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.

5 thoughts on “Retrofitting Detroit: Connect the dots

  1. Pingback: Retrofitting Metro Detroit for urbanism | Rethink Detroit

  2. Jon Martin

    I totally agree Cooper – the city needs light rail out to at least Royal Oak and commuter rail out to Pontiac, like it had until 1983 when Reagan axed the subsidies. My Dad’s actually of the opinion the should electrify the rail line from Detroit to Pontiac, in-fill some new stations, and run it as a rapid transit system. If they could get that SEMCOG project out to Ann Arbor that would also be huge, even if Ann Arbor is determined that it isn’t really part of the metro area. The other corridors you name also have potential. The biggest hurdle I see is still that the suburbs and Detroit run separate transit networks. DDOT’s busses and SMART need to be merged if any meaningful cooperation is going to happen.

  3. Patrick Morris

    Do you see this light rail system expanding and moving to the other spokes in Detroit’s hub and spoke design? Should the evolution of transportation lines, and the associated people and business you reference, mimic Detroit’s nascent 19th century road planning?

    Maybe we should think about this “Woodward” in the first place. The road is named after Augustus B. Woodward, the Michigan Territory’s first Chief Justice who modeled the city, after the fire in 1805, on L’Enfant’s vision of Washington DC. He stayed in Detroit during the British occupation in the War of 1812, and even declined the offer of Secretary of the Territory under British rule. He wrote a blueprint for the University of Michigan’s creation and based his University on his friend Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Some things we should know.

    Perhaps most interesting is that the hub-and-spoke plan was abandoned in Detroit after eleven years. L’enfant, the original planner for DC, was dismissed by Washington. Reading a study into these short histories would be enlightening. Regardless, it’s incredible to think about what the plan could create and marvel at its simple and elegant 1790s geometry. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:L%27Enfant_plan.jpg and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Old_map_1807_plan.jpg .

    What about a passenger line across the Detroit River to Canada? Lessening the geographic constraint could allow the region to realize the full potential you promote. Again, we’re back to a unique definition of “region.” Why should Royal Oak be considered a part of the region if it’s ten miles away, and Windsor, just across the River, be forgotten? Canada could probably pay some of our share, like they have offered for the Detroit International River Crossing (DRIC). Now we’re back to politics. Our politicians are busy listening to the purely self-interested opinions of private bridge owners and deciding if taxpayers will be harmed. Canada, unlike Michigan, realizes the incredible international border asset it has in its own backyard.

    Also, we can’t forget about effective buses. A good light rail system needs feeder buses to bring people from the neighborhoods to the light rail stations.

  4. The Lead Czar

    It’s exciting to witness the energy and hopefulness of those who have not given up on Detroit and who want to be a part of its renewal, however, I fear that in their zeal they may unknowingly take risks which stake the health of their families. In Detroit there are about 274,000 occupied homes built before 1978 – when lead was banned from gasoline and paint. As young adults reclaim these and abandoned properties for rehabilitation, it is important that they do so with health at the top of their list of priorities. Young, capable, creative people often have the courage to take on tasks of renovating and remodeling without sufficient understanding of potential hazards. It may be obvious that a broken window needs to be replaced, a sewerage drain needs to be snaked, or that a broken step needs to be repaired, but serious health hazards such as lead-based paint dust or hidden mold may escape their estimation of work that needs to be done. As people follow their dreams to restore older properties, they must not assume they are protected by laws which require disclosure of such hazards during the sales transaction. They cannot assume that the city has inspected or declared the property safe. Please spread the word that the cost of a thorough lead risk assessment and lead inspection (about $300-$500) is nothing compared to a lifetime of lost opportunity for a child that has been poisoned by even a tiny amount of lead.

  5. James

    Cooper,

    This was a really thoughtful and interesting series. While I do think that commuter rail would be a good first step for metro Detroit I have to question if the region is ready for it from a practical standpoint, in terms of congestion and density. I would be interested in feedback as it is an issue I am currently trying to explore in detail – I have a post on Thursday that attempts to examine this. Still I think you are on the right track regarding infill, retrofitting, and building more dense mixed use parcels. Cheers.

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