Buzz growing as Motown’s Downtown Population Grows, learn more at CNU XV's Detroit Sessions

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Corey Williams documents the growing demand for retail in Downtown Detroit in the Detroit Free Press on May 5 in
Downtown Detroit retail lags despite rise in residents
. More than 2,400 new units have been developed in the downtown since 2000 and another 1,700 are expected in the next couple of years. The new downtown residents would like to see more retail within walking distance of their homes and offices. Naomi Oglesby, a downtown resident, discussed the lack of general shopping facilities, "I'm used to the drive to the suburbs, but it would be heaven if there was no drive."

Williams sites a recent Brookings Institution Market Study that was conducted with the help of Chris Leinberger at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Research indicated that 125,000 sq ft of grocery space is needed to serve the growing downtown residential population. With that, another 389,000 sq ft is needed to support additional retail needs like clothing, furniture, and hardware supplies.

Research from the Brookings Institution Market Study, Downtown Detroit In Focus: A Profile of Market Opportunity, was brought into the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning's ninth annual Design Charrette. Led by Doug Kelbaugh, 5-D: Adding Three Dimensions to Downtown Detroit divided professionals and students into groups for an in-depth focus of design and policy steps for distinct areas of the downtown.

For the first time, New Urbanists will focus on Detroit in two sessions at CNU XV. The Detroit Sessions will provide participants with a background on the city, the current real estate climate, and examples of recent successes. In line with this year’s theme of New Urbanism and the Old City, discussions on Detroit will highlight the progress that is being made in the city and how new urbanism can help redevelopment efforts.

In The Detroit Sessions Part 1: Downtown Development Strategies at 9:15 – 10:30 am on Saturday, May 19, join Mark Nickita, an architect working in downtown Detroit, as he moderates a discussion between Doug Kelbaugh, Maurice Cox, and Chris Leinberger who will talk about the recent research and proposals stemming from the design charrette.

Then stick around as the discussion moves to Midtown, a neighborhood just north of downtown along Woodward Avenue. In The Detroit Sessions Part II: Detroit Developers and Their Projects at 11 am, Doug Kelbaugh will moderate a discussion between Detroiters actively involved with the neighborhood’s regeneration. Peter Zeiler will start it off with a discussion of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation’s efforts. Sue Mosey will discuss the significant progress the University Cultural Center Association has made connecting the neighborhoods with Wayne State University, the College for Creative Studies, and the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Engineering Society of Detroit. Herb Strather, President of Strather & Associates, and Dwight Belyue, President of Belmar Development Group, will discuss their work as private developers in the city.

Study areas of the UM TCAUP Detroit Charrette in 2007.


Detroit finding its way back

During World War II Detroit led the world in the production of war material. Here's how Detroit's main drag, Woodward Avenue looked in 1946.

My parents honeymooned there that year at the swank Book Cadillac Hotel. Detroit's population has been halved since 1950 and vast areas lay wasted. But, as you point out the valence is changing. Capital is edging back into the Motor City.

It will be fascinating to see how quickly Detroit can recover. Detroit has some great architecture (what's left of it) laid out over the Gratiot Plan downtown and the Woodward Plan citywide. Many BIG solutions have been tried, with mixed results, like convention center expansions, sports venues and gambling casinos. I sense though that the smaller scale private sector investment is slowly finding its way to Detroit and the renaissance that improved New York, Chicago and San Francisco is just over the horizon. My suggestion to Detroit is to embrace the city's urban complexity and stop trying to compete with the suburbs for car mobility. The last thing Detroit needs is another freeway or even a wider street. In fact traffic congestion should be Detroit's least pressing concern. Detroit needs more traffic congestion and certainly more people not less.

Other issues, the real Detroit problem.

Detroit is very interesting. From the time I first went to visit in early 2005 to the time I graduated from Univ of Michigan at the end of 2006, the downtown had completely changed. During my first visit I remember being thrown back by the site of one run down house per block around the new Tiger's stadium. The prairie had taken the block back it, and it was a surreal sight. By the time I had left, Comerica Park was completely surrounded with new housing.

However, the problems with Detroit is it is not all about the urban form. It is still economic and political. First the city and its regional economics is solely dependent on the auto industry. Everyday I day I lived in Michigan there was a news story about how another automobile company was laying people off. It was depressing. This speaks volumes for the need for economic diversity. We have figured this out socially and with housing types, but some communities still don't get it. I am curious to see what happened to Houston and Dallas when the oil dries up. Will their economies go the way of Detroit?

The other issue with Detroit is the policies and politics. Professor Dewar at the Univ of Michigan's Urban Planning Department has done some interesting research on comparing the redevelopment of Detroit and Cleveland. In Cleveland the city made the point to getting clear titles for the empty lots and then asked very little money for them. In Detroit the titles are a mess, the sites are environmentally contaminated, and the city is asking market rate for the lots. As the developer is taking a large risk just by redeveloping the blighted sites, the city is asking a lot just for them to get off the ground. As many people are not going to pay top dollar to move into a blighted area, the developer's profit margin is tight as it is.

There is also a lot of politics in the entire process. To obtain one of the empty lots, the process is not transparent. There is not a person you can call to get a clear answer for information on city owned abandoned lots. Nor is the information clear. The price of the lot my vary depending on who you talk to or their mood. With this being the digital age, each lot should be posted on the web it is cost, title status, and other factors.

Detroit: Official information varies

Sounds just like Camden, New Jersey! Information is almost impossible to get. If you scrawl about 1/2 way down my homepage, I compare Alexandria VA.'s property titile search method for the public to Camden, New Jersey's method. What a Byzantine affair Camden is! It all comes down to politics. Aristotle called politics the superior science- it is the science that defines how all other sciences will be defined and applied. This is most evident in how our government for so long has denied Global Warming or inhibited stem cell research. Urban science is governed by political science. Unitil politicians give their stamp of approval, New Urbanism, Urban Regeneration, sane Transportation policies, will be classified and dismissed as theory. Politicians fear losing their control over their domains. Camden for instance, could be transformed politically completely with only 3,000 new sensible voters, since a little less than that turned out for City Council elections.I think for this reason alone such information is intended to be virtually impossible to obtain.

William Apgar, former Undersecretary of HUD under Clinton, now a professor at Harvard's JFK believes the degree of political stability ( or instability) is the primary determinator of outcomes. Sooner or later CNU wil have to confront the political context
of project areas, so that it can expand into, instead of turn away from areas with the greatest need. In other words, it has to imagine a spectrum, with say, Celebration at one end, and Detroit or Camden at the other, develop and work through incremental tactics for each point on the arc. Politics and social context have been "icky" to New Urbanists, but sooner or later will have to be considered more deeply. Those of us who have lived for long periods in areas with strong poltical bosses know how NU ideas ( or any ideas) can hit a bottleneck if they are not serving the immediate desires of Mr. Big the crony powers-that-be ( for govt. contracts, contributions and reelection.)


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