Monthly Archives: September 2010

Righting the rightsizing process

On Tuesday the Detroit Works Project kicked off with a mass meeting at Greater Grace Temple on the far west side. Nearly a thousand Detroiters answered the mayor’s call, filling every seat and lining every wall of a huge room at the church. The energy in the crowd was palpable as the mayor’s deputies took to the podium, but the promise of the first few minutes soon gave way to confusion and frustration. Expecting a presentation, the crowd was instead told to break into smaller groups to brainstorm the city’s future. The unexpected (and unfocused) format led to discord, with angry voices calling out, “This is not what we came for!”

The breakout groups were overcrowded and loud. The facilitators struggled to keep order, and not every room had a microphone, forcing some residents to shout to be heard. In my group, the facilitator, a community liaison from the Skillman Foundation, asked the audience to envision what the city would look like in 20 years. Most of those called upon ignored the prompt and focused on their current frustrations, airing grievances, asking pointed questions, and demanding action from the city now. Only after Mayor Bing addressed our group in person did the session take a more productive turn, with residents volunteering suggestions from rehabbing abandoned buildings to giving neighborhoods access to broadband. Just as the conversation got going, however, the evening came to an end.

It was an inauspicious start for a process expected to last 18 months and result in the reshaping of the city. The format was off-putting, the facilitators were unprepared for the size of the crowd, and residents’ incoming concerns about the process itself were not addressed from the get-go. That created space for the mayor’s doubters and outright opponents to seize the floor and take control of the discussion.

If Mayor Bing hopes to salvage these meetings, he will need to address the full audience at the beginning, not the end, and directly address the fears and concerns that have arisen on the question of shrinking, downsizing, or rightsizing the city. While they weren’t the loudest voices, many in the large and diverse crowd seemed open to long term reform, but they wanted to understand what the options were and whether they could trust the mayor to respect the community’s concerns. Bing needs to speak directly to these residents and win their trust and participation. If he can marshal their support and solicit their ideas, the Detroit Works Project might actually live up to some of its ambitions.

Retrofitting Detroit: Connect the dots

This is the last in a series on retrofitting metro Detroit for urbanism. Also see the first, second, and third.

Willis Street in the Cass Corridor / Midtown Detroit. Courtesy of Andrew Jameson @ Wikipedia.

When people think of Metro Detroit, the images that come to mind are of urban decay on the one hand and sprawl on the other. But the makings of a great city–one with walkable neighborhoods and lively streets–are hidden here in plain sight. From the skyscrapers of downtown Detroit to the busy main streets of suburbs like Ferndale and Royal Oak, the building blocks are in place for a truly regional “city” that transcends conventional boundaries.

For more than a decade now, urban life has been making a comeback in Metro Detroit. You can see it along the Riverwalk downtown. You can see it on Vernor Avenue. You can see it on Cass. You can see it on Nine Mile in Ferndale and Main Street in Royal Oak. People are out walking the streets, eating in sidewalk cafes, shopping, and going to work. They’re moving into lofts and riding their bikes more, enjoying these pockets of urban renaissance.

Unfortunately, these pockets have remained just that–isolated pockets that don’t add up to a greater whole. But with the addition of rapid transit, we could go from a simulacrum of urban life to the real thing, creating several corridors of urban development that bridge the city/suburban divide and make urban living a safe, attractive, and affordable option for all those who desire it.

Main and Fourth Street - Downtown Royal Oak. Courtesy of joelwashing @ Flickr.

While several corridors have tremendous potential–Michigan Avenue out to Dearborn and Jefferson Avenue out to the Pointes both come to mind–the most promising is the Woodward Corridor from downtown to Birmingham. Rapid transit down the length of Woodward would connect a long line of historic, walkable neighborhoods together, from Boston Edison to Berkley. It would also connect major hospitals, several dozen cultural institutions, and hundreds of thousands of people. While the corridor wouldn’t become “urban” overnight, it would immediately boost the areas that are already urbanizing, like Midtown and downtown Ferndale, and create the opportunity for other communities to pursue similar redevelopment.

If fully realized, an urbanized Woodward corridor could realign our region in several fundamental ways. First, it could make living without a car an attractive option again. Since the 1950s, when the streetcars stopped running, it has been difficult to find work, get to school, or grocery shop without a car. But if transit were rapid and efficient on Woodward (with ample bus connections to nearby communities), you could easily, say, live in Ferndale, take classes at Wayne, and work at Beaumont. Or live in Boston Edison, work in an office downtown, and go out for the night in Royal Oak. All without ever using a car.

Second, it will make tourists easier to attract. If you visit our tourism website today, you’ll see how hard it struggles to define the region, drawing as much attention to “North Oakland” and “Macomb” as Downtown Detroit. The Woodward Corridor will be far easier to market to out of town visitors because it will span city and suburb and connect most of our major attractions together. Visitors could walk the riverfront, take an architecture tour downtown, see museums in Midtown, spend an afternoon at the Detroit Zoo, and go out to eat in Ferndale, Royal Oak, or Birmingham — all without worrying about parking or directions.

Downtown Birmingham. Courtesy of ifmuth @ Flickr.

Third, it will create a meaningful and lasting linkage between Detroit and its suburbs that will help foster regional planning and development. Beginning with a regional transit authority, rapid transit on Woodward could be the catalyst Metro Detroit needs to start thinking and acting like a region. A continuous stretch of urban development from Detroit to its suburbs could help disabuse people of the notion that the suburbs can survive without the city or vice versa. We’re one region, and we rise or sink together. Woodward could be the focal point that makes that argument obvious and fosters regional pride.

Obviously, none of this is preordained. It’s not assured yet that Metro Detroit will even build a regional rail system, and if it does build one, whether it will be fast and effective enough to spark development. Nor is it clear how receptive the different communities along the path will be to a more concerted effort at urbanization. Lingering racial and political fears, too, could prevent the kind of cooperation needed to spark corridor-wide redevelopment. But this is the best case scenario we should be striving for–a world class “city” in Metro Detroit spanning both Detroit proper and its suburbs, starting with Woodward Avenue and spreading to the other spokes in years to come.