Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Can Detroit Build Its Way Back to Prosperity?

If you look at the typical urban redevelopment efforts in any given city, they are heavy on capital expenditures. I’ve noticed quite a slew of articles on this of late related to Detroit: a light rail line on Woodward, a new bridge to Canada, a new transit station in suburban Troy, rebuilding and expanding I-94, $500 million in new hospital investment downtown.

But is this really the path back to success for a city like Detroit? Harvard economist Ed Glaeser noted in an episode of Smart City Radio, that “the hallmark of a declining city is that it has a lot of infrastructure relative to economic activity…it’s very strange to think that the right response is to build more structures in those places.” Challenged by host Carol Coletta about the need for certain new types of infrastructure or projects to attract educated people, Glaeser didn’t go for it, saying, “For every Bilbao that looks like a success, there are nine failures.” He didn’t say to always say No, but clearly favored low cost solutions like public art over big investments.

Anyone who’s been to Detroit knows that it’s vastly over-infrastructured and that the city and region can’t even afford to even to maintain what they have. Why then is so much of the civic effort put into new capex projects will only add new stuff that also can’t be maintained? Is this really the best use of funds? Keep in mind, the debt of the city alone is $20 billion. Even with private funds, there’s only so much money to go around.

Clearly, as things wear out, you need to repair and modernize them simply to serve the needs of local residents. The new terminals at Detroit’s airport fall into this category. Perhaps a road reconstruction would as well. So I’m not sure that a blanket “don’t build” is the right answer.

But I don’t sense that Detroit is thinking this way or coming to grips with the surplus infrastructure situation, excepting perhaps with abandoned housing. Rebuilding I-94 and improving interchange geometrics might be a good idea, but adding lanes strikes me as dubious. Detroit is probably over freewayed as it is, and with the city and regional population shrinking, I’m not sure building more roads is the answer.

Also, the focus on capital intensive transit like rail systems seems a bit crazy. Detroit is a highly decentralized metro area with greatly dispersed origins and destinations – exactly the type of place poorly served by rail. I’m not saying there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a rail line, but is that your best bang for the buck, and more importantly the best place to focus precious civic time and attention? Particularly when the city bus system is a shambles? Beyond which, Detroit’s strategies around things like rail and medical center investment are totally conventional wisdom, and don’t speak to the true character and needs of the city. Even if you get some people to sip lattes by the light rail on Woodward like they do in Portland, this isn’t going to change the civic trajectory.

The one thing that does strike me as strategic is the bridge crossing to Canada, as Detroit is the major trade gateway to Canada. But even this seems as much motivated, on both sides, by bad blood between local officials and Matty Moroun (owner of the existing bridge). And I’ve also heard that the real problem isn’t bridge congestion, but rather customs delays. A new bridge wouldn’t do anything about that.

I guess I’m a skeptic on Detroit trying to build its way back to prosperity. Particularly with the debt levels and the trouble the private sector has sustaining even existing amenities like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. That’s especially true when it comes to “me too” strategies like light rail. I’m got getting a sense that much of this is in the service of anything that is uniquely Detroit or is rooted in the challenges of a shrinking city. Rather, it seems predicated on a “comeback” vision for Detroit seeking to recreate some semblance of former glory on the back of major capital investments. Has this worked anywhere?

However, the alternatives aren’t always that obvious. A lot of stuff really is run down and needs repair, replacement, or retirement. How to actually get rid of fixed assets is a tough challenge for a city. And new things do come along that can be important.

So I’m wondering what you think. How much should stagnant or declining cities focus on major capital investments? What types of investments, if any, should they make? What strategies would you suggest as a complement or alternate?

More Detroit
Detroit as Urban Laboratory and New American Frontier
The Other Side of Detroit
The Power of Brand Detroit
The Urbanophile Plan for Detroit
Yes, There Are Grocery Stores in Detroit

Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Detroit

44 Responses to “Can Detroit Build Its Way Back to Prosperity?”

  1. Andy says:

    I agree 100% with you on this one.

    The I-94 widening is the most glaring case of “What the hell are they thinking?” and is due mostly to the Paleolithic mentality that still prevails at MDOT. It’s an MDOT project, & they’re the enablers.

    As far as light rail goes, the main argument I hear from local transit advocates is never that we actually need rail for transportation purposes, but that building the rail line will generate transit oriented development. I haven’t read the literature on whether TOD actually works and under what conditions, so I’ll side-step that discussion. But rail advocates have pretty much given up claiming that Woodward rail is the most cost-effective way to move people around via public transit, because for the Detroit region it’s so patently false.

    I will disagree with you on the bridge, though. The justification for a second bridge is not that the region needs the additional capacity, but rather that A) redundancy is needed in the event of terrorism and, more importantly, B) Moroun is such a sociopath. Talk to residents of southwest Detroit about the devastation his selfishness has wreaked on their community. There is absolutely no way the only crossing to Canada between Port Huron & Buffalo should be in the hands of someone with such utter contempt for the law. The people who are defending him are either in his pocket or haven’t bothered to actually acquaint themselves with the facts.

  2. Zathras says:

    With the bridge, it’s not like the existing custom officials will be spread between the two bridges; there will be more customs officials. More customs officials–>shorter delays. And while congestion itself may not be an issue now, it is projected to be one within 5 years.

    “Rather, it seems predicated on a “comeback” vision for Detroit seeking to recreate some semblance of former glory on the back of major capital investments. Has this worked anywhere?”

    This was the model for rebuilding many European and Japanese cities after World War II. Some places it worked, some it didn’t.

    I definitely agree there needs to be more of “tearing down old capex” to match the “building new capex.”

  3. The Japanese cities and European cities that were rebuilt–including major capitals–were not left to their own devices; they received significant inflows of capital from around the nation; and much labor was diverted towards rebuilding. This is particularly true of primate cities such as Tokyo; there was a study a while back that noted that some decades after WWII, most Japanese cities had returned to their pre-war levels of prominence in the Japanese social hierarchy, and the amount of destruction wrought upon them by American bombers during the war had little effect.

    Detroit, OTOH, is being left on its own. Its suburbs seem happy to let it rot, the better to keep the alleged riffraff out of their own communities. The state (particularly the Snyder administration) seems intent on making Detroit suffer for its pro-labor and pro-Democratic history. The Obama Administration has probably been Detroit’s best friend, but even it is limited (both by other regional jealousies and by inter-party politics) in what it can accomplish.

  4. stlplanr says:

    As private developers say, “not overbuilt, just under-demolished.”

  5. JNehemiah says:

    Since Detroit’s problem is not the lack of infrastructure, capital investments for creating infrastructure are not suitable, but investments on a smaller scale could be useful for improvements. For instance, instead of widening I-94 (something that I -a native Detroiter- really wanted to see done for a long time), the Ford Fwy. could use some aesthetic improvements. Leveraging on its current width, using more sustainable construction materials such as concrete vices asphalt to build walls and road similar to the Lodge Fwy (M-10) from Wyoming to 9 Mile Rd or the Davidson Fwy. (M-8) through Highland Park. Or transforming it into a more underground tunnel look in order to suit a future of infill development along I-94 in between I-96 and I-75. Another good capital investment for Detroit is also transportation related. Light rail sounds great and this is something I’ve longed to see there, but I understand that it is not realistic. One alternative is to redesign major streets and bus routes for the creation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Lanes. Of course this does not negate the need for a complete transient overhaul in Detroit, but BRT would be a wiser investment over implementing a light rail situation, at least until the city’s potential “comeback” proves suitable for the Transient Oriented Development (TOD) model. I am not a planner, but for a shrinking city, these are alternatives that I would view as a viable step forward for a city who can not be too ambitious with capital investments.

  6. Todd Scott says:

    The I-94 project is a significant waste of precious transportation dollars. It might have been partially justified in the 1980s when it started. It’s not today.

    Also, none of the projects mentioned in the lead paragraph are being paid for or developed by the city of Detroit. It also should be mentioned that $5.2 billion of the bonding is for the regional water system, which supplies 40% of the states needs. It’s misleading to say it’s the “debt of the city alone.”

    The article doesn’t mentioned the millions invested in rebuilding Detroit’s water front( and parks (e.g. Campus Martius) which have been a major catalyst for Detroit development.

  7. pete-rock says:

    I think major infrastructure projects only make sense in Detroit if they can improve access to already dense areas like Downtown and Midtown, or create new dense areas. Otherwise it’s a foolish idea.

    Detroit is being abandoned because it has a crappy housing stock. For those familiar with Detroit, you could argue that the area bounded by the river on the south, Hamtramck/Highland Park on the north, Conner on the east and Livernois on the west, about half the city’s area, was built at a scale and density that is moderately high and consistent with other similarly sized cities. However, once you get beyond that the density declines — but so does the quality of housing in many areas. The remainder of the city has large areas of cheaply built, 1200 sf, 2-3 bedroom homes on slab, built in the ’40s that no one really wants anymore. There are exceptions — I grew up in one — but that’s part of the problem.

    The other part of the problem is the lack of neighborhood identity and focal points. There is a frightening lack of a sense of place in much of Detroit. I didn’t recognize that as a failing until I moved to Chicago. Rarely do people identify with neighborhoods in Detroit; there are no neighborhood crossroads that double as retail centers and public spaces in Detroit, like you would find in Chicago’s Wicker Park or Logan Square — and there never has been.

    I would love to see my hometown make a comeback and I support all efforts to make it happen. But I fear much of Detroit was built as a disposable city and the built environment must change dramatically.

  8. Heidi Reijm says:

    I think you are right to be skeptical of the efficacy of infrastructure investments for bringing Detroit back. Like Pete-Rock, I think there’s a lack of sense of place in Detroit, especially in neighborhoods. It’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed since moving to Detroit from Brooklyn last summer. Smarter capital investments would include repairing and improving existing transportation all over the city (not just Downtown/Midtown), and creating and strengthening neighborhood business nodes with more diverse retail and services. Ultimately, though, such capital developments will mean little without an influx in jobs for residents, which requires more social investments in both K-12 and adult education. Capital investments could mean some jobs, but I don’t think it’s a long term sustainable investment in Detroit’s future economic viability.

  9. CityBeautiful21 says:

    First, let me say I have only been to Detroit to change planes once over 10 years ago. I have never set foot on the ground and know what I know of the city only from reading.

    But my sense is that Detroit’s needs are more about city software than hardware, and that part of the problem described above is that the US categorizes funding for building separately from operating, and has no mechanism to convert dollars efficiently among needs.

    The widening of I-94 sounds ridiculous, as does the idea that in 5 years, it will be needed, when 200k people left town in the last ten years. So what could Detroit do with that money that might make a difference? Well, I bet the city has more schools than children to fill them from the days of higher population. And I bet the money for widening I-94 could probably go a long way to paying for a not insignificant number of kids to be schooled in classes of 7 or fewer children with a talented teacher, using extra presently-unused classrooms for workspace.

    But of course, there’s no mechanism to convert $300 million in roadway widening funds into an innovative educational program.

    If we use the post-WW2 analogy, I have a feeling more was done to get the money where it needed to go, not get the money through the appropriate federal formula grant program.

  10. I probably should also have mentioned the conventional wisdom major capex that has already occurred, like two new sports stadiums and a major convention center project.

    pete-rock, it sounds like you were describing Indianapolis there too. There are large districts of what are basically workers cottages that have very little relevance or value in the market today. When they get old, there’s little reason to invest money in them rather than bringing out the wrecking ball.

  11. John Morris says:


    From a distance the problem looks pretty basic, if hard to admit.

    This is a classic, “downsizing”, or restructuring situation. Detroit has both far too much infrastructure and far too little.

    At a more extreme level, we seem to have this situation nationwide. The single family home market remains very weak, while there’s a shortage and mini apartment boom going on. I read an article recently about how the few well located area’s near the core-downtown, Corktown are seeing bidding wars for housing.

    The sad thing seems to be that, even in the city itself, it doesn’t look like enough real consensus has developed about the depth of the problem and what areas need to be focused on.

  12. John Morris says:

    I usually don’t love putting links on but here’s the story from January 5.

    “Some Oakland County couple paid more than $100,000 cash for a loft, because they wanted their daughter to move back from Chicago. I can’t compete with that,” said Wilson, a graphic designer who had been pre-approved for a $120,000 mortgage loan. Nor did she want to buy a home in disrepair, which seemed the only other option for her in that neighborhood.

    In downtown, the Trolley Plaza apartment complex was bought by new owners, who upgraded the facility, changed the name to Washington Square Apartments and increased the rent 20 percent or more.”

  13. I agree and disagree with you (and pete-rock). The issue is how does Detroit reposition itself within the metropolitan housing and office market, how does it become more desirable, and better placed to be competitive with the other leading submarkets in the region. (Having been gone for 20+ years I don’t know what they are anymore, Southfield is probably less desirable, Troy still is, Auburn Hills, West Bloomfield, etc.).

    So new capital investments need to be considered in that context, whether or not they help Detroit staunch its losses of population, and make it better able to compete for high income residents vis-a-vis other cities and neighborhoods across the region.

    So investments in fixed rail transit make sense to me, while more investments in freeways do not. Sure I-94 is probably too narrow–but it’s the only freeway in the region that is–but investing in its widening contributes very little to Detroit, but does aid vehicles traveling through Detroit to other places.

    Investments Downtown (in theaters, Campus Martius, the stadiums) have at least repositioned Downtown Detroit into a place that people want to live in. More investments need to be made to continue and accelerate that trend and leverage it to (re)build the City/its competitiveness from the inside “outward.”

    On a regional/state basis you could argue that such a course of action is a waste of money, just let Detroit whither away and die since people have already mostly abandoned it. But Detroit itself isn’t in the position to make such a choice. If it wants to survive, it has to invest. But it has to be much more selective about the infrastructure investments it chooses to push, and shouldn’t double down on the motor vehicle, as it did in the past, and which is why it is where it is today.

  14. John Morris says:

    Right, but at least in this case, there is the first evidence in years for a significant market emerging in Detroit.

    As the article, I linked to say’s the key now is to involve more people and figure out solid investments that will benefit a wider range of people.

  15. pete-rock says:

    Aaron, there are many similarities between Detroit’s housing stock and that of Indianapolis (I left Detroit for Muncie, IN in the ’80s and visit Indy at least annually). The housing stock I mentioned above is the same, but on smaller lots than you’d find in Indy.

    Richard, I kind of agree and disagree with your points also. Detroit does indeed need to find a way to reposition itself in the metro housing market,and it also needs to leverage the investments it has made to rebuild inside-out. Unfortunately I think the City and its residents have historically resisted the inside-out approach in favor of supporting neighborhoods that don’t really exist. I just happen to think that the infrastructure investments proposed might be a little premature, as the near-in revitalization is still in its relative infancy.

  16. pete-rock, most cities resist prioritizing investment in the sections with the best chances, because ideas of equity “get in the way.”

    It’s hard to believe for many people, but many sections of DC were relatively speaking, bad areas, although in the last 8 years they’ve revitalized.

    This has been an important experience for me. But all the while, I thought back to my Detroit upbringing, and compared DC’s opportunities to other seemingly comparable cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.

    The conclusion I came to is that in an environment with limited resources, each $ you spend has to accomplish multiple objectives, and success is relative, in that while DC might do better than Baltimore, that’s irrelevant because its in-region competitors are cities in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County.

    Detroit has a similar issue. 1. I’d say with the inward investment being in its infancy the issue is to not let the momentum be constrained, the light rail could be a game changer, and Detroit needs a game changer. 2. Detroit has to compete with the in-demand neighborhoods/cities in the region for the people with money, ideas, and willingness to work on the city’s improvement. Again, to capture those people, this kind of investment needs to occur.

    FWIW, you may disagree with my opinion of the “Detroit in Overdrive” mini-series on Planet Green (cable, satellite tv)

  17. Jason says:

    Detroit has a higher density than Portland (5,100 compared to 4,200). The Woodward buses have a daily ridership of 33,000 which is more than most light rail systems in the US. Metro Detroit has about the same GDP as metro Toronto.

    If light rail from Downtown to 8 Mile were built (although unfortunately that project is dead…), its ridership would make that stretch alone about the 10th-15th most ridden light rail systems in the country, and it would be in the top 5 for ridership per mile.

    I think there’s a strong case for light rail on Woodward, and the improved service, development benefits, and everything else light rail brings/enables is necessary in order for Detroit to become the city that it needs to be in order to be competitive. Even if there’s too much infrastructure in the region in general, this infrastructure is a good decision.

  18. John Morris says:


    I’m not 100% sure the project is dead. We need to get away from the “no government money” = no deal aproach. Remember, that these are the dumb money investments that helped make Detroit the city it is today.

    Detroit is starting to show solid demand and thinking. Private investors may pick up the slack, if new ways are found to connect funding and development.

    Free tip for Detroit to try:

    Get private donors to open up storefront Detroit Embasies in cities like NY, Boston, Chicago etc. Sell some swag like cool stuff made in the city. Show pictures of the city, etc… and hand out info.

    Detroit has one thing–it has a brand.

  19. David says:

    I much as I respect the faith of Detroit’s boosters, I think they are misdiagnosing the problem. The problems of Detroit are terrible and among the worst of any major city in the entire first world. (I am not saying this to be mean, but to propose an alternate solution.)

    When your city is the Bad News Bears (fictional American Little League Team) of urban environments, it is tempting to look for the magic formula to turn your lovable losers into real contenders by letting them ‘catch fire’. It is fun to dream up new infrastructure projects.

    In fact in real life when you find yourself in a Bad News Bear situation (worst ranked Little League Team, failing students etc.) you do not do this – Instead you focus on the basics. Focusing on the basics is not sexy, but it tends to get results because the goals are achievable. It normally turns a terrible situation into one that is merely below average.

    However, this is huge. People voluntarily live in below average neighborhoods or deal with below average businesses, like restaurants, all the time on the basis of costs or convenience or even on the expectation of improvement. This is in contrast to a terrible situation where people just want to leave.

    So spend that money on basic services and reliable governance, the stuff that can increase property values then you can talk about the other stuff. Until Detroit can be competitive on a poll of which city you would want to live in: Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, or St. Louis; the goal is not to compete with other Midwest destinations or the suburbs, it is merely to stop the bleeding.

    There are plenty of parts of Detroit that are already below average or better for an urban environment. This is an achievable goal.

    Sorry for the harsh message boosters, but the situation has to be stabilized before you can dream.

  20. David says:

    John Morris links to an excellent article on comment 12. I agree with John that it is worth a read.

    The Comment of top commenter Eric Douglas from Cincinnati on the article are in line with my views.


    Some of these quotes are funny. “$100,000 for an urban loft”- that’s high? “Safe for suburbanites”- shouldn’t the City be safe for it’s current residents? This is not gentrification. Interest is growing in certain parts of the city around downtown, but residents of Boston-Edison, Indian Village, Brightmoor, etc., etc. aren’t being driven out by the market. It just sounds like locals are being overly territorial about the trending areas around downtown. Maybe in 20 years if the city has rebounded we can talk about gentrification, but not today.

    [End Quote]

    Again Detroit is not yet stabilized and on the rebound.

  21. Rod Stevens says:

    I was in Detroit in October, 2008, and my first impression was that the downtown was a failed showcase of flavor-of-the-year redevelopment projects- arenas, stadia, Portman projects, even people movers. If building in the past didn’t work, why will it now?

    It’s important to get away from the conventional definitions of downtowns as city centers. That’s a streetcar notion that’s now 60 years out of date. Think instead of downtowns as neighborhoods, walkable places to live, like America’s first great urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia. What do freeways and light rail have to do with making the downtown more livable or workable?

    A back-to-basic approach would focus on making the downtown safe and livable, which means nice gathering places indoors and out, amenities like clubs and restaurants, places to live and learn, a variety of housing, plus the things you find in neighborhoods, like gardens and pea patches. The unique thing Detroit could do would be to turn some of those vast stretches of barrenness into prairie or even forest, bringing nature back into the city. The stuff of livability is a thousand details of graciousness, not a few mega construction projects.

  22. John Morris says:

    Sorry ROD, but in Detroit years 2008 is a very long time ago. I think some very significant momentum has developed since.

    Light rail and transit in general in America fails, very much because the kind of urbanist reasonably dense neighborhoods also don’t exist. Some recent thinking in Detroit, shows that at least some of the major players, “get it” and are serious about linking transit and development.

  23. John Morris says:

    BTW, I am not a Detroit booster, and so far the comments don’t indicate one has arrived. A large part of Detroit cannot survive in anything remotely like it’s current form.

  24. @ John Morris, the 2008 instance doesn’t really matter. It was a short trip, and therefore contextless in terms of Detroit and its history over the last 40+ years. I was in New Orleans after Katrina, and my tour guide was apoplectic about what happened, etc., that it was caused, and it was, by failures by the Army Corps of Engineers. But I replied, “it doesn’t look any different than Detroit, and that’s a man-made disaster too.”

    What’s happened over the past 10 years downtown is miraculous. And RenCen failed for all the same reasons that other disconnected urban renewal type projects failed–even though the intentions were good, the prescription was faulty.

    WRT LR and transit and revitalization success, there are a lot of good resources. I write a lot about this, comparing DC to Baltimore, but within the DC region, Prince George’s County to DC, Montgomery, and Arlington Counties. The same kinds of lessons are relevant to Detroit.

  25. The record of cities across America (as evidenced by the last census, for example), shows that you can build a somewhat more attractive “core of the core” and get people to move there if you invest billions and billions of dollars to do so, and are willing to subsidize almost every investment perpetually. That might work for Downtown/Midtown Detroit as it has elsewhere, but it isn’t a replicable model and won’t create a long term sustainable city.

  26. Sam Leckrone says:

    I grew up in Michigan, and know very well of Detroit’s problems. Many of their problems stem from the corruption of government, and that the city has been on a downward spiral since my parents were in diapers. The fact that their school system is the worst in the nation doesn’t help very much. The amount of crime doesn’t help, either. Such an environment will attract neither families nor businesses to the city. Businesses want good schools that can produce graduates that are capable of working at their companies. Families want to provide the best opportunities to their children that they can provide. Both families and businesses need a safe environment in order to thrive–and Detroit doesn’t have that.

    That said, we should consider the problems of infrastructure not in a vacuum, but in the regional system as a whole. Even though much of Detroit is abandoned–and in fact contains as much vacant land as the whole of the nearby city of Ann Arbor!–the regional freeway system still needs improvement. I-94 through downtown Detroit still jams up routinely. The overhead lights at the I-94/I-96 junction do not work, and I have to use my high beams to navigate the interchange ramps. I-75 has a 30 MPH curve at its junction with I-375–the sharpest curve on the entire length of I-75 from Sault Ste. Marie to Miami.

    The bridge to Canada is a different story. The last time I used the current bridge, it was so backed up that it took me an hour and a half to make the crossing! There is definitely a need to improve the crossing, which is the busiest crossing between the United States and Canada. What’s sad is that there is land that is only a mile or two from the border crossing that is completely vacant–yet one would think that its proximity to the border would make it prime real estate for businesses to develop, especially those that most deal with the border crossing. Detroit is unique among Midwestern cities in that it is a border city, and it should take advantage of that situation in any redevelopment efforts.

    That said, I believe that the decision to kill the light rail project on Woodward, and to develop a bus rapid transit system instead, was the right one. If they can’t even run a bus system properly, then how in the world do you expect them to run a rail line properly? Especially when the Downtown People Mover is on the verge of shutting down completely due to a lack of funds to keep it running.

  27. Rod Stevens says:

    Everybody is building street cars and light rail these days, hoping that if they build it they will come. There’s a reason that some succeed and most fail: transit is designed to serve development, not the other way around. If you don’t already have demand, you won’t get development simply by running a street car nearby. Detroit is one of the world’s most overbuilt housing markets. Simply adding transit won’t cause development there.

    I lived in Northwest Portland, which is where the downtown trolley goes. The reason this worked is that both Northwest Portland, as a residential neighborhood, and downtown Portland, as an office and nightlife center, were reasonably developed. Northwest Portland was also the densest neighborhood in the Northwest, was built out, and had high housing values, so the trolley encouraged that demand to flow into other areas along its route. It also happens that developers in that overflow area had been working on its development for over 20 years, putting the necessary infrastructure in that area to make it an interesting place to live and work. That “overflow” area, positioned uniquely between Northwest and downtown, is now called the Pearl. The first public action there, ten years after the first speculative redevelopment went on, was an LID for a street rehab, to make the place a particular stretch of blocks nicer. No transit, no mega projects, simply taking out the railroad tracks. The big private investments came after a whole series of private rehabs.

    It’s been three years since I was in downtown Detroit, but what I saw there would take 20 years to fix. It looked to me like an unsafe, uninhabitable area. Taking the people mover at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, I saw almost no one moving about on the streets for many of the sections. Eating dinner in the Greek area, near some big casino or arena, I was careful about how I walked back. These are considerations that make or break good urban life.

    The renaissance of Portland’s Pearl Town started at 11th and Glisan. For years, probably six or seven, almost all of the rehab investment was focused within a one-block radius of this intersection. There was a “circle the wagons” mentality, just like on the Oregon Trail. You knew that if you went too far outside that circle you might get lost in the wilderness, or brought down by something unexpected. Within that area, however, you could literally sit above the street on a loading dock, drink coffee, and learn about business leads from other people working in the loft buildings above. Everything centered on Shakers and the Little Wing Cafe. The Eleventh Street LID, that took out the railroad tracks, simply extended that loading dock culture down the street a few blocks, and it was no accident that Weiden and Kennedy put its headquarters there. When Nike needed a place to put its women’s dress shoe division, it took no chances: it built on a built above that “100 percent corner” of 11th and Glisan.

    There are a lot of similarities between the settlement of the west and urban homesteading. When I was in Detroit, I went to a great speakeasy bar and met a collection of the city’s young leaders. (This was as the Creative Cities Summit). I would love to have become a part of their circle. The question I had at the time was how they found themselves, how they kept that critical mass, where they went to run into one another. I understand there are many more people today, but the same questions are undoubtedly there: where is it safe to go, where is it safe to invest, where is it safe to live and work such that life will be enjoyable day to day? You don’t create these places by spreading the peanut butter across a very big loaf. You do it by putting the peanut butter and jam together in bite-size pieces.

  28. John Morris says:


    “The record of cities across America (as evidenced by the last census, for example), shows that you can build a somewhat more attractive “core of the core” and get people to move there if you invest billions and billions of dollars to do so, and are willing to subsidize almost every investment perpetually.”

    I guess I’m in the hipster demographic. I know lots of folks who have been to Detroit, and many more who want to see the great architecture, perhaps shoot “ruin porn”, or check out the alternative art attractions liike The Heidelberg Project. A few have gone for events like the Maker Fair.

    None of them have said they went to see a football or baseball game. A very high percent of “urban investments”, consist of money wasting mega projects. IMHO, many have little to do with the real emerging demand for urban living.

  29. John Morris says:


    “if you invest billions and billions of dollars to do so, and are willing to subsidize almost every investment perpetually.”

    LOL, isn’t that what we are doing with our highway infrastructure? Downtown development projects are hardly the only area the government is subsidizing. We have to keep some level of context.

    Sam Leckrone says,

    “The fact that their school system is the worst in the nation doesn’t help very much.”

    Here’s a dirty little secret. With the right type of density level and transit, one can move towards school choice.

  30. Chris Barnett says:

    Hey, John: my sons are educated Millenials. They go to downtown Indy to watch football games and to eat and drink with friends. Judging from the people I see inside Lucas Oil Stadium, there are thousands and thousands just like them. Judging from the number of people I see at “First Friday” arts events, there are fewer hipsters than kids like mine.

    Now that Detroit has its sunk-cost mega-investments in regional event centers, part of the prescription for urban life has to be creating a “hot zone” there. If it’s safe to play, people may want to work and live there too. I realize this may be a “conventional wisdom” bet, Aaron, but building activity in existing space doesn’t necessarily involve an endless stream of government-supported capex, nor wheelbarows full of cash. (Think Monument Circle in Indy: city put the brakes on more capex when a bunch of us said “hey, wait…the problem is lack of programmed activity, not bad bones”.)

    Woodward light rail, given the existing transit ridership, may very well be an important supporting investment to connect that budding hot zone to the downtown core.

  31. cityobserver says:

    What solutions are possible for the large debt and limited tax revenue in Detroit? Could it be possible to declare bankruptcy? I don’t see any development occurring when you consider the debt owed. What’s the credit rating of Detroit? Can they get loans? Maybe a focus on basic services would be best with the hope that development will occur if the city is safe.

  32. James says:

    On Detroit’s infrastructure: Yes and no.

    I think that the light rail corridor is a boondoggle of the highest order. I ask Detroiters the question “who would ride such a thing?” Does it connect residential commuters to office spaces? Does it move riders quickly through congested streets? Does it give access to areas with restricted parking? No no no! This is Detroit. The streets are wide and empty, the parking free and plentiful. It will fail because it has happened before:

    However, I mirror the sentiments of others that building another bridge is really important infrastructure that needs built not just for Detroit but for the whole metro region. Another bridge means another checkpoint for security. It means reduced congestion, increased commercial activity, etc. It is surprising to me that this bridge hasn’t been built yet, since it has been necessary since September 12th 2001.

    Expanding freeways in a city that is shrinking, in a state that is shrinking, seems foolish but I haven’t done enough research to comment. I will say that every time I drive through Detroit and its suburbs I marvel at how empty the streets and freeways are.

    I would also caution about reading into Detroit and affordability. Detroit’s finances have been terribly mismanaged for so long that, if it were a clean slate today Detroit probably could afford all the infrastructure it has an then some. I mean Detroit is still denser than most suburbs and many cities. Detroit is more densely populated than Portland or Houston. As mayor Bing noted, there are over 100 different unions that Detroit has contracted.

    Good governance matters. I think Detroit’s best bet is to declare bankruptcy, become a receiver, and wipe the slate clean. Tear up every union contract and start from scratch. It isn’t that I’m anti-union, it is that Detroit can’t afford to pay it anymore, and with double digit unemployment could easily find people willing to work hard for less pay. Detroit isn’t competing with their suburbs in terms of providing city services. Detroit costs more and gives you less. So it is no surprise that Detroit is losing people. What the city needs is to become lean, mean, and competitive.

    As for a prescription for Detroit? As I said, the city needs to compete in terms of good governance.

    I would quote Steve Jobs and say “focus on the good stuff and forget about the crappy stuff”. Detroit needs to focus on what it does well, or at least should do well, and forget about the things it doesn’t do well. Detroit doesn’t do building demolition well, so it should probably just forget it for now. Put that on hold and spend demolition money elsewhere. It also doesn’t do roads well, so they should figure out which roads need to be maintained and which don’t, and shut down poor disused roads altogether. They also need to reform schools. Maybe privatize the whole thing? Or spin off control of the schools to the state or county? Something else, because what they are doing now is crappy. One thing Detroit does well is offer a lot of empty space. Another thing it has is no government. The city is so dysfunctional that you can pretty much do whatever you want on your property and no one will tell you to stop. So the city should market itself this way.

    Finally, I disagree with Ed Glaeser’s thesis but that is neither here nor there.

  33. Anonymous says:

    @Chris Barnett

    “there are fewer hipsters than kids like mine.”

    Yes, but have your kids chosen to live in or near downtown Indy? A huge mistake cities make is to equate a big crowd at a big event with love. Detroit needs people who want to be there, even if at first it’s a small number.

    “Now that Detroit has its sunk-cost mega-investments in regional event centers, part of the prescription for urban life has to be creating a “hot zone” there. If it’s safe to play, people may want to work and live there too.”

    I don’t fully disagree with that. The stadiums in Detroit have likely kept relevant to the surrounding area and since the city does, sadly have lot’s of space available, their parking footprint is less damaging than it might be.

    As far as the “hot zone” goes, this type of large event driven-party zone can easily spin out of control. The Strip in Pittsburgh is a party hotspot that gets us in the news for shootings, stabbings and fights. Life on the South Side often involves drunks urinatring by your front door.

    The key here, is about creating a level of “fine grained balance”, that these kinds of venues tend to work against.

  34. John Morris says:

    Oops, the previous comment was from me.

  35. Carl Wohlt says:

    I lived in Chicago’s South Loop in the early 1980s and have observed some interesting geographic characteristics about how redevelopment has evolved there since that time.

    Early on, there were a variety of institutions and relatively small pockets of reinvestment that formed nodes, including McCormick Place, Printer’s Row/Dearborn Park Phase I, and Chinatown. These nodes were approximately a mile or so apart. The spaces between were not devastated, but little private sector investment had occurred in the years prior.

    Throughout the 1980s, public and private sector investment continued to strengthen the nodes. Eventually, their continued success attracted the attention and interest of other investors. I think the Central Station, a high end residential development on the northeast side of the South Loop was a major tipping point. Once that went into the ground, investment flowed like crazy into the spaces between the nodes.

    Chicago’s West Loop had a similar story. Continued investment in signature institutions (UIC, Rush Medical Center), entertainment corridors (Greek Town, Randolph Street) and other venues (United Center) that functioned like nodes eventually led to massive investment in the spaces in between.

    With limited public resources, focussing on strengthening key nodes (rather than entire neighborhoods or districts) about a mile apart might be a cost effective strategy for attracting private sector investment. From what I saw in the South Loop, I think you need at least three nodes that form a triangle to create a hotspot in between the nodes. A box with nodes on all four corners would be even better. The mile spacing is important – that puts a node about a ten minute walk from the periphery of the surrounding district.

    I’m not sure how this might apply to Detroit but it would be interesting to play out some scenarios based on this approach.

  36. Chris Barnett says:

    Carl’s suggestion above is similar in concept to Aaron’s “100 Monument Circles” idea for Indy. I think the notion has considerable merit for any city.

    In redevelopment, government does have to “pick winners”. Wisely. And that’s always the hardest part.

  37. AIM says:

    “They also need to reform schools. Maybe privatize the whole thing? Or spin off control of the schools to the state or county? Something else, because what they are doing now is crappy.”

    The state already effectively runs the schools under an Emergency Manager. This is the second state takeover of the city’s schools and both takeovers have been notable at how little success they achieved.

  38. John Morris says:

    As I said, just boosting the density, transit and walkability sets the groundwork for greater school choice.

    Private schools are the dirty little secret factor in early urban revival in many places.

  39. John Morris says:

    Sadly, I don’t see any large scale school choice being allowed in Detroit for poor kids but at least it offers some options for those who want to live in the city and have some financial resources.

  40. John Morris says:

    My point is that the current layout of Detroit makes school choice logistically almost impossible for a large cross section of the population. I think over 60% of the population doesn’t own a car and the city has no money to provide transport services for young kids. Even high school students would have pretty huge problem getting to any magnet schools.

  41. Everett says:

    @Carl, you are pretty much right on. Detroit does have a few centers that have been seeing some redevelopment, and they are mostly about a mile apart, with Downtown as the nucleus (though Downtown is not the strongest neighborhood). West out Michigan Avenue you have Corktown and Southwest Detroit. North up Woodward, you see Midtown, then New Center, and Boston Edison. East on Jefferson takes you through Lafeyette Park, Rivertown, and Indian Village. One of the neat things about Detroit is that if you follow any of these streets out to the city limit, after a couple miles of weak neighborhoods and some blight, you will see strong neighborhoods again, often paired with strong inner ring suburbs. On Michigan Avenue, you have the city of Dearborn; Woodward has the city of Ferndale paired with neighborhoods Palmer Woods, Green Acres and Sherwood Forest; Jefferson has the Grosse Point cities paired with the neighborhood East English Village. The inner ring suburbs on these streets are full of the “I would live in Detroit, but…” crowd and are anxious for the city to get its act together so they can move in.

    I don’t think that investing in a better transit system that would connect these strong neighborhoods with the strong inner ring suburbs is a bad idea–the Troy transit center is at the outer edge of what I would call the inner ring suburbs. Running this new system without consolidating both area transit systems into one is a severely stupid idea though. An even worse one is running it through its own transit authority. Unfortunately, both of these are on the table right now. (Ugh, Michigan, I hate you sometimes!)

  42. John B. says:

    I live in Toronto so I see the problems of Detroit from the other side of the border. But I have to agree with the majority of comments here that it has been long time ago when the downward spiral for Detroit started.
    The problems with transport are great and there is no budget money to improve it – that is definitely true. But what can the local government do? There is lack of innovation and the public policy centers itself in old projects and old ideas, that are not helping them. If I compare it with Toronto, we are also having some problems with transport (like TTC issues right now and the metro problems), on the other hand we were able to carry out significant progress in other areas – like PRESTO card in GO Transit system (PRESTO Card in TO).
    Is it the question of money? As we can see in Toronto now, with the arguments around the new TTC policy, it is definitely a part of it. But if there is a political will, literally anything can happen. I hope that Detroit will get better representation and start to slow down or even reverse it´s downward spiral.

  43. Rod Stevens says:

    One of the challenges for any city, or for that matter, any person, is priorities. Where do you put our care, attention and money? Sometimes its nicer to think about buying something new, especially if it’s a “thing” rather than dealing with the problems we already have, particularly if these are people problems.

    Detroit has real and perceived problems. Few people I know would want to live there. In the core of the city it lacks jobs, the schools are bad, the place probably isn’t safe to walk around after hours, there are few places to shop, and on top of all this, there are racial tensions. Perhaps, for all of this, the problems are not as bad as they are made out to be, but they are bad, nonetheless. If you had a choice, where would you rather be, Detroit or Palo Alto?

    To get people to move back there and invest not only their money but their lives, Detroit needs to improve its quality of life. Given all these other problems, a nicer ride on transit will do little for the overall quality of life. Making the city a nicer place to live day-to-day is a people management problem, of getting more out of what is already spent to deliver better public services, and to use those to lever more private action. This starts by creating a sense of true community, one that includes the citizenry and government. The government there probably needs to find new ways of delivering public services. Is this happening? It is probably far more productive for Mayor Bing and his leadership to be going to meetings on this than on meetings to plan light rail, in a place that already has more infrastructure than it needs or can afford to maintain.

  44. Dylan B says:

    Detroit does need a reliable transit system. The oft cited figure is a third of people in the city do not have a car, and I know many people (including myself) who would use a reliable transit system. Right now we have a mixture of broken transit systems and the state wants to add a third. We need to merge them all under one, give them a reliable funding source and hire a team of experts from outside our region with a proven track record to run it; or at least put it all in place.

    There’s no reliable way to get from downtown the airport. Google is all confused about it suggesting I catch the Amtrak in the wrong direction and then catch the SMART bus from the burbs. This is not OK. I emailed Google and they told me there’s no easy programming fix for it. Ugh. I do not want to leave my car in Romulus.

    Detroit will not come back until we fix fundamental urban transit issues. People will tolerate crime. People will tolerate fake crime stats like in NYC. But you will not get the job if they know you plan on taking the bus. I’m just happy for this warm winter. Biking has been a cake walk so far.

    In Detroit, Wayne County, & Michigan, we’ve long borne witness to incompetent governance and it has not changed with this newest batch. We’ll have to try again. I wish there were a training institute for MDOT, Wayne County, the Mayor’s Office, & City Council where they were forced to commute on SE Michigan’s transit network.

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