Can a short-lived parklet be the start of a major transformation of Michigan Avenue?

On Friday, August 28, people filled the sidewalk -- and part of the street -- on the north side of Michigan Avenue in front of Astro Coffee in Corktown. They were gathering to celebrate the addition of a parklet, a modest 208-square-foot public space jutting into what earlier that day had been an on-street parking spot.
The installation of the parklet was the first action of the People First Project for Michigan Avenue, a group of Corktown residents and business owners that hopes to inspire the long-term transformation of the seven-lane-wide thoroughfare into a people-centered street. Designed by architecture student Salam Rida and fabricated by artist Ben Wolf, the parklet was intended to match the features of the surrounding neighborhood and provide passersby, residents, and patrons of local businesses with a place to rest, relax, read, or whatever – in short, a place to simply be themselves. And for just over a week, people enjoyed Corktown's newest public space.
But on Saturday, September 5, workers from the Michigan Department of Transportation dismantled the parklet.
"I received an email from MDOT at 4 p.m. on Friday saying I had 24 hours to take down the parklet," says Chad Rochkind, the lead organizer of the People First Project. It being a holiday weekend, Rochkind was stuck. He wrote back to MDOT asking for more time or their help taking it down. They obliged by sending a crew, which dismantled the parklet piece-by-piece, removing the components to Rochkind's home in Southwest Detroit.
"For three hours while they were tearing [the parlet] down, people kept coming up to them and asking why they were doing it. Some people were literally in tears," says Rochkind.
Rochkind had informed MDOT of plans to install the parklet before it was constructed, but when he did not hear back from the agency, which is charged with maintaining Michigan Avenue, a U.S. Highway, he and others involved in the People First Project went ahead with the installation.
"There's no point of entry for getting a permit for something like this," he says. Rochkind notes the irony of how speedily MDOT reacted in removing the parklet in comparison to how slow it was to enter a conversation about permitting it.
"[People First] submitted some ideas and MDOT answered back with some suggested changes before a permit could be approved," writes MDOT communications person Diane Cross in an email. "[MDOT] believes the group took the ‘suggestions’ as being approval, and it was not. Permits are required by everyone for anything affecting an MDOT road."
Rochkind says he is undeterred by the parklet's removal.
"It was never about the parklet. It was about starting a long-term process for transforming Michigan Avenue."
If anything, MDOT's actions, he believes, have sped up that process. He says that State Representative Stephanie Chang's office is on board with the People First Project, and he hopes to enlist other local elected officials in the cause.
For now, however, Corktown has one more parking space than it did last month.
Matthew Lewis is Model D's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew. All photos by the author.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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