilman Roy McCalister Jr., who represents the city’s 2nd District, stressed to the 100-plus participants on the call that the project is a collaboration of the entire area.

“This is an initiative that we are bringing Southeast Michigan together to work toward uplifting our areas and working together,” McCalister said. “We are here to work together and resolve the issues that need to be addressed in this one particular area.”

In terms of physical challenges, the intersection currently represents an inhospitable cavern with poor lighting, high traffic and excessive noise, creating unsanitary conditions for those living there and an unsafe crossing for pedestrians, said Noah Stephens, founder of The People of Detroit, one of the groups bidding on the project. He said solutions must refocus on moving people through the area, utilizing the power of light and captivating color.

“This was created to be a wide thoroughfare, but people there aren’t receiving those cues,” Stephens said. “They are receiving cues that it’s a place to stay.”

Tricia DeMarco, a civil engineer and urban planner, said as a key crossing in the area, it was intentionally created with wide sidewalks, up to 20-feet in some spots.

“We recommend reprogramming the focus on movement though the space to channelize people, to not linger or loiter, and that everyone is welcome to move through this space,” she said. “Different speeds and different uses should be welcome in this space. The high noise levels and environmental hazards make this underpass an unsuitable place for repose. The design is focused on movement though the space.”

The group showed examples of non-motorized transportation, including running and walking lanes, as well as bike lanes created through artistic designs.

Light and color were also key components of the overall design approach, including different shades and illuminations on ceilings, sidewalks, the road and walls to create the sense of a gateway, as opposed to a cavern.

The People of Detroit group hopes to work with visual artist Pat Perry, whose large-scale works and posters have brought him national attention.

“We propose the final aesthetic touch be done by renowned muralist Pat Perry,” Stephens said. “Perry shows both impeccable technical ability and — more importantly — deep understanding of the social concerns in situ with his work.”

Stephens said the first step is to produce a 3-D laser scan of the intersection in order to conduct a digital inventory of the space and see how best to approach it. The next steps would be lighting, color and engaging the community for their input.

The second design group to present on Thursday was We Are all Collage, which proposed “A Light Gateway” theme, re-imagining the intersection and bridges as a gateway to Detroit and Ferndale.

Laura Foxman, who founded We Are All Collage in 2009, said she lives near the area and is familiar with the intersection on a daily basis. She believes the space could be re-imagined as a civic space. Likewise, Foxman said community engagement would be a key component of the project.

“When we think of civic space, we most often think of parks — rarely do we consider roadways or underutilized urban space,” she said. “Engaging 8 Mile at Woodward as a new kind of civic space will be forward-looking, as well as inspiring, and safer. A site redesign will create more active community engagement as residents of all ages come together to create a more collective landscape, experience and spirit.”

Lighting for the project could include greenhouse lighting that could support plantings; higher reflective sidewalks and crosswalks; planters and other features. Artist Jonathan Turner proposed utilizing using LED mesh and to create light windows and screenscapes between the pillars of the bridge.

“Making it feel safe will improve the experience,” Turner said. “I was attracted to the window frames that support the overpass, and could light them abstractly to make the space come alive,” he said.

Patty Rudd, Operations Manager for the Eight Mile Boulevard Association, said the selection committee, which includes officials and residents from both Ferndale and Detroit, would meet after Monday, December 7 to weigh all community input and choose a design team. More detailed plans will be presented in the future.

Presentations and related information may be found online at The City of Ferndale website.

Although lighting and artwork were the focus of the presentations, many area residents questioned what could be done to improve the safety of pedestrians.

Marie Davids, who lives near the intersection, said she would like to ride her bicycle to Meijer, southeast of the intersection, but doesn’t feel safe traversing the overpasses.

Others said they worry more about vehicles than the people living under the overpass when they cross the roadway.

“If you try to use the underpass, it usually takes two or three cycles of the lights because there’s so much traffic,” said area resident Ruth Johnson. “I feel more unsafe from dodging cars than anyone at the interchange.”

Ferndale resident Anais Stenson said she cycles through the area and has been hit by a car. “I appreciate the lighting and design, but I’m concerned about using it to get to one place to another,” she said.

Additional safety challenges remain, as the intersection is situated on two state-run roads, with the roadway and easement falling under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), requiring special approval for some physical changes. Further, neither the cities of Detroit nor Ferndale have formally allocated funds to the project. Still, the project is progressing.

Since 2018, Detroit, Ferndale and MDOT have worked with several non-profit organizations to engage in a pilot program and other work, including maintenance and removing litter, with cleanup limited to avoid removing personal possessions. Additionally, Southwest Solutions, Community Housing network and South Oakland Shelter have coordinated weekly visits with a housing-first approach to engage homeless people, as well as provide resources to mental health and other assistance.

To better understand the human service needs, outreach teams have interviewed and surveyed homeless individuals at the intersection. Of the nine people that participated in the survey, eight said they would be willing to work with social services to obtain housing. The biggest barriers to obtaining housing, according to the participants, is a lack of identification, lack of income and criminal histories. Of those surveyed, one said they had been panhandling at the location for 25 years.

For residents in the area, talk of addressing issues at the intersection is nothing new. And, even if the work is done, they wonder what will stop the people there now or new people from occupying the area, again.

“What stops people from sleeping in your driveway? Expectation,” Stephens said. “Right now, the expectation is that if you need a place to hunker down, you can do it. A new design that is a well-lit, well cared-for place for people to move through. Design can change expectation and from those changes is expectation, behavior follows. So much of human life is expectation and conventions.”

Those who want to get involved, who want to be part of the ongoing conversations, and those with questions or ideas can email operations@eightmile.org.

Previous story:

Housing Needs and Placemaking at Forefront of 8 Mile and Woodward Collaborations (Aug. 6, 2020)

More info (from City of Ferndale website):

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