Category Archives: Transit

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.

Retrofitting Metro Detroit for urbanism

When friends come back from trips to Chicago, they often lament that Detroit is not a “real city.” As quick as I am to protest — we have great parks, renowned museums, incredible architecture, huge festivals, immigrant enclaves, and more, don’t we? — I know exactly what they mean. Detroit may have all the components of a major city, but it lacks the connective tissue, the urban fabric, to tie it all together. Even Detroit’s most hyped urban neighborhoods are pockmarked with empty buildings, and the region’s growing suburban downtowns lack real diversity and remain isolated from each other.

In the next few posts, I’d like to explore what it would take to create a cohesive urban corridor in Metro Detroit out of the hodge podge of development we have today. Doing so, I think, will involve at least three major steps. I’ll explore each of these in turn in the next few weeks:

  1. Stop the sprawl. Metro Detroit’s population hasn’t risen in forty years, yet we keep subsidizing sprawl. It’s time to focus on redeveloping the city and retrofitting existing suburbs instead.
  2. Complete urban neighborhoods. Metro Detroit has the building blocks for urbanism, from Midtown to Hamtramck to suburban Main Streets like 9 Mile in Ferndale. We just need to develop them.
  3. Link them together with rapid transit. Starting with Woodward, rapid transit could bind Metro Detroit’s many hubs of urban activity together, forming a single urban corridor to anchor the region.

My hope is that this series of posts will spark a broader discussion about the future of Detroit. For too long, we’ve elected politicians without vision for the region. It’s time to start thinking seriously about what Detroit could become and what we need to do to get it there.

Seen in Detroit today

You have to give this guy some credit. It’s thirty degrees, snowing, and the middle of rush hour, and he’s hauling a bed, a couch, and two chairs down Warren on a bicycle — and making quick work of it, too.

Headed east on Warren pulling a bed, a couch, and two chairs.

Off he goes down Ferry Street. Final destination unknown.

What light rail will do for Detroit

After seeing “Beyond the Motor City,” the new PBS documentary on the future of mass transit in Detroit, I’ve been thinking more about what light rail can realistically do for the city. The first segment, after all, will only run 3.1 miles along Woodward, from Downtown out to the New Center. So won’t this end up being the People Mover Part Two — a monorail to nowhere, a la The Simpsons?

I firmly believe the answer is no. For one thing, the light rail line actually goes somewhere. Unlike the People Mover, which circles an area that’s already walkable without adding anything besides a view, the light rail line will bridge several distinct neighborhoods that collectively include nearly all of Detroit’s major institutions. For another, unlike the People Mover, the light rail line has a built-in constituency. Thousands of people already take the bus along Woodward every day.

Most importantly, though, the light rail line has the potential to revitalize the urban core in a way that the People Mover never did. That’s because the area is already undergoing slow, steady, undeniable progress. Unlike downtown in the 1980s, the Woodward corridor is not a dying district. Despite the national recession and the decade-long local depression, the area continues to rebuild, one storefront at a time.

I see it everyday as I walk through Midtown: Leopold’s Books, Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes, City Bird, Kim’s Produce, Shangri La, the Burton Theater — six new businesses in just the past year! And many more projects are underway, from the Green Garage business incubator on Second Avenue to the Garden Block restoration on Woodward. This is a walkable, urban area that has only begun to realize its potential.

And yet … it still lacks density. Despite all the development, despite the tight urban street grid, it’s hard to shake the sense that so far it doesn’t quite cohere. That’s where light rail comes in. Until it’s extended, the 3.1 mile starter line will be too short to bring in waves of new commuters. But it can serve as the backbone to the corridor, bridging its disparate parts and focusing new development along its twelve stops. It may take another decade or more to get there, but Detroit’s urban core can once again be a dense, thriving area, just as it was through the 1950s, when streetcars last crisscrossed its streets.

Follow Rethink Detroit on Twitter

Yes, it’s come to this. Rethink Detroit has a Twitter feed.

I’m a skeptic of the medium, too, but I plan to make the most of it. I’ll be posting links every day as well as quick commentary when I don’t have time to write a formal post. You can read the updates on the right hand side of the blog or follow along directly at twitter.com/rethinkdetroit.

Introducing “Rethink Detroit”

After two years blogging at Think Detroit, I’ve decided to start fresh with a new blog hosted at its own domain. The focus will again be on the revitalization of Detroit, but I’ll be taking a more personal approach, writing about life in Detroit as well as the emerging trends that promise to transform it, from creative enterprise to rightsizing. As a young person living in Midtown and a serious student of Detroit present and past, I hope I can offer a fresh perspective on the city, at once honest and optimistic.

So please follow along and comment frequently as the blog unfolds!