Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Deciphering Detroit

If you mention the word "Detroit" anywhere in Michigan, or in the United States for that matter, you will almost always witness a pained reaction. Without a doubt such expressions are joined at the hip with perceptions of racism, disinvestment, misallocated resources, and an urban history that is addled with social and political mistakes. This is true. It's impossible to argue that Detroit is not in dire straits. But with that said, hope should not be lost. Why give up?

I am currently working on a 10 block commercial corridor redevelopment plan for the Bagley Community in Northwest Detroit. Like much of Detroit, the problems in this neighborhood are immense. The commerical corridor, West McNichol's Avenue, is the dividing point between an attractive middle class pre-world war II neighborhood to the north, and a dilapidated low income neighborhood to the south. Last Saturday I left the friendly confines of Ann Arbor to investigate why there is such seperation, and how the corridor that currently seperates the two neighborhoods could be redeveloped to unify these two disparate populations, and not further segregrate them. To do so I spent the afternoon interviewing resident and business owners. This is what I found:

First of all, I should illuminate the psychology of place. The residents of the north and south neighborhoods are overtly aware of their economic differences. In fact, people on both sides of McNichol's Avenue refer to the the south side as "the ghetto, " while those solely on the south speak of their neighbors to the north as "the suburbs." This has a tremendous psychological affect on those who live in the south side neighborhood. After speaking with a few residents of "the ghetto," I found out that despite the reputation, their neighborhood is slowly coming around. Those who are financially stable are starting to reinvest in the properties that they own, which in style and form are very similar to the well kept homes to the north of West McNichols. This helps to erase the perception of poverty in this neighborhood and displays that this area has great potential. Nevertheless, with vacant lots and abandoned homes that look like missing teeth, the south neighborhood has a long way to go. Urban pioneers needed!

The north side neighborhood is replete with well kept sidewalks, well kept homes, attractive landscaping, and signs that show not only political awareness, but a propensity to care about the greater the health of Detroit. Across the West McNichol's corridor to the south, these types of things are non-existent.

So if the neighborhoods are the cookie, the commercial corridor is hardly the cream. Though the 10 blocks corridor connects one vibrant middle class neighborhood and two well respected institutions of higher learning (Marygrove College and University Detroit-Mercy) it is in sad shape. Buildings are dilapidated, vacant lots and buildings persist for entire blocks, barbed wire and chain link fences protect many businesses that do exist, there is an overabundance of surface parking lots, service alleys are overrun with vegetation, liquor stores are on every other block, the Avenue is unneccesarily wide (60ft), and the pedestrian experience is absolutely dismal. What the corridor does have going for it is that the buildings are all at a human scale, the sidewalks are fairly wide, there are two bus stops (though they are not particularly hospitable), and in the past few years a couple of new businesses have survived. This gives me something to work with, although not much.

The concept for my revelopment plan is to transform West McNichols into a neighborhood center that can knit these two neighborhoods together. To do so, I must not only be sensitive to the existing businesses, but also to the needs of the two populations that populate the north and south side neighborhoods. Moreover, as several residents told me, their is too much commercial space for the market that it serves. The vacant lots and vacant buildings make this blatantly obvious. Here is my strategy (remember, this is just an academic exercise and no intensive market studies have been conducted) :

I'm going to transform two vacant lots in the center of the corridor into a YMCA and community center that both provide much needed daycare service to neighborhood residents, as well communal spaces. The YMCA will also provide recreational activities for children and adults alike, which are currently non-existant. Between the YMCA and the community center is a church. On the other side of the YMCA is a vacant lot that actually heads south for 9 more lots. Here I plan to create a neighborhood park that provides a plaza, playground, basketball courts, open green space, and a winter ice rink/summer wading pool. In theory, this park would serve as the true neighborhood center and help draw people from both neighborhoods. Across the street from the YMCA I plan to add a post office, a laundromat, and bookstore/cafe. One block down will be a public library branch and a non-profit office center that allows for greater flexibility and collaboration between like minded organizations. Currently, all of these things are not even close to within walking distance of the neighborhood. These uses will hopefully piggyback on an already successful restaurant, a dry cleaners, furniture store, and a market.

Further down the corridor I plan to redevelop many of the vacant lots/buildings into housing. This will immediately put more people on the corridor, as well as provide new housing stock that provides more flexible living arrangements. I plan to have everything from studios, live/works, 1-3 bedroom, and plenty of multi-generational 4-5 bedroom apartments which are in high demand, but short supply in Detroit. All of these housing units will be built to the street, and be 2-3 stories. This in essence will recreate the urban character that was demolished years ago by redevelopment that placed parking lots in front many now vacant buildings.

By diversifying the housing stock, and adding a few basic, but desperately needed services, I hope to enliven the street and bring more people together. To further enhance this goal, the absurdly wide Avenue will be transformed into a Boulevard, with street trees, a tree lined median, strategic bump-outs, widen the sidewalks, add onstreet parking, and stripe in several crosswalks. There are no crosswalks!

In a perfect world, all of this sounds great. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world and Detroit is far from perfect. Nevertheless, it is not hopeless. There are several simple design improvements that could greatly enhance the character of this once thriving city. The biggest challenge is to get people thinking positively about Detroit again, as well as to transform its failing economy. No small challenge there. The city is in desperate need of reinvestment. It starts block by block, and neighborhood by neighborhood. I hope in my two short years here that I can learn a great deal from a city that has so much potential, but so little hope. I travel to Detroit from Ann Arbor once a week, and I can't help but marvel at the historic buildings that remain, respect its redeveloping waterfront, and dream of a city that captures the imaginations of the world again. It's time for us to love Detroit!

Friday, October 14, 2005


Commercial Street: An Urban Symphony

I was recently given an assignment in my History of Urban Form class that asked us students to pick a lively street that we knew well, and to describe what made it so successful. This was to be done in homage to Jane Jacobs, and her Hudson Street Ballet (p. 50-54 of Death and Life). I chose Commercial Street in Portland, Maine.

Commercial Street, which runs along the waterfront of Portland, Maine’s historic Old Port district, is a grand stage for highly diverse human activity. Due to an ever-evolving variety of uses and excellent human oriented design, Commercial Street produces a constant ebb and flow of pedestrian activity. Whether it is morning, afternoon, or night, the drama of humanity performed on this stage is akin to the various acts in a play or the various movements found in a symphonic opus. Though each act or movement is interesting on its own, they could not truly stand on their own, as the entire meaning would be lost. Each is dependent on the other, which is the essence of urbanism.

On Commercial Street the early morning belongs to the men and women of the working waterfront. From any number of vantage points, one can witness hundreds of fishermen and lobstermen crossing the street, swigging their coffee, boarding their vessels, and preparing for a long day at sea. These very same fishermen provide distinctive odors and fresh catch for the thousands of people who later in the day will inevitably flock to the restaurants, bars, and piers, that graciously adorn the street. The most popular, but least tasty is DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant. Though the tourists “from away,” create endless opportunities for people watching, those who know the local restaurants would rather walk a few more blocks to The Porthole. The Porthole is a local gem located down a dirt, pot hole infested pier. Though some of the defunct fishing piers have been retrofitted in to posh condo developments, this particular one is gritty and looks more like the main street of a decrepit western ghost town than a quaint small New England City fishing pier. Nevertheless, the Porthole often has live music on the back patio where you can literally look over the railing at fisherman bringing in their daily catch.

After the fishermen head out to sea for the day, a second wave of inhabitants arrives by foot, bus, bike, and car. These are the folks who work in the offices above the first floor retail and eating establishments, and who single handedly keep the small markets, corner stores, delis, and coffee shops in business throughout the year. After all, in Maine tourists are hard to come by in January.

After the morning “rush hour” is over, the real rush begins. Somewhere between coffee and lunch, the street and its pleasantly wide sidewalk seem to shrink and pedestrian gain a more intimate knowledge of each other. Shop doors open, sidewalk displays beckon weekending Boston boutique shoppers, and camera laden tourists purchase sandwiches before boarding the ferries to the Casco Bay islands. The foot traffic in and out of the storefronts is so consistent that it almost seems mechanistic, as if there is an urban puppet master conducting the entire show.

Even though the summer tourists are largely responsible for the crescendo and decrescendo of this special place, over time the regular participants in the Commercial Street symphony do not even notice them. The regulars will notice that the man with the long black hair and worn black boots who always strums his guitar by the hot dog stand has worn the same t-shirt for 4 straight days. Deciding that he might actually need the laundry money, a regular might be coerced into actually placing a few coins left over from their morning coffee purchase into his guitar case. Though he is not a homeless man, he makes a daily wage from those who recognize him, not from those who do not.

The afternoon hours on Commercial Street are the most varied. People of all ages and all agendas can be seen walking the sidewalks, frequenting the restaurants and lunch stands, sitting on benches, skateboarding, tripping on the uneven cobblestone cross walks, exiting and entering the fairy terminal, and crossing the street in such enormity that automobile traffic truly is a secondary concern. Though there might be a brief lull in the action around 4 o’clock, it is not long until the island hoppers return to the mainland, the fishermen tie up for the day, and the professionals exit the offices. Many will flock to the restaurants and bars to recount the happenings of the day over happy hour food and drink specials. If they are smart they head to Three Dollar Dewey’s, which offers free popcorn and cheap Shipyard Ales – Maine’s finest microbrew.

As the daylight fades into twilight, an entirely new population reveals itself. Commercial Street, and the Old Port in general, becomes a playground for the hip and socially active. It is at this time that most of the older professionals, fishermen, and tourists head home and call it a day, while teenagers, creative classers, and twenty- somethings are just starting their evenings. Not to mention the Bachelor or Bachelorette parties that are inevitably attracted to the most vibrant district in the only real city in Maine. The demographic shift is not only noticeable, but the increase in energy is tangible. Bars begin to fill up, dance clubs begin pumping music, and posh sushi restaurants entertain the young and successful, many of whom live nearby in waterfront condos or apartments.

As one might also expect, a sizeable police force begins roaming about, looking for late night revelers out of control, or to simply tell the bongo players for the 10th time that they must tone it down. After the bars, restaurants, and clubs close down for the night, the action begins to slowly fade as the young dissipate for the night. However, Bill’s Pizza remains a hot spot until nearly three in the morning, as it is the only place on Commercial Street that provides late night nourishment. Bill’s Pizza has been serving the late night crowd for years, and is somewhat of an institution on Commercial Street. As the smell of pizza and alcohol radiates out on the sidewalk, just about anything can and does happen.

By the time Bill’s pizza has finally closed down for the night, Commercial Street receives a much deserved rest. Yet, this rest only lasts for 2-3 hours as the earliest of fishermen will soon be arriving, coffee in hand, ready to reinvent the Commercial Street symphony.

As you can see, Commercial Street thrives on the varied combinations of people and uses. Take away one of these movements and the whole Commercial Street symphony suffers. Though each act or movement is interesting on its own, they could not truly stand on their own, as the entire meaning would be lost. Each is dependent on the other, which is the essence of urbanism. This interdependence is best characterized as ordered chaos, and the feeling of the street transcends space and time. This is the trademark of humankind’s most gratifying places, and as a culture we need to build, maintain, and preserve more of these special places.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Toronto Is Terrific

I admit that this post is about a week late. However, this whole "graduate school thing" is rapidly shrinking the amount of time that I have to write for pleasure.

I tried to just think of a more clever title for this entry, but the above just says it all. Our urban planning program trip to Toronto was on many levels, absolutely terrific. For one, it was nice to get the hell out of Ann Arbor for a little while. Don't get me wrong, A2 as the locals call it, is a great town, just not a great city. As soon as we arrived in Toronto, the intensity of the large city filled me up with a feeling that I have not had since I lived in Boston. I welcomed its return.

While in Toronto, we all stayed in a great Hostel, called Backpacker's Canadiana. It was clean, in the middle of downtown, and even featured free food, drink, and plenty of communal space. In fact, on the back deck parties are encouraged. The owner even joined us, and allowed me a few sips off his bottle. Nice atmosphere.

Both Thursday and Friday were extremely busy days. We had meetings, briefings, and tours scheduled all day, everyday. We even had three of Toronto's young planners take us out on a "nightlife" tour, all while sharing with us the issues and problems of each neighborhood as we jumped from club to club, and bar to bar. What we quickly learned of Toronto is that if it were in America, it would be the most progressive city in the whole country. In one particular meeting we were briefed on the city's current planning strategy, and its accompanying master plan that ensures its success. The following are a few facts that would make most American urban planners want to pack up and knock on the doorstep of our friendly neighbors to the north.

- Toronto has a 30 yr. moratorium on all road construction (read highways, and large arterials)
- The City is considering removing the one expressway that does bisects downtown (Gardner Expressway)
-They spend 12-13 billion dollars a year on public transit ( with bus, streetcar, and subway their system is the 3rd largest in North America)
- All future development is being concentrated in only 25% of the city, which has been identified for having high growth potential. This in effect means that all historic neighborhoods will not be tampered with (75% of the city). Major corridors that are transit serviced will be intensified in height and use, and billions of dollars worth high density condos are going up along the waterfront.
- The Air Canada Center, the cities premier arena, only has 300 parking spaces, which are all underground. Everybody arrives on transit!!

Another positive thing that is occuring in the planning realm is that the City is currently in the process of dismantling Regent Park, a 70 acre housing project that is the largest in Canada. They will be replacing it with a mixed income, connected, transit serviced neighborhood. Everyone currently living there, will be guaranteed housing in the new neighborhood development if they so choose, and the neighborhood population will increase from 2,500 to 5,000. Yes, Toronto has a lot of exciting things happening. Smart people. They get it.

On the whole, Toronto is a safe, clean, and progressive city. Though I have two criticisms. The first being that when the city was participating in the project of modernism, they effectively wiped out most of the city's historic core. What remains are just a few historic structures surrounded by glass and steel (However, they managed to keepUnion Station, which is perhaps the most elegant train station in North America). In this this sense, both Montreal and Quebec City are much more connected with their own history.

The second criticism that I have, is that the entire downtown is connected by an underground mall. They call it the PATH system, and its one of the scariest things I have ever seen. The intention was to allow pedestrians to move freely about downtown, going building to building, without ever going above ground. From what I understand this is a good thing during the winter. However, the PATH itself is a completely disorientating sewer of commercialism, and it sucks way too much life off of the street. I instantly got "mall back" upon entering this subteranean hole. I say give me cold weather, not Cold Stone Creamery. Give me fresh air, not Airborne Express. Oh well, no place is perfect!

Toronto is great, check it out. Jane Jacobs lives there. You will not be dissapointed.

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