Islands of hope

City of Detroit

The Detroit Master Plan of Policies delivered to the City Council in 1990, contained a vivid depiction of how the city might look in the 21st Century. The futuristic document saw empty downtown streets transformed into bustling commercial boulevards, new office buildings, high-tech industry, skywalks, and commuter cars crammed with people. Restaurants, theaters and cultural events would be unlimited. Neighborhoods would be safe and vibrant. Each element in this quixotic showplace environment would enhance and complement the other.

Sadly, this strategic dream produced only islands of hope. Revitalization throughout the city has been characterized by starts, stops and disappointment.

Fast-forward to 2012 and a new group of reformers led by Quicken Loans head Dan Gilbert who are again trying to convert Detroit into a primetime economic powerhouse. Gilbert has purchased nine downtown buildings to create a hub for technology. Quicken Loans, Blue Cross Blue Shield, DTE Energy and Chrysler Group LLC have collectively committed to relocating close to 10,000 workers from suburbs to the central business district.

The Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC) recently announced exciting plans for the section of downtown called the Capital Park District. The DEGC has other “hot” development plans in the hopper. The M-1 Rail group of private firms and philanthropic foundations committed millions toward a light-rail project they hope will link downtown with the New Center area.

These renewal efforts, while encouraging, mostly represent wistful thinking. A lack of realism undercuts what amounts to scatter-shot developments that will likely end up like other monuments and relics from trying to force-feed economic growth.

The RenCen underlines the vulnerability of a redevelopment strategy that relies too heavily on politically spectacular building projects. When Ford Motor Co. built the $350 million edifice complex in the 1970s, it was proclaimed as the keystone in the revitalization of Detroit’s riverfront. GM subsequently bought it for a fantastically cut rate price.

Almost four years after the Westin Book Cadillac hotel opened with a $180 million restoration, it narrowly missed defaulting on a $15 million loan. The original lender pulled out, the luxury condo market collapsed and occupancy rates fell short of projections.

While the Doubletree Hotel also struggles with raised expectations and low occupancy, developers are planning to reopen the old Ponchartrain Hotel, which went bottom up several years ago. A Canadian company just purchased the venerable Penobscot Building as other companies play musical chairs from one downtown location to another, as in the case of Comerica Bank.

Economic nirvana, it would appear, is not just around the corner. What planners won’t say publicly is that if downtown Detroit was a desirable place for hotel expansions, shopping malls, a Mecca for residential lofts, apartments, etc., investors would have already made them happen. Clearly, the market for these amenities is not here.

In a very basic way, Detroit is no longer a geographic, economic, social and politically important city. And in the 21st Century, it may no longer be meaningful to talk about restoring the downtown to one we fondly remember.

A high-tech, highly mobile society requires a downtown center radically different than the traditional big city. Today, banks and other corporations operate electronically  from almost anywhere. With exception of the poor, shoppers have the finances and the means of transportation to take them to retail venues near and far.

The contemporary downtown regional model may be in Troy. It includes the upscale, mega-Somerset Collection mall surrounded by new glass-walled corporate headquarters, hotels, residential homes, apartments, restaurants, etc. Troy also is an attractive location for middle-class families, the social glue of any growth area. Troy reaps the benefits of planning that comes from the understanding that neighborhoods – not downtowns — define most cities .

It is more romantic than feasible to try and rebuild downtown Detroit into one that is again business rich and commercial active.  But Troy offers a useful benchmark in mapping Detroit’s recovery effort.

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