Detroit Future City: The Economic Growth Element examined

Detroit Future City is the product of a 24 month effort wherein scarce resources were expended. It is the result of the work of many individuals. In order to give it its due, it will be examined in installments, beginning with the first chapter of the planning elements, The Economic Growth Element.

In his most famous book review, Ambrose Bierce wrote a single sentence: “The covers of this book are too far apart.” Detroit Future City (DFC) deserves better. Upon delving into its 340-odd pages, I did chortle a bit while ruminating on the pleasures of being Bierce. Of course, it was then time to read it. Much of DFC is can be safely termed as “good.” Even so, there are assumptions that are questionable. Ideas are presented that raise eyebrows. Most importantly, there are policy recommendations that must be challenged.

Districts and Pillars

Detroit's checkerboard of assets

Detroit’s checkerboard of assets

The framework for economic growth as presented consists of seven “primary employment districts and four “key economic growth pillars.” The identified districts are downtown, midtown, McNichols, Dequindre-Eastern Market, Corktown, and Mt. Elliot. The pillars are local entrepreneurship, educational and medical (eds & meds), industrial, and digital/creative.

Recognizing the diversification of Detroit’s economy as an imperative and then encouraging agglomeration economies within the city limits is common-sensical. Detroit is a city with assets; this is clear. Much of what is recommended by DFC is de-regulation and insertion of helpful regulations to stimulate the private sector, including small business. In particular, there is a focus on Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs). DFC posits a strategy regarding MBEs: create neighborhood incubators where services and expertise in areas such as accounts receivable and contract negotiation are exchanged with and linked to small business owners. The implementation of these incubators is possibly the most exciting idea in the chapter; no particulars of their inception are included. There are Detroiters young and old who have, in their dreams, concocted plans they see no possibility of coming to fruition. Physical space for service exchange and the stimulation of MBEs merits policy crafted on its behalf.

Detroit: the independent variable

The most disquieting notion put forth by the chapter is that our conventional wisdom with regards to Detroit Public Schools (DPS) may be a stumbling block. The authors write: “there is little evidence for the oft-stated claim that ‘Detroit can’t fix its economy until it fixes K-12.'” Some variant of this little gem is indeed oft-stated and rarely questioned. The data presented by the framers would seem to be at odds with this: in the last decade the percentage of jobs in the the city held by residents has decreased from 42% to 30%. According to DFC,

  • A Detroiter with a two-year college degree is 50% more likely to live in poverty than the average American with only a high school degree
  • A Detroiter with a four-year degree is more likely to live in poverty than the average American with a two-year degree.
  • if every working-age Detroiter invested in a two-year degree, the poverty rate in this group would still be almost 21% higher than overall poverty rates in 70% of U.S. cities

DFC refers to this imbalance as “inequity even with education.” This term is appropriate, but the “why” of this remains unasked. Despite the resources available, these statistics are presented with no analysis. The numbers may appear to bolster the claim that the chapter makes that job creation deserves higher priority than K-12, but numbers do not speak for themselves. That there are too few jobs in Detroit has not gone unnoticed. Consider this hypothesis: Individuals living in areas in which K-12 is meeting benchmarks are less likely to live in poverty than individuals who do not. If we identify our dependent variable as “poverty,” there are a host of possible independent variables, including jobs, K-12, high school and college diplomas, race and ethnicity, gender and sex, and access to transit. Whatever the equation, it cannot be that “Detroit” is made to be the independent variable. Conditions exist within the city limits, but it is the conditions themselves that must be explored.


Mapping bachelor’s degrees in Detroit

Some numbers to consider are that almost 23% of adults over 25 within the city hold no high school diploma; 33% have a high school degree but no college experience. Only 7% have completed a bachelor’s program and 5% have gone on to complete a graduate program. These numbers, like the ones presented by the DFC to not constitute an analysis, but they are fodder for investigation. It should remain a suspicion that K-12 is probably not something that can be sat on while Detroiters wait for the private sector to work its magic.

Transit is an economic issue.

This bus was on time, which was a pleasant surprise.

This bus was on time, which was a pleasant surprise.

Other than K-12, the most important issue is barely addressed is transit. Spatial mismatch separates many city-dwellers from economic opportunity. Of the 253 thousand households in the city, 119 thousand have no workers. 44 thousands of these non-working households have no vehicle available. Of the 100 thousand or so households that are supported by a single worker, 14 thousand have no access to a car. It is also worth noting that over 27 thousand households have two workers, and over eight thousand of these have only one car. The questions that DFC should and did not ask are these: where are the Detroiters, and where are the jobs? Much of the population, in order to fill the job openings prescribed by the authors will need reliable, safe transit.

DFC recommends light rail, BRT and reliable local bus service, but as long-term strategies. In the short-term, public-private ventures in the shuttle-bus businesses are to be encouraged.

Darius and Barbara

The first page of The Economic Growth Element tells the tale of Darius and Barbara, a working class couple on the Northwest side. They have had a rough time. Darius is laid off and needs the car to care for the children. Barbara works in the suburbs. However, they have stuck it out over the past decade and now it is 2020. Detroit is a different place. Darius has found work and the whole family rides the BRT everywhere. They live and work in the city and are quite the Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family, albeit with a dual income. The more realistic outcome of this is that if they have school-age children, Darius has marketable skills, and Barbara has a job in the suburbs, then that is exactly where they are headed: towards economic freedom and better K-12. Like the DPS, transit is a factor that needs to be addressed now.


The Economic Growth Element is at once stimulating and unsatisfying. At a DFC open house on January 29th, Charles Cross, a senior research and design fellow at University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture had this to say:

This is just a framework; it’s a guide for decision making. It’s not a master plan. What it does tells an overall idea of hey, here’s the existing conditions on the ground today… it creates almost a buffet that community members and leaders can pick from that they think will work best in their community.

Mr. Cross’s words were reassuring. DFC is an appealing document on the whole, and the Economic Growth Element is a good satellite’s view of our circumstances and possible avenues for future action.

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How to Say Cass Corridor

A Question of  Neighborhoods

Cass Corridor at dusk

Cass Corridor at dusk

About a year ago, I took part in Discover. Engage. Transform., a program created by Leadership Detroit. One of the events on the docket was a bus tour of the city, and for the most part it was quite a bit of fun. Two particular points of the tour stick in my mind. The first was that although a good deal of historical ground was covered, the entirety of all things Detroit apparently existed in a comfortably post-racial place in space and time. The second was my first true exposure to urban rebranding. As we turned onto Cass Avenue, the tour guide spoke into the microphone: “and here we have the former Cass Corridor,” at which point she trailed off. Until this point, my awareness of Midtown as an entity was limited to a vague notions relating to TIF money. Midtown is more than its geography; it is an idea.

Cass Corridor is not an attractive name; history tells us this is a dangerous place. Play word association in Metro Detroit and the results will confirm that this is indeed the general perception. Midtown is the antithesis of danger. The logo, the mission, and the news surrounding Midtown Detroit are overwhelmingly positive. New residents are filtering into the neighborhoods, and the footprint of Midtown itself has expanded. Cass Corridor is part of the heritage of the Midtown brand, and identity has its roots in heritage. City neighborhood identity is important; Midtown itself has become too large to fit that role. Sue Mosey, the president of Midtown Detroit Inc. has recognized this to a degree. Regarding the rebranding of Cass Corridor, Mosey says “there are still some hardcore people who live in the neighborhood who said we shouldn’t have changed it, but the reality is Midtown is a much larger area than Cass ever was.” Mosey also encourages residents to continue to use their neighborhood monikers. Midtown Inc. should go a step further. The Cass Corridor identity should be embraced and utilized as a brand of its own. Midtown should own it and be proud.

Urban Policy and Urban Branding

Urban branding is geared to attract dollars, and the issues that arise in each case vary. Several constants remain: media and reality must work in conjunction, the occurrence of an image change or reinvention, and the goal of generating commercial investment, tourism and residential development.

Developers have repeatedly attempted to rebrand Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan with little success, despite the current lack of hellishness. The City of Westminster has not attempted a name change with Soho, despite its unsavory past. These names, like Cass Corridor, conjure history, importance, and memories of a past both stimulating and foul. All three of these neighborhoods are known for things other than crime; they have distinct cultural assets, and in the case of Cass Corridor, a major university.

red: current perceptionsblack: desired perceptions of Amsterdam

I amsterdam
red: current perceptions
black: desired perceptions

The lesson of the I amsterdam initiative is instructive. In the process of addressing its decreasing market share of international business, the city identified what it was known for, what it wanted to be known for, and created a brand that allowed both visitors and residents to take ownership of Amsterdam. Perception of place is key in this effort. Amsterdam would clearly like to be less known for sex, drugs and canals, and more for architecture, art, business, as well as being a place where actual people make their homes. The effort has been largely successful and Amsterdam is once again among the top five European cities to visit.

Numbers, People, Opportunity & Consequences

Cass Corridor is approximately one mile square and is home to some 7,500 people. Midtown in its entirety is over three square miles and contains well over 16,000 residents. As its footprint grows, Midtown Detroit becomes a true big city midtown, encompassing many distinct neighborhood spaces. Brush Park, the Museum District, North End and New Center are now within Midtown’s borders.

Cass Tech marching band: the percussion section practices in Cass Park

Cass Tech marching band:
the percussion section practices in Cass Park

This bigger, more inclusive Midtown is a nebulous identity for individual residents. New residents should know the heritage of the place of which they are now part of and become part of existing communities. Power over identity and power over a name are guarded jealously: when group x and group y have conflicting names for a unique point in space and time that they occupy jointly, there will be a division. In Detroit, division most often occurs on a line drawn by the color of one’s skin. Policy should be crafted with this in mind. An opportunity exists to forge bonds between old “hardcore” residents and the new: Midtown should market the neighborhoods, each as a brand in its own right. Midtown and Cass Corridor are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are complimentary.

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Belle Isle and the Religion of Local Control

what kind of city is Detroit?

a city in (identity) crisis

a city in (identity) crisis

This question, though not always in so many words, is a constant humming irritant in the background noise of this town. The obnoxious soul searching we subject ourselves to denies reality. The truth is that Detroit a big city. Big cities by definition contain a lot of stuff. It is difficult to quantify said stuff and more so to generalize. To wonder what kind of city “we” are is to beg the question: what kind of city do we want to be? For many of us, we wish the streetlights would start and that the killings would stop.

Both leadership and residents struggle with the idea of Detroit as a big city. Too many times is the body politic referred to as “the community.” A city of over 700,000 is not a cultural monolith. Think back to a biology or anthropology class you may have taken: there exists greater diversity within populations than between them.

Reality Denialism

ongoing renovations at Cobo Center

ongoing renovations at Cobo Center

Despite the big city reality of Detroit, business is often conducted in an insular, small-townish manner. Fear of “outsiders” who will “take over” often displaces reasonable discourse. A prime example of this is the saga of Cobo Center, and its journey from a crumbling city-owned disaster to oversight by a regional authority. The results of this transition are positive. Detroit did not lose the North American International Auto Show, and Cobo itself is undergoing a massive upgrade.

Both the city and the suburbs have transgressed against cohesive regional policy. The converse of the fear of outsiders exists in suburban minds towards “those crooks in the city.” Reading between the lines, it is not difficult to translate “outsiders” and “crooks” into racial terms. It is not possible to discuss Detroit’s relationship with its suburbs without broaching the topic of racial discord; it is lazy thinking to not acknowledge other barriers to effective policy. Aside from identity politics, each issue faced by the metro region involves its own unique complications. No negotiation has ever taken place in a vacuum.

Belle Isle as a State Park?

the island in question

the island in question

Fear of losing control of assets is legitimate; once a regional authority has been established, Detroit cannot renege. The question of Belle Isle is a bit different from Cobo or the recent Regional Transit Authority (RTA) legislation. Policy regarding Cobo Center and RTA legislation is a strictly regional issue: the debate centers on whether the city should control the asset entirely or take part in a regional decision-making body. No tri-county authority is being proposed for Belle Isle. Rather, the island would be leased to the State of Michigan placed under the control of the DNR. Neither the city nor the region would have much to say regarding the island’s operations. This is a nontrivial point of contention.

City Council has repeatedly blocked Mayor Bing’s plans to hand Belle Isle over to the state, to the chagrin of many. Jack Lessenberry of the MetroTimes argues in favor of the deal, and writes “there is the usual moaning about not letting “them” take “our” park,” and states that the one “legitimate gripe” opponents have is that as a state park, Belle Isle  would charge a 10$ annual parking fee.

Lessenberry’s position is a common one, and it misrepresents the issues. By constructing the strawman of a city vs. suburbs dichotomy, and then merrily knocking it down, the nature of the policy debate is ignored. The State of Michigan has offered no hard numbers and no specific plans for the island. City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown has been adamant on this point, but the idea that Detroit City Council is simply being obtuse is the popular idea.

Who controls what in Metro Detroit is often a stumbling block to the best laid plans, but often it is not the only issue in play. Detroit City Council can certainly be obtuse, but they are not always. Regarding Belle Isle, there is a debate to be had. Rather than dismiss the concerns of the city as typical power grasping desperation, or fear of losing control, it should be recognized that an argument has been made. An answer to that argument from proponents of a deal with the state has yet to be given.

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How About Something Unsexy.

Three pages into Daniel Baldwin Hess and Alex Bitterman’s (2008) article “Bus Rapid Transit Identity: An Overview of Current “Branding Practice,” I found myself sporting quite a smirk. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will never quite jibe with our preoccupation with silver bullets and big, expensive solutions in Metropolitan Detroit. We have been trying to “save Detroit” for over a generation. We have built Renaissance Centers, stadiums, and people movers. Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stated in 2005 that we were transitioning from a “manufacturing economy to a casino economy.” Ludicrosities such as Cadillac Centre made headline news. We are a city of loud splashes, grand gestures, and bold proclamations. That said, we have become too small for our britches, and that is a fact.

the proposed M-1 light rail line

the proposed M-1 light rail line

Hess and Bitterman’s task of assigning a “brand” to BRT in order to sell it to the transit-consuming public is illustrated by this 2011 headline in Yonah Freemark’s The TransportPolitic: “In a Failure of Municipal Ambition, Plans for Detroit Light Rail Shut Down as Focus Shifts to BRT.” Upon reading further, it becomes apparent that the proposed BRT lines are in fact quite ambitious. The proposed M-1 rail line would have provided service to a 9 mile stretch of the Woodward Corridor. By contrast, the proposed BRT system, at a fraction of the start-up cost, is designed to serve over 80 miles of the metro area. Despite the greater functionality and affordability of BRT, Freemark lacks enthusiasm for the concept. One of the takeaways is that BRT is not sexy; it is a bus. Factors such as service area and intermunicipal cooperation are boring.

BRT is not boring. There may be little romance in functionality, but there it is:


the proposed regional BRT system

the proposed regional BRT system

The policy implications for regional BRT are attractive. Rather than a single line in the City of Detroit, BRT implementation on Gratiot Avenue, Woodward Avenue, and M-59 would require that the state’s three largest counties and 17 separate municipalities agree on something. It may not be a subway, but such large-scale cooperation between local governments would be an exciting development of its own. Efforts such as the creation of the regional authority that controls Cobo Center and the recent success of the tri-county millage regarding the Detroit Institute of Arts signal that if ever the time was right to attempt large-scale regionalism, that time is now.

Last week, the Michigan State Senate voted for the creation of a regional transit authority (RTA) in Metro Detroit. There are tens of millions of federal transit dollars on the table, but the measure must still pass the House of Representatives. It is time to stop bemoaning the loss of our shiny new toy and get real. BRT is a functional, affordable transit solution that presents itself at a time when we cannot afford to build light rail infrastructure.

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Is the future in an alley?

The alleyway behind my building is not especially clean, nor especially safe. It is, however, well used. Garbage trucks, stray cats, cars, delivery vans, utility workers, and fellow pedestrian denizens of the Cass Corridor all make their way through it on a daily basis. This alleyway busy-ness is not typical of many alleys in greater downtown Detroit.

alley adjacent to DFD engine company no. 5

We no longer search for the silver bullet that will save our city. Over the years, we have heard pronouncements regarding our supposed transition “from an automobile economy to a casino economy” and fantasies of transforming our city into a vast urban farm. The issues we face are so severe in their nature that they must be confronted individually. Fortunately, there are those who are doing just that. Entrepreneurs, artists, and some who are not so easily categorized are changing the landscape of this town.

the Green Alley

The Green Garage, as stated on its website  has three components: “a building located in the Midtown area of Detroit, a business enterprise, and a community of people dedicated to Detroit’s sustainable future.” I have followed the progress of this unique space for several years now. The Friday lunch meetings are truly instructive fodder for the imagination. One of the most inspiring efforts they have put forth is the Green Alley: a model and example of what is possible. That which is useful should also be beautiful, and vice versa. The Green Alley adds another component to the mix of utility and beauty: sustainability.

future home of Seva in Midtown, Detroit

The logical conclusion to the walkable alley is mixed-use commercial development. The Ann Arbor-based vegetarian restaurant Seva will soon open its doors from inside an art gallery to an alley in the Sugar Hill Art District. Rather than street frontage along Woodward Avenue, outdoor seating will be located in a pedestrian-friendly alleyway amidst a sculpture garden.

Foodies will no doubt be delighted, but there is much urban planning nerdery to digest here. The master plan for Sugar Hill links up walkable alleys with the Midtown Loop, a pedestrian greenway. The culture of a walking city is part of our history, and our urban bones still support it. The intricate network of alleyways and narrow sidestreets are waiting to happen.

future home of Alley Wine

The latest development in the works is Alley Wine. The wine bar and restaurant will be situated in an alleyway in the Cass Corridor, where the alleys give the impression that something is missing. Much of these spaces are blighted and have fallen into disuse by motor vehicles, creating perfect candidates for repurposing. The entrepreneurs at Alley Wine have a creative vision for an alley off of Second Avenue, and have indicated that they will open next year.

Questions regarding gentrification vs. repurposing and zoning arise from these developments. The certain thing is that taking alleys back from the pigeons is soon to become a not-so-unique event. I would love to hear your opinions on this, as well as any technical expertise that may be out there regarding zoning ordinances regarding commercial developments in alleys.

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The Many Detroits of Detroit

West Milwaukee St. at Woodward Ave.

Detroit as displayed on the map is one city. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our fractured metropolis consists of many Detroits, from the city to the suburbs and beyond, and exists within the minds of those who have experienced it. This City conceptualized as an experience is but one facet of this geographical construct; our emotional connection with its name attests to its power.

Perceptions and emotions regarding Detroit do not end at the exurbs. Our city has become a regular topic of national and international media. It seems that we have become an unanticipated type of world city. Ruin porn tourists have flocked to Detroit with their cameras, and have carried away with them yet another Detroit.

We in Metro Detroit own our racial and economic inequalities; they no longer belong to generations past. We own our city, its blight, its crime, its corruption, and all of the rotten things for which Detroit has become the urban posterchild. However, we also own our strengths: Our history, our culture, our infrastructure, and our architecture. Detroit is not like other places; it is a beautiful, brutal city.

It is against this backdrop that the Detroit Idea Factory will explore what makes a metropolitan area, both within Detroit and elsewhere. There will be daydream scribblings that refuse to be constrained by the realm of the possible, but they will be tempered with a conservative analysis of what I have come to think of as How Things Work.

How Things Work

How Things Work is an ever-evolving concept that shapes itself to any given context. It can be political, financial, or logistical. It could be a matter of going through city contracts line by line and filling out spreadsheets with data outlining benefits, taking notes on zoning codes, or searching for dusty notecards from the 1980s to find the social security number of a city employee that retired in the 70s because someone entered it into the computer wrong in the 90s. This should be boring, but in practice it is usually frantic.

It is impossible to consider even small dreams without considering the minutiae of How Things Work. We owe it to ourselves not only to dream and think big, but also to be certain that the so-called small things are attended to.

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