A problem for cities like Detroit isn't lack of land for development
... this comes up in legacy center cities that have lost much of their past base of manufacturing, they have thousands of acres, if not tens of square miles of unused land.
So the article, "Factories or Runways? Municipal Airports Face Economic Pressure," in yesterday's New York Times about cities like Detroit looking to deaccession their municipal airports (I lived for a time near the old "Detroit City Airport" in the late 1960s...) to "offer prime space for development" misses the point.
There is plenty of other land already available elsewhere, not being developed, and much of it is better located.
Furthermore, in weak real estate markets, you want to focus development on the areas where you have critical mass, and build from there, rather than do development willy-nilly.
E.g., in the DC area, Prince George's County claims to be focused on transit oriented development, but its two biggest projects, National Harbor ("National Harbor Is a Private Urban Island Designed for Fun—If You Can Get There," Washington City Paper) and Konterra ("Development in Prince George's Could Rival Tyson's Corner, NBC4) lack high quality transit connections and are located outside of the county's core.
Similarly, earlier in the week the Washington Post ran a story, "Isiah Leggett's signature plan for Shady Grove is less lucrative than promised," about the failure by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett to stoke development of county-owned property in the Gaithersburg area. From the article:
The idea was ambitious when Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett pitched it in 2008: transform 90 acres of county-owned industrial land at the Red Line’s Shady Grove terminus into a transit-friendly urban village.Shady Grove Station is about 20 miles from Downtown Washington. It's not centrally located. Other developments in the vicinity are doing poorly, like Lake Forest Mall ("Struggling Lakeforest Mall faces foreclosure," Washington Business Journal), even though sprawl development continues unabated, although some firms like Marriott, are relocating their headquarters from outer suburban locations to transit-connected locations closer in ("Marriott Signs Letter of Intent for Headquarters in Downtown Bethesda ," press release).
Leggett’s Smart Growth Initiative would be a break-even proposition for taxpayers over time, he said, and might even make money as the county got an attractive new residential neighborhood and replaced outdated warehouses and garages with state-of-the-art facilities elsewhere.
But nearly a decade in, as Leggett (D) nears the end of his 12-year tenure, this signature project has not gone forward as expected. Only a fraction of the money anticipated from land sales to private developers has been paid so far. And the county’s difficulty in finding a new site for a school system bus depot has slowed progress on a major portion of the planned Shady Grove community, including a new park and elementary school.
In any case, less well connected land is underdeveloped for a reason.
This is true in DC as well. The city government has spent millions of dollars of time and energy aimed at redeveloping the Skyland Shopping Center in Ward 7, a more than 20 year process ("Blaming Walmart for Skyland's failure is misdirected: the culprits are DC's economic development and elected officials") and the St. Elizabeths West Campus ("Here's what the St. Elizabeths East first phase will look like," WBJ).
These sites won't develop until better located properties on the north and west side of the Anacostia River are built out.
Even the redevelopment of the Walter Reed Medical Campus will have that issue, vis a vis other sites that are better located or have more desirable demographics. The Wegmans that developers were trying to land at WRMC is being developed on Wisconsin Avenue in Ward 3 instead ("Wegmans to open in DC, anchor Fannie Mae redevelopment," WTOP Radio).
The struggle for local governments is that for political reasons they want and need to push these projects, but because the projects aren't economically viable on their own terms as 100% private sector funded, they require extranormal government funding, and take forever, with many failures along the way, because they are marginal to begin with.
On the other hand, it's very difficult for elected officials to say "the market isn't ready, so your neighborhood/this site will languish for a long long time and there's nothing we can really do about it."
Instead, they throw tons of money at it, in the end for naught, but no one can accuse them of not trying, not doing anything.