by John Gallagher|Detroit Free Press
Following two years of study and 30,000 conversations with the public, the Detroit Works Long-Term Planning team is unveiling a book-length final report this week that holds out the promise of a better, if different, Detroit.
The big question now is what happens to “Detroit Future City,” as the compilation of text, data, maps, and recommendations is titled. The Detroit Economic Growth Corp., headed by President and CEO George W. Jackson Jr., takes over the general overseeing of the report, and the Detroit Works team is recommending that a consortium of civic leaders be formed to help popularize Detroit Future City’s ideas.
But as Robin Boyle, chair of the department of urban planning at Wayne State University, put it, the hard work really starts now that the report itself is finished.
“If there is a widespread commitment, cultural, political, organizational, to move the recommendations, policies forward, then these large-scale plans can be effective,” he said.
Heaster Wheeler, assistant CEO of Wayne County, served as a steering committee member for the Detroit Works Long-Term Planning team. He said this week he and others who participated would try to provide that leadership going forward.
“Several of us have basically decided we’re not going away,” he said. “We’ve got a huge stake in the outcome. We’ve given over two years of voluntary participation and discussion after discussion. We’re in until we win.”
The final report is an off-shoot of the Detroit Works effort launched by Mayor Dave Bing in the fall of 2010. Bing promised then that his advisers would come up with a way to reshape Detroit’s neighborhoods in short order. But chaotic public meetings and opposition to a suggestion to relocate residents from distressed districts led to a rebooting of the effort several months later.
Eventually the effort split into a short-term piece focusing on a handful of neighborhoods and a long-term strategic endeavor that produced the Detroit Future City report released this week.
That long-term report was produced by a team of urban planners led by project manager Toni Griffin, a New York-based expert on urban redevelopment, and including multiple Detroit-based experts, including Dan Kinkead, an architect with the firm Hamilton Anderson Associates, and Dan Pitera, a professor of architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy. The Kresge Foundation and other philanthropic funders paid for the staff work and the report itself.
Over more than a year, the team conducted dozens of community meetings and held more than 30,000 conversations with Detroiters to produce the report. Advisory teams included dozens of prominent Detroiters as well as outside technical experts.
Sandra Turner-Handy, an east side resident and community outreach director for the Michigan Environmental Council, served as a process leader for the Detroit Works long-term planning team. She said residents overcame initial suspicion of the project once they realized that Detroit Future City would recommend that every neighborhood be improved, if in many different ways depending on conditions.
“Once they got past the mistrust, they were in,” she said this week. “The residents were excited and ready. Our goal is go make sure we give the residents what they need to help them recreate their communities.”
Among the most innovative ideas in Detroit Future City: That nearly one-third of Detroit’s 139-square-mile land area, the areas mostly vacant today, should be given over to new forms of “landscape” uses, including farms, forests, and “blue infrastructure” such as new ponds, lakes, and swales to keep rainwater out of the city’s overburdened sewage system.
Nobody who still lives in these mostly depopulated districts would be forced to relocate from these districts against their will. But new house-swap programs and other incentives might be offered to encourage them to move, and future resources for residential development would be directed elsewhere.
Detroit Future City also calls for limited resources to be allocated with a goal of creating denser concentrations of residential and commercial activity. The idea is that scarce resources can be allocated more efficiently in densely populated areas than spread thinly across the entire city.
All areas would receive some level of service. But transportation spending, workforce training, residential development, and other activity would be directed at areas most likely to produce denser concentrations of activity.
So far, the report is merely a collection of recommendations. It will go nowhere without widespread buy-in not only from current city officials but from a wide range of public, philanthropic, and corporate decision makers, as well as the public at large.
With that in mind, the project team that created the Detroit Future City report has careful to call their report a “framework” rather than a “plan.” If “plan” connotes a blueprint with specific details about what will happen where, a “framework” offers more of a context for thinking about the city’s future trajectory and what sort of things should happen if given certain conditions.
Like multiple past reports and plans, this new Detroit Future City report faces numerous obstacles to avoid being just another tome gathering dust on a shelf. Among the potential roadblocks: The city’s near-bankrupt fiscal condition, and the long-time inability of multiple public and private agencies and organizations to work together to achieve ambitious goals.
WSU’s Boyle noted that some strategic visionary exercises have produced great results, like the famous Burnham Plan for Chicago’s lakefront. But he added, “If we look at many other examples, the impact of plans has been less than remarkable. That’s because people don’t get behind them. They don’t get the commitment necessary to do the heavy lifting.”
But the tone of the report is unabashedly upbeat.
“The world needs Detroit’s example,” the report says. “We must proceed with open eyes and be willing to flex muscles and minds – not simply to ‘Get to Yes’ but ‘Get to Next.’”
The 347-page report divides into an Executive Summary, five subject chapters – Economic Growth, Land Use, City Systems, Neighborhoods, and Land & Buildings Assets – and a concluding section on Civic Engagement.
Each of the subject chapters offers an assessment of where Detroit is now, where it should go, and what implementation steps it can take to get there.
Importantly, the report begins with Detroit’s assets, not it liabilities. And it treats many things usually viewed as liabilities, like vacant land, as potential assets that could be keys to the city’s revival.
Bing plans to host a public event Wednesday morning to introduce the plan to the public. The Detroit Works Long-Term Planning team plans to post the full report online Wednesday morning on its Web site at www.detroitlongterm.com. The team will also hold the first of several planned open houses at its Home Base office at 2929 Russell St. from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Clearly, it’s not a report to breeze through in one sitting. Yet the book-length report boils down to a few big ideas.
One of the most important is the importance of density in a city that has lost two-thirds of its population since 1950. Detroit is already evolving an urban landscape in which a handful of key employment districts – downtown, Midtown, the West McNichols hospital corridor, among others – contain a large percentage of the city’s jobs. The report recommends directing future investment in transportation, infrastructure and workforce training to reinforce these centers of activity.
In similar fashion, existing strong residential districts will be targeted for resources including new tax-credit development and multi-family construction to create greater densities.
At the same time, the most depopulated areas of the city, like parts of the east side, could be targeted for a different type of use. These would include the “blue” and “green” infrastructure projects that would include farms, forests, and artificial ponds and lakes created to clean the air and water.
The goal is not to pick winners and losers. Rather, “The key is to be smart about how and where we locate and reinforce residential areas, employment, and other activities,” the report says. “Moving to a situation where more people live in higher-density areas and fewer people live in lower-density areas (a more efficient distribution) is a critical step in reducing the financial problems faced by service providers and end users.”
Nobody will be forced to relocate against their wishes, the report said. But “areas with continually diminishing populations where quality of life is overwhelmingly compromised will no longer be designated for future residential development.”
A key to success is connecting the stronger districts with improved transit options. The report envisions a new ring road to connect the major employment districts.
The road would include a new bus rapid transit route running roughly up Livernois from Southwest Detroit, through the Lyndon industrial district adjacent to the Davison Freeway through Highland Park, and extend through the Mt. Elliott employment district, past city airport, and down the Lower Conner Creek industrial corridor, terminating on Jefferson.
The Detroit Works Long-Term Planning team suggests multiple ways for the public to learn more about its Detroit Future City strategic framework plan. Among those ways:
• Visit the DetroitLongTerm.com Web site to download the plan.
• Stop by a local Detroit Public Library branch to review a copy.
• Call the Detroit Future City hotline toll free at 800-234-7184.
• Invite a Detroit Future City representative to community meetings.
• Visit the team’s Homebase office at 2929 Russell Street anytime between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Jan. 9th, 15th, 22th, or 29th for open houses to discuss the plan
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