We dropped by the Detroit Future City's implementation office to chat with Ken Cockrel Jr., the executive director, about the think tank's proposed 50-year framework of ideas and some of the criticism the group has faced. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Metro Times: What's Detroit Future City's relationship with the mayor and his administration?
Ken Cockrel Jr.: Yeah. So, we are not a governmental agency or a city agency. We do, however, and we have been asked on some occasions to actually give input or strategic advice on some of the ideas and concepts that the city has. We also meet on a regular basis with the mayor's office towards that end. [Tom Lewand, Group Executive for Jobs and Economic Growth, of the mayor's office] has a weekly meeting that he does every week that I typically go to and now also our director of the project, Dan Kinkead, goes to those meetings as well. So, I think the administration is still figuring out and assessing the best way to move the framework forward because they're in kind of a unique position since this is really something that was created by a previous mayor (Dave Bing). So it's not something that their fingerprints were on, they just kind of inherited it. At the same time, as they've gone through it and looked at it, they kind of recognize that there might be a value in implementing a number of these recommendations. A lot of meetings that we have are really kind of with that in mind. Taking a page-by-page look at it and assessing what recommendations make sense that they might want to kind of implement.
MT: Can you talk about some of the current projects that are ongoing?
Cockrel: We've probably got about 30 to 50 different active projects. To give you an example, one project that we're working on now is really a developing project because we just got funding to do it just a couple of months ago ... something called the vacant lot transformation guide. The theory and the thinking behind that is that really, given that the city does have ... a tremendous amount of vacant property, the thinking behind the strategic initiative of creating an innovative open space network is to see if it's possible to take what we traditionally think of as being a liability and flip that thinking on its head and maybe convert it into an asset. So a lot of the vacant lots that are out there, the goal of the vacant lot transformation guide is to create a menu or a suite of different recommendations that a variety of different actors can use: If they want to acquire vacant land and put it back into productive use, or transform it and beautify it.
MT: Detroit's plans for blight removal: How much does that effort play into what the framework's long-term goals are? Is there any discussion about what to do once some of these homes start coming down in quick succession?
Cockrel: Yeah. That kinds of touches on really, I think, two strategic areas within the framework, one of which is, again, creating an innovative open space network. But the other is also neighborhood stabilization. So I look at that a couple of different ways, one of which is from a blight removal standpoint. One of the ways to stabilize neighborhoods is obviously to deal with blight and to eliminate blight. One project that we actually did, which really was oriented toward not only that but also job creation was a partial deconstruction pilot project, which actually wrapped up earlier this year. The goal of that project — and this actually was done — was to identify ten homes in southwest Detroit, specifically in the Spring Wells Village area, and do a partial deconstruction of those homes rather than just a straight demolition. The reality is, you got unofficial deconstruction that goes on in the city every day. Some people just break into a house and strip it, pull stuff out. The thinking here is, let's really create a legitimate market and really do it, which is something that other communities are doing. Even some of the material that's been pulled out of Detroit had ended up being resold in Chicago.
MT: What would you say to any of the criticisms that you've heard? Have you taken any steps to address any of them if you think there are some serious concerns that have been raised?
Cockrel: Let's go through some of those. Which one do you want to start with?
MT: Whether or not you think that it's an equitable plan, an equitable framework.
Cockrel: There's definitely a belief on the part of some people that the framework is really the secret gentrification plan for the city of Detroit. There's no doubt about that. That's a criticism that I have heard ... I think where some of that comes from is — I'll be kind of candid because we alluded to it earlier — the framework is a dense document and a very technical document. It's arguably too technical. And I can understand where some people might read it, and read some of the technical terms, and come away with the conclusion that, "Well this is basically calling for wiping out my neighborhood." At the end of the day, it's important to keep in mind the fact that the framework is exactly that: a set of recommendations. It's advice. It's not a true plan. It may become a plan at some time, I suppose, should the mayor decide he wants to incorporate a number of the recommendations into a master plan and then the council votes in support of it, but for right now it's essentially a framework. It's a set of different strategies on how to reposition the city for growth. How to deliver city services more efficiently. I think from an equity standpoint, it's important to keep that in mind. This is not a set-in-stone plan intended to govern what's going to happen in the city of Detroit for the next 50 years. At the end of the day, it's really going to fall to the people I talked about earlier, the decision-makers, to decide whether that's really something to buy into.
MT: There's still conversations to be had.
Cockrel: Quite a bit. Quite a bit. I can understand where the concerns come from because, like I said, the document is arguably overly technical. That's part of the reason that one of the things, since I've come aboard, I've committed to saying that for any subsequent publications we do, let's try to make them a bit more user-friendly. And more easily understood.
MT: Does Detroit need to shrink in scope?
Cockrel: I would say no. And it's interesting because I think the sense of things that I got is that during the early stages of Detroit Works, that messaging was out there and I think a lot of that, from when I was just on council as an outside observer, I think a lot of that language scared the hell out of a lot of people when you talked about downsizing the city. And I don't really think that's where we're at right now. I do think Mayor Duggan, to his credit, so far is doing a pretty good job of repositioning the city of Detroit for growth. I think what the play has got to be now, what the strategy has got to be now — having said that, I think we know which areas of the city are very low density and you need a strategy for how you handle those. Some of the things in the framework are really intended to address that. Things like use of open space.