Tag Archives: Rightsizing

Rethinking rightsizing in North Corktown

N. Corktown - Established 1834

Rightsizing has been a buzzword in Detroit for at least a year and a half, but for all the talk so far, there’s been little focus on the actual neighborhoods of Detroit. Instead we keep hearing about the same mythical block. You know, the block that only has a single house left standing. The block the city can no longer afford to service. The block whose last resident refuses to move, so help her god.

We’ve allowed this one abstract example, grounded in no particular place, to drive the discussion, prompting supporters to call for relocation incentives and opponents to preemptively decry the return of urban renewal. But city blocks don’t exist in isolation–they exist in neighborhoods–and context makes a big difference. To get a real feel for how “rightsizing” ought to work (if it’s going to work at all) we need to look at specific neighborhoods that are overrun with open space — places like North Corktown, an actual neighborhood unique to Detroit that is putting its excess land to creative reuse.

Urban garden on Cochrane Street

On the surface, North Corktown seems like any other struggling area of Detroit. The western half of the neighborhood has lost so many residents that there are more open fields than houses. But increasingly, the overgrown grass is giving way to crops. Community gardening is less a trend here than a way of life. Urban farms dot the landscape. Brother Nature Produce and Detroit Evolution are both based here. So too is the great blog Little House on the Urban Prairie, which documents country living in the city.

On the east side of the neighborhood, a small town feel has been restored through infill housing and pocket parks. The residents there are active, organizing neighborhood patrols, fixing up abandoned property, and installing public art on empty lots. And city life is never further than a bike ride away. On Trumbull Street, the eastern boundary of the neighborhood, you can visit a Teamsters union hall, gamble at Motor City Casino, or gaze at the downtown skyline, which is only a mile away. The usual distinctions between city, town, and country have blurred together into one eclectic landscape.

Greenhouse

To be sure, the neighborhood is not a utopia. It still struggles with the familiar banes of Detroit living, including foreclosed homes, illegally dumped trash, and unmanageably tall grass at the peak of summer. But it has begun to tame its open spaces in a way that other neighborhoods in Detroit have failed to do. Furthermore, it has done so without displacing any residents, and without significant spending from the city. While North Corktown would no doubt welcome more investment, it has managed to gradually improve the quality of life through the cumulative impact of small projects and grassroots efforts, not the kind of major corporate or government-backed initiatives that would sweep existing buildings and residents aside to make way for new development.

That’s why North Corktown should be at the forefront of the “rightsizing” discussion. While relocation incentives might be the last resort for areas of Detroit that are both heavily abandoned and contaminated, they shouldn’t be the only option on the table. Instead we need to figure out how to work with what we have. Every Detroit neighborhood, no matter how devastated it may seem, has assets to manage. Brightmoor has the Rouge River, Eliza Howell Park, at least one enclave of strong housing, and dedicated community organizations. Jefferson-Chalmers has historic commercial buildings on Jefferson, proximity to shopping in the Grosse Pointes, and access to the Detroit River. These neighborhoods, too, can gradually find a way to recover, not by waiting for major developments that will never come but by limiting crime and reclaiming their open spaces.

Sculpture / Park

The key is that “rightsizing” need not connote one particular strategy. The word has been hijacked by the conspiratorially minded to connote downsizing, shrinking, or urban renewal. But what it should mean is community-based and community-driven reinvention, a la John Gallagher’s new book, Reimagining Detroit. Hopefully, this will be a focus of the next round of Detroit Works Project meetings: crafting sensible, affordable plans that will revitalize neighborhoods based on their specific needs and assets without displacing the few residents who have toughed it out over the years.

P.S. If you’re from North Corktown, I’d love to hear your perspective. Am I on to something or off base? Comment below or send me an email at cooper [at] rethinkdetroit [dot] org. If you’re not from North Corktown but want to learn more, start with the Corktown’s Residents Council and Inchernet, a new “living map” of the neighborhood. Also check out Soup at Spaulding for a taste of the activism going on. There’s also an ethnography, published in 1999, that touches on the racial history of the area.

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: Stop the sprawl

This is the second in an ongoing series on retrofitting metro Detroit for urbanism. Read the first here.

1920s Suburbia - Dearborn, MI

Great cities have great neighborhoods. But not only has Metro Detroit long neglected its most walkable, urban neighborhoods, it has actively undermined them through sprawl.

Despite the fact that population growth has been flat for forty years (there are fewer people in Metro Detroit today than there were in 1970), we’ve kept building new subdivisions. Metro Detroit is now 50% larger than it was in 1970. Think of the madness of that. Despite the fact we could all comfortably live in a fraction of that space — in suburban, single-family homes no less — we’ve kept pushing ever outward, leaving behind the communities at the region’s center.

These are the communities with the greatest potential for urbanism. Places likes Detroit, Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Ferndale. While generally car dependent today, they are centered around small downtowns and have walkable street grids. With the right reinvestment, these communities could create an urban alternative for Metro Detroit — an area where more people live in apartment buildings and condos than single-family homes, an area where it’s easy to walk to the store or bike to work.

1950s Suburbia - Warren, MI

But the sprawl of the region actively undermines this future. The problem is not suburban living per se — even Detroit proper is dominated by single family homes. The problem is that suburbia is so dominant and so overbuilt. For forty years, there have been more homes than households in Metro Detroit. So every time a new subdivision is built — and new ones are built all the time — older blocks of homes in less desirable areas lose value. They can’t compete with the lower taxes and bigger homes of the exurbs, and developers aren’t interested in reinvestment because it’s cheaper to build new. So these older blocks end up blighted or even abandoned.

Historically, most of the damage has been in Detroit. The Detroit Parcel Survey found that a third of all residential land in Detroit is now vacant — a figure that never ceases to astonish. But the blight is also visible in the ‘burbs. Older suburbs like Hazel Park and the southern end of Warren have long struggled to maintain their retail and commercial corridors. Dying malls and empty factories are becoming common sights. Post-housing bubble, they are struggling to keep houses occupied, too.

For the cycle to ever end, and for urban redevelopment to have a fighting chance, we need to curb regional sprawl. It’s the necessary counterpart to “rightsizing.” Consolidation of the urban core must be matched by growth controls at the edge. If it’s not — if we simultaneously build our urban corridors up and our suburban edge outward without population growth — we’ll only further squeeze the areas in the middle, letting more historic communities slip into needless decline. And the damage will increasingly be felt not in Detroit but in the older suburbs that most closely surround it.

2000s Suburbia: Macomb Township

Downsizing for density

Looking south at Mitchell and Medbury on the east side.

Looking south at Mitchell and Medbury on the east side.

Writing in Fast Company, Greg Lindsay argued this week that downsizing Detroit “won’t make Detroit any denser, but the opposite.” He then quotes The Baffler’s Will Boisvert at length for support. While I too am not totally comfortable with Bing’s rhetoric on rightsizing, I think there are enough misconceptions in Boisvert’s quote that it’s worth picking apart section by section. Let’s start at the top:

[As] rational as all this sounds, it hangs on a grotesque misunderstanding of Detroit’s predicament. Despite its ghost-town image, Detroit’s population density is still actually rather high by American standards. The city is half again as dense as Portland, Oregon, substantially denser than the booming Sunbelt cities of Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas, denser even than Pittsburgh–all of them places that adequately fund city services. Detroit’s problem is not underpopulation, but brute poverty, something that the grossly overstated efficiencies of shrinkage won’t alleviate.

It’s true that overall, Detroit is still denser than newer Sunbelt cities, even after losing half its population. Unfortunately, Detroit is no longer dense enough to support its own infrastructure. There are far too many streets, sidewalks, and sewers per person. The city is fiscally unsustainable, and as a consequence, depopulating neighborhoods are neglected, leading to environmental damage as well. Burned out homes are left standing; illegally dumped trash piles up in the streets. That’s why planners favor rightsizing — so Detroit can stabilize at a size it can afford to maintain and maybe start to grow again.

And for all its anti-sprawl rhetoric, shrinkism is extravagantly wasteful from the larger perspective of metropolitan land use. It hollows out the dense core of metro-area settlement under the assumption–the ugly, unstated postulate of shrinkage–that decent people can’t be enticed to live there.

“Shrinkism” is not responsible for hollowing out Detroit’s core; suburban flight and jobs loss are. Rightsizing is an attempt to deal with the consequences of the mass abandonment that has already taken place. Part of the solution, as Boisvert recommends, ought to be limiting further sprawl on the metro area’s edge. But even if that were politically possible, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Nor would simply building new housing in Detroit’s emptiest areas. It’s been tried, and the unfortunate truth is that when 100 new affordable homes are built in Detroit, dozens more are abandoned because net housing demand is essentially zero.

The reasons why demand is so low are well known: crime, poor schools, high taxes, lack of jobs, poor city services, limited retail, and so on. Problems like these can’t be tackled in isolation. There needs to be comprehensive change to bring any one neighborhood back, let alone revive the city as a whole. That’s why so many leaders here have come to favor rightsizing. They view this as an opportunity to focus concentrated resources on Detroit’s most promising corridors, creating the conditions that will finally make Detroit’s older neighborhoods once again safe, enriching places to live.

As city districts are razed and emptied, development is shunted, as usual, to cornfields on the exurban frontier, where people drive everywhere and nowhere–that’s the green part of the equation.

Rightsizing will not “shunt” development to the exurban fringe. That’s what’s happening already. Most of the neighborhoods we’re discussing haven’t seen significant investment since the 1950s. If nothing is done, they will continue to deteriorate and the exurban fringe will continue to grow. If they can once again be made dense and sustainable, in part through consolidation, Detroit might have a fighting chance to compete against suburban neighborhoods by providing a safe, viable urban alternative.

How Kresge plans to reconfigure Detroit

For more than a year now, there’s been growing talk of “rightsizing” Detroit–consolidating the city in some fashion to restore density and make it easier to deliver city services. Just this Tuesday Model D published an op-ed in favor of consolidating Detroit around key corridors and neighborhoods. Now, for the first time, there might be real money behind the idea. On Monday, Crain’s Detroit reported that the Kresge Foundation is offering to fund a citywide master plan to guide the shrinking of the city:

In four to six months, Detroit could have the broad-brush outlines of a land use plan that encompasses the principles of shrinking the city by consolidating investment in key neighborhoods — if Detroit Mayor Dave Bing accepts an offer from a metro Detroit foundation to fund the creation of such a plan.

Bing told Crain’s last August that resizing the city is one of his top priorities. Administration officials are engaged in preliminary discussions with the foundation community, said Edward Cardenas, Bing’s press secretary, adding that the mayor had planned to begin studying land use issues in the first quarter of this year.

That the city must shrink is beyond debate, said Rip Rapson, president of the Troy-based Kresge Foundation, which has offered to fund the plan. And a land use plan is crucial to developing viable long-term strategies.

This is big news for Detroit. It also confirms a growing suspicion of mine: Detroit’s most influential civic leaders don’t work in City Hall; they work for major foundations. The Kresge Foundation above all is on a mission to restructure Detroit, and it has the money and vision to do it. Scan through the latest annual report. In just the past few years, Kresge, along with other foundations, has funded the remake of the riverfront, the Dequindre Cut, and the Argonaut Building and is a major backer of the upcoming light rail line, the Next Economy Initiative, and the Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative.

In November, Kresge’s president, Rip Rapson, laid out the binding vision behind all these initiatives in a speech called “A Different View of Detroit.” I’m pasting an excerpt below, but this is one you should read in full. This could well be Detroit’s future:

The second broad theme of the nine modules of work is infrastructure. It centers largely around the issue of land use in Detroit, the lynchpin for re-imagining the kind of city Detroit will be twenty years from now.

If you draw a map of Detroit and then you stick in Boston, stick in Manhattan, stick in San Francisco, and stick in a little part of Saint Paul, you still have room left over. This is an enormous city. Its geography far outstrips its governance capacity. There are all sorts of implications, but at the end of the day, Detroit simply has to shrink in order to grow. That’s a complex undertaking. You have to re-purpose land. You have to re-imagine how you deploy public resources. You have to engage residents in all aspects and at every stage.

If there was ever an issue in Detroit in which philanthropy could play a critical role, it’s here. Land use is the third rail of municipal politics; political folks can’t get near this and live to tell about it. As a result, our staff at Kresge and others have begun drawing on the experience of New Orleans and of European cities to try to figure out how, over the next year, we can make tangible progress in developing a framework that is sufficiently bold, yet sufficiently realistic, to give rise to a very different map of Detroit.