Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Detroit in underdrive

For all the talk about the resurgence of Detroit and its region after the collapse of two of the three major U.S. based automobile manufacturers there, which has devasted the regional economy, the city's recent choice to go with bus rapid transit instead of light rail, for a transit system on Woodward Avenue, which in turn dooms the ability of the ability to develop light rail along Woodward in Avenue in Oakland County, demonstrates that the region hasn't reached the point where it is willing to redefine and reposition for the future.

See "Detroit light-rail plan is dead; high-speed city, suburban buses to be used instead," "Light-rail investors press on with plans to build shorter line in Detroit," and "Detroit's do-or-die moment is at hand" from the Detroit Free Press.

From the last article, by columnist Tom Walsh:

The much ballyhooed Woodward light rail plan was always more important symbolically than it was in terms of its actual projected ridership or the construction jobs it would generate.

It embodied the elusive dream that private-sector investment from big names -- Roger Penske, Dan Gilbert, Peter Karmanos and the Ilitch family -- in tandem with support from philanthropic foundations such as Kresge and Hudson-Webber could help ignite an economic rebirth of Detroit along its main artery. ...

Just like the plug has been pulled on Woodward light rail, investments of all kinds – new housing to meet growing demand in Midtown, new shifts at auto plants, hospital expansions — could grind to a halt if Detroit is perceived to be imploding. Further down the road, there’s no law that says Detroit is entitled to have professional sports teams, symphonies or art museums forever.

The glimmer of hope here is that we have people in this town who have conjured improbable comebacks from the scariest of crises — the auto company CEOs and the heads of DMC and Henry Ford hospital groups, all of which were drowning in red ink a few short years ago.

Now is the time to act, before other promising projects are derailed like the Woodward light rail line.

-- Woodward Light Rail

Although to be fair, the project in Detroit has been scuttled in part because of a determination by the US DOT that poor economic prospects in Detroit and Michigan make long term stewardship and financial operation of a light rail system in Detroit a somewhat risky project.

On the other hand, I would argue that Detroit has to bet the farm if it wants to reposition.

With this decision, the city is likely to continue its economic free fall and failure. Maybe they should make a decision not unlike how Memphis did about its school system, forcing a merger with the county school system. See "Merger of Memphis and County School Districts Revives Challenges" from the New York Times.

Maybe Detroit should just merge into Wayne County, or Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb Counties should merge?

Interestingly, the wacked conservative politicians in Troy, Michigan (where I lived during my junior and senior high school years) are similarly vision-less, having voted against support for the creation of an enhanced rail station in the city, which borders Birmingham. (When I was in high school, there was a local commuter railroad service that stopped at this station, although I can't remember if I ever took it, my adoptive father did from time to time.)

They did this out of some misplaced belief that the federal government is wasting money on transit, on "principle," as the City Council needed to make a decision in favor of the station for the plan to go forward, but the project involved federal and state transportation funding--and the Governor of the State of Michigan, Rick Snyder, a Republican, is in favor of the project.

See "Troy turns down plan for transit center, passes on $8.4M in fed funds" from the Detroit News and "In Troy, an all-too-familiar fear of the other" from the Detroit Free Press.

From the Detroit News article:

After a decade of planning, a regional transit center is off the table after the Troy council voted Monday to pass up a design contract that would have paved the way for $8.4 million in federal funding to build it.

A divided council listened to residents, stakeholders and engineers speak for about two hours before turning down, in a 4-3 vote, an architectural and engineering contract to design the facility. The decision puts an end to a project that polarized the community.

By voting not to award the contract to build the transit center, the council essentially forfeited the $8.4 million in federal grant money. ... "We were not going to approve this transit center. We didn't believe it was the right way to use taxpayers' money or to move this city forward in a positive and vibrant way."

From the Detroit Free Press article:


Until a few weeks ago, it wouldn't have occurred to me or anyone else to describe the denizens of Troy that way. On its face, after all, the largest city in Michigan's richest county is a pretty sophisticated place. ...

To be a hick in 2011, then, is to be in a state of denial -- which is why "hicks" is precisely the right word to describe Troy Mayor Janice Daniels and the like-minded elected city leaders who've sent Troy reeling backward in time, grasping for a past that is not so much racist or unsophisticated as it is, well, past. ...

Daniels & Co. invoked a series of spurious arguments to defend their decision, including the claim that they were striking a blow against federal spending. (In fact, the federal money that had been earmarked for the Troy transit center will now be disbursed for similar projects elsewhere, although not necessarily in Michigan.)

But their real motive was transparent: the fear that outsiders currently disinclined to visit Troy may do so if enticed by a modern train station and convenient parking, at an incalculable cost to Troy taxpayers and their way of life.

This paranoid insularity is hardly unique to Troy, of course. It's epidemic in Michigan, a state whose percentage of native-born residents is second to only Louisiana's.

Nor is it unique to the relatively affluent suburbs. In fact, the closest parallel to Troy's Mayor Daniels may be Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, whose reflexive suspicion of suburban outsiders mirrors the concern Daniels and her allies express about transit riders from the region beyond Troy's borders.

-- Environmental Assessment, Troy/Birmingham Intermodal Transportation Facility, Oakland County, Michigan

Of course, putting in enhanced transit service in a place like Detroit is a counterintuitive decision because the economy is dependent on the automobile, and the automobile-based economy is dependent on sprawl--the Detroit region is the most deconcentrated of any metropolitan area in the U.S.

But 21st Century mobility, and place positioning for cities vis-a-vis others favors high quality transit service. Research by Newman and Kenworthy finds that regions with robust transit have higher incomes and a more robust economy compared to regins that don't.

Washington, DC would be a basket case--no different from Newark or Baltimore in all likelihood--without the heavy rail subway system, which opened its first phase in 1976 and didn't fulfill its original footprint until around 2001.

Sure there was plenty of high quality historic residential building stock, and the steady employment engine of the federal government, but access to high quality transit redefined many neighborhoods, repositioning their value and position within the regional economy.

A couple nights ago, exchanging holiday presents with one of our next door neighbors--they are lifelong DC residents--we were talking about their early experiences as a young married couple, living more than 30 years ago at 15th and R Streets NW, and how they sold their house for about $150,000 in the early 1980s, and how it would be worth at least $800,000 today.

Thank the Metro for that.

Despite all the lousy government and decline in the quality of municipal services, including most (but not all) ofthe school system, the subway service made living in the city a worthwhile choice despite all the negatives of urban living.

How Detroit thinks that enhanced bus service--nowhere in the U.S. is bus rapid transit making much of a difference in terms of repositioning communities and neighborhoods within metropolitan regions--will help it going forward is beyond me.

Seeing how light rail lines are helping reposition places like Minneapolis and Phoenix ought to have been a lesson that more desperate communities like Detroit ought to have learned from.

But it should be no surprise that they haven't.

Talking with my neighbors (because we always talk about and mostly lament the state of local government) the other night, I made my point that DC failures, especially within neighborhoods, aren't just the result of disinvestment, but also a failure of leadership at all levels.

Similarly, Detroit is in the position that it is in because of six decades of failed leadership by people in business, government, and the unions. It didn't happen overnight...

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home