A “village” concept for Detroit?

City of Detroit

The cavalry and bulldozers are slated to be deployed in Detroit as part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s commitment to put more cops on the street and raze dilapidated buildings to help with the distressed city’s revitalization. But more than the governor’s good intentions, a strategic plan, meticulously crafted into a “village” concept can turn Detroit around.

It starts with an idea first proposed in the 1990s by then-Detroit Ombudsman Marie Farrell-Donaldson and more recently advanced by Mayor Dave Bing and his Detroit Works Project.

Farrell-Donaldson raised eyebrows by suggesting that with a little imagination the city could maximize scarce and inefficient resources by letting depopulated areas go back to seed. After relocating people out of sparsely populated neighborhoods, services could be channeled to areas where there was a critical mass of citizens. A good idea has morphed into a better idea.

Since then, the city’s population decline has surpassed even dire projections by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) of falling to 800,000 by 2010. It’s below that now and hasn’t bottomed out.

This out migration predictably takes a toll on all aspects of city life, particularly neighborhoods. Detroit’s housing stock has shrunk on average about 6,000 homes a year for the past half-century. Despite a handful of mostly new low-income housing starts, abandonment continues to outpace the city’s best demolition efforts. The city may own half of all properties within its boundaries.

Land developers aren’t making a mad dash to buy vacant, useless property. Nor is there any indication that home buyers are invading blighted areas looking for deals. Even those most committed to the revitalization of the city would be hard pressed to find anything salvageable in neighborhoods being swallowed by decay.

As it turns out, Mayor Bing’s recovery vision wasn’t entirely pie-in-the sky. Relocating citizens from destitute areas, razing time-worn dwellings and concentrating essential services into small geographic areas has its advantages. But Farrell-Donaldson’s recommendation also made sense in that she saw the city better able to amass land and prepare the vacated sites for future development.

Where the mayor came up short was that he was narrowly focused on the long-term big picture and not focused enough on critical short-term issues. Before embarking on his elaborate scheme, he needed to demonstrate that he could execute some of the basics

Most cities are defined by their neighborhoods. What most makes Detroit unattractive for people, business retention, expansion and relocation is a deadly combination declining services, high taxes, crime and violence.

No revitalization plan can succeed if government can’t stop productive citizens from rushing for the exits out of frustration, fear or a desperate search for a quality of life Detroit can no longer offer.

Detroit may have a chance for a comeback if the mayor’s plan for condensed usable land is accompanied by new housing starts in “village-like” enclaves within the larger city. These self-contained, gated areas – preferably located adjacent and growing out from the downtown area along the riverfront– could simultaneously feature mixed-use market-rate housing complete with restaurants, bars, galleries, nightclubs, boutiques and recreation amenities.

The core of each of these “cities within the city” may look like what you find, for example in downtown Plymouth, MI, where on a Sunday summer morning you could gather with your family and friends in the proverbial urban square.

Out of necessity, “tiny towns” with their own identifies would also have to have their own schools (DPS czar Roy Roberts should drool over that prospect). Separate police and fire services would ensure these distinct communities have a safe and special feel.

As spokespersons for the governor have noted, a forward-thinking model like this would require a “broad, far reaching collaborative effort.” There is no “ideal” Detroit rehab plan. But the significant first step is to remove the political and physical obstacles to creative development planning. Otherwise, we may never see a promising image of a “new” Detroit become reality.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *