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!

My parents lived in Detroit for several years before I was born, and I've been many times, mostly to visit old friends of theirs who still live there. I like the city and despite the reputation, it does have many plusses, including cheap real estate and some beautiful architecture. Nice to see someone who hasn't written it off.
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