A Vision For Growth and Conservation In The Village of Berrien Springs & Oronoko Charter Township, Michigan

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Location: Berrien Springs, Michigan. Small historic settlement


The design team self-initiated this project with the purpose of illustrating and explaining a positive vision for growth in the Village of Berrien Springs and Oronoko Charter Township, Michigan. The team chose six different sites that were identified to be underutilized, have future development potential, and/or are being promoted for future development by existing entitlements and local officials. The six project sites were also chosen to demonstrate a broad range of urban strategy types and range from 12 to 250 acres in size. Because the local population and economic opportunities have been slightly declining in recent years, local officials are aggressively searching for future investment and development opportunities. There is also a growing recognition that the extended infrastructure of suburban sprawl is not fiscally sustainable and is failing to meet market demand - home buyers, renters, and businesses are simply moving to other parts of the county. This project is therefore not a proposal to be implemented as a whole, but rather illustrates different strategies for the community to consider as economic opportunities evolve.

The Village of Berrien Springs is a small historic settlement that has its roots in agriculture and its former role as the county seat. It’s current population of about 2,000 lives within a mostly walkable village fabric of just under one square mile. While the village includes all amenities necessary for daily life, it’s population and economic health are slowly declining. The village is land-locked and must grow from within to attract new investment, but local misconceptions about growth and unhelpful policies have pushed most new investment outside of the village in the last 60 years. The village does serve as an anchor for the broader rural community, as it includes the public schools and its important high school football team, a community library, a historic downtown with restaurants, a critical hardware store, and a full grocery store. Its location at the bridge over the Saint Joseph River also guarantees a steady flow of county traffic on M-139, much of which is due to a growing denominational university outside of the village. Many university students rent apartments in the village and some faculty owns homes there, but the limited availability of diverse, quality dwellings has pushed many residents into the surrounding township and beyond.

Oronoko Charter Township completely surrounds the Village of Berrien Springs on the western side of the river. Most of its land is dedicated to profitable agriculture, including primarily grapes and apples. Parts of the county and the township have become significant wine and agricultural tourism destinations, especially to people from Chicago (about 100 miles distance). However, the township has a population of about 9,600, most of which is concentrated immediately around Berrien Springs, which is the postal address and shapes the identity of most residents. The township’s principal roads include M-139, along which are a growing denominational university (about 3,500 students) and the Berrien County Youth Fair grounds - one of the largest youth fairs in the Midwest and a core anchor for agricultural and community life. The fair grounds are soon expected to include one of the largest indoor equestrian arena in the Midwest, which would also be used for other events. Most of the township, which administers its own zoning ordinance, is rural agricultural or conventional suburban sprawl, and township officials are looking for alternative ways of leveraging existing and proposed infrastructure. This is especially true near the fair grounds and the US-31 highway interchange, which is being proposed for sewer service. The design team was encouraged to work with representatives of a major corporation which is considering the highway interchange as a office headquarters location. Furthermore, a recently updated township masterplan explicitly asks for compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and supports FBCs, specifically on the two most rural sites chosen by the design team. However, past public debates and votes have been divided about the future role of development, partly to preserve the agricultural character and economy, but also because the physical nature of potential growth has been undefined.

This project is intended to persuasively illustrate a positive vision for how growth can take place while preserving and promoting valuable farmland, community character and identity, infrastructure leveraging, practical development solutions, investment in local jobs, and a diverse range of dwelling opportunities.


Response to Charter Principles:


Charter Principle 5. Where appropriate, new development contiguous to urban boundaries should be organized as neighborhoods and districts, and be integrated with the existing urban pattern. Noncontiguous development should be organized as towns and villages with their own urban edges, and planned for a jobs/housing balance, not as bedroom suburbs.

This is one of the principal goals of the project: to demonstrate how a broad range of growth opportunities can be accommodated effectively by the structure and form of urban neighborhoods. The proposals include most of the common elements found Traditional Neighborhood Development, but they also feature parking plazas, an urban gas station with the pumps out front, big box retrofits, a major corporate office tenant integrated into urbanism, highway visibility, live/work opportunities for trades people such as mechanics, light industrial opportunities, and agricultural preserves as part of an agrarian TND.

Charter Principle 13. Within neighborhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.

All six sites emphasize the broadening of existing housing opportunities. There is a significant un-met market demand for small senior dwellings, low-maintenance fee-simple homes such as rowhouses, quality homes for faculty and upper-middle class residents of the area, and apartments for students. Many of these people currently live outside of the village and the township and commute simply because the options do not exist locally. This project intends to demonstrate how this diversity of types can be complimentary and can leverage existing infrastructure rather promoting more sprawl.

Charter Principle 18. A range of parks, from tot-lots and village greens to ballfields and community gardens, should be distributed within neighborhoods. Conservation areas and open lands should be used to define and connect different neighborhoods and districts.

The proposal includes a wide variety of public open spaces, each one uniquely suited for its particular context. A downtown market square doubles as a grocery store parking plaza. Unused green spaces along a main corridor are reshaped to make them safer and more useful for activity. A gas station is reshaped as a privately owned but publicly accessible plaza environment to strengthen the significant social and economic activity that already occurs there (not everyone minds the fumes, especially rural folks with pick-ups and muscle cars), partly due to a nearby football field. A strip center is retrofitted with a parking plaza, a neighborhood greens, tot-lots, and frontages onto athletic fields and community gardens. A new corporate office headquarters benefits from its prestigious location on a public square, which doubles as a Light Imprint stormwater management tool. And an agrarian TND includes a wide range of public open spaces, including agricultural and wildlife preserves.

Charter Principle 22. In the contemporary metropolis, development must adequately accommodate automobiles. It should do so in ways that respect the pedestrian and the form of public space.

All six site proposals are very conscious of the presence of automobiles, pick-ups, and trucks - essential modes of transportation for rural people. Look for parking plazas, drive-thrus, local urban access lanes flanking highways, large on-site lots lining US-31, and detailed parking strategy diagrams to enable off-site, on-site, and shared parking.

Canons Principle 3 (Neighborhood, Town & City). Prime and unique farmland shall be protected and conserved.

This is one of the principal purposes of promoting compact, walkable, mixed-use development in this place, and is supported by promoting farmer’s markets, community gardens, access to the youth fair and an agrarian TND.



Lessons Learned: 


Some of the most significant lessons grew out of the student team’s interaction with local officials, citizens, and potential investors. To the student’s surprise, it demonstrated on one hand how responsive rural people can be to the principles and techniques of compact, walkable, and mixed-use urbanism. On the other hand it underscored the need for practicality, especially in regards to incremental implementation and the transition from auto-centricity to the co-existence of cars and pedestrians. It also revealed how important it can be to connect the dots between placemaking, aesthetics, and economic value, especially in regards to tourism, upper-middle-class investment, and a corporate headquarter’s locating decision. Additionally, the process showed how many locals and officials were truly frustrated by the same pedestrian safety issues, especially regarding their children.

The design team learned that good urbanism matters in a real and tangible way to even the most ordinary rural community. That many people care about whether the farmland is preserved for future generations, whether the downtown is walkable as a destination for fishermen dressed in camo and Chicagoans looking for that authentic experience, whether the events surrounding the Friday night football games are supported by vibrant urbanism, whether the visitors to the fair will stay a little while to spend more money in town, whether local university students have a third place, whether, the car (and pick-up) and the pedestrian can co-exist, whether the historic architecture has economic value, whether development can accommodate business and jobs from corporate offices to mechanics, and whether the locals can live in diverse dwelling types supported by quality urban spaces, so that their kids can decide to stay rather than leave after high school.

This project is an attempt to stay grounded in this reality. Some of the sites include big proposals - perhaps too big - but only because this community is aggressive about its long-term goals. The student team hopes that this project can serve as a toolbox and motivating image for future deliberation and decision-making. In a time when big cities and metropolitan sustainability get a lot of attention, this small place asks whether there may be an unrecognized value in sustaining strong rural communities precisely because of their ordinary redundancy.




Transect Zone(s): T2 rural.
Status: Proposed
Project or Plan's Scale: Town
Land area (in acres): 466
Total built area (in sq. ft.):
Total project cost (in local currency):
Retail area (in sq. ft.):
Office area (in sq. ft.):
Industrial area (in sq. ft.):
Number of hotel units:
Number of residential units (include live/work): 3652
Parks & green space (in acres):
Residential types: Townhouse/rowhouse/maisonette, Live/work.
Project team designers: School of Architecture, Andrews University
Project team developers: N/A

Previous site status:

Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: -