Never has the devastation of the lower Cass Corridor been more visible than during the Great Blizzard of 1999. With sidewalks buried under snow, the homeless people, prostitutes, addicts and wanderers who populate the neighborhood took to the streets, making it impossible to so much as pass through a green light without quite literally staring face-to-face with the bleak reality of what we have let our city become.
So it was not without irony that more than 100 architects, designers and urban planners from around the country, along with students from three Michigan universities, arrived in the heart of the neighborhood on a snowy January 6, armed with cases of Prismacolors and a mission: redesign the bombed-out environs in which they found themselves.
The University of Michigan’s Cass Corridor Design Charette — an intensive five-day urban design workshop — was the brainchild of Douglas Kelbaugh, the new dean of U-M’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Formerly at the University of Washington, Kelbaugh has conducted such workshops in Seattle, Vancouver, California and Australia. Upon coming to U-M last fall, Kelbaugh contacted Detroit officials, seeking a location for his next charette. They chose the Corridor, due to its critical position between downtown and the Cultural Center. As a graduate student in urban planning at Wayne State, I participated in the project.
Working with so many outsiders was often frustrating. They barely had time to learn the way from their hotel rooms to the bar, let alone ingest the complexities of revitalizing this city. The process, however, was aided considerably by the dozens of local professionals.
Few of the ideas presented were entirely novel — folks have been discussing the merits of a light rail system for years, for instance — but the forum itself was of a type new to Detroit. Proposals ranged from the practical (turn Second Avenue into a two-way street) to the ridiculous (run an aerial tram along Woodward). Some, frankly, seemed more tailored to downtown Birmingham than the neighborhood encompassing Detroit’s poorest ZIP code. But this was all part of the creative process.
"The idea is to jump-start and inspire the powers that be, public and private, to start looking at the area more carefully, not only to revitalize it but to stabilize it," Kelbaugh later told me.
Kelbaugh, after all, has seen concrete projects emerge from his charettes in other cities. Plans for mixed-use housing and retail developments, surface transportation and urban forestry all make perfect sense for Detroit, he says. But resources — both public and private, as Kelbaugh points out — must be made available.
This is why it was disappointing, if not at all surprising, when Nettie Seabrooks, Mayor Dennis Archer’s chief of staff, told participants that the city truly is interested in development outside the greater downtown, but cautioned that funds are limited. In other words we, too, see the need to think beyond casinos, stadiums and office plazas, but since that’s where we directed all our money, anything else must happen through private funding or divine intervention.
Later, a weary Karen McLeod, executive director of Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation, spoke up. These are useful ideas, she told us, but be prepared to deal with the realities of implementing them. She and others in the neighborhood have been pressuring the city to implement our most basic suggestion — making traffic on Second Avenue two-way — for 15 years.
The problem, as many in this city already know, is not just a lack of capital but a lack of vision. Run-of-the-mill solutions won’t work in Detroit because Detroit is not dealing with run-of-the-mill problems. We need to admit that, however vibrant some pockets may be, we still have not raised ourselves that far above rock bottom. I had to admit it with every transient motel, burned-out building and vacant property we studied.
The innovative ideas raised at the charette, like those proposed and shot down here regularly, were not pulled from thin air. They were based on working models in working cities. And what makes those cities work is that civic leaders bought into a vision. For some ridiculous reason, I keep hoping that the mayor and the corporate funders who so tout their commitment to this city will one day catch on.