During interviews with six of the leading mayoral candidates, Metro Times asked each about plans to improve the city’s neighborhoods.
Charles Beckham, who headed the Water and Sewerage Department under the Coleman Young administration, says that developing a master plan for Detroit is critical to neighborhood and downtown development:
“Yes, we need to put some emphasis on neighborhoods, but here’s what the problem is: We don’t have a comprehensive city plan that says what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it and why we’re going to do it — and get input from people affected by it. We need to put together a very comprehensive city plan in terms of its development — commercial, residential — all the kinds of development that you need, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. We need a good plan that balances downtown with the neighborhoods.
“Every mayor gets blamed for spending more money downtown. The real issue is there are not enough good things going on in either place and that’s because, again, the city doesn’t work well. So we can’t ignore downtown now and decide to do everything in the neighborhoods.”
Former General Motors executive Bill Brooks says that economic development is key to thriving neighborhoods.
“Detroit spends over $500 million on groceries outside the city. I would work on developing retail groceries in the neighborhoods,” says Brooks. “I think we can build small business in the community.”
If elected mayor, he says that he would also pay people in the neighborhoods to plow the snow from streets and maintain city-owned lots.
“We’ve got to do some out-of-the-box thinking,” says Brooks. “We’re too cautions. My philosophy has been that I would rather ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.”
Joe Harris has been the City of Detroit auditor general since 1995. He says that his job gives him an intimate knowledge of the city’s inner workings.
“Everyone is saying the same thing, that they will rebuild the neighborhoods,” says Harris. “But no one is saying where they will get the money to do this.”
As auditor general, Harris says that he knows firsthand how the city wastes money by running departments inefficiently.
“I have shown the council in my reports how the city could save $100 million,” says Harris, who plans to use this money to pave and clean up streets, improve recreation centers, keep streetlights on and improve other city services.
Improving the public transportation system will save an additional $20 million which could also be invested in the neighborhoods, says Harris.
“You need to bring in new businesses and residents and you do that by improving city services,” he says. “The money is there.”
Detroit City Council President Gil Hill proposes replacing the 10 neighborhood city halls with 13 neighborhood city-service centers (one for each police precinct).
Staff will not only respond to residents’ complaints, but be proactive, says Hill, taking problems to city departments. “We intend to have them go out and look for conditions that detract from the quality of life,” he says. Service-center heads would meet weekly with the mayor and his chief operating officer to ensure problems are addressed.
Cleaning up neighborhood blight will attract businesses, says Hill.
“I want to extend the development downtown into our neighborhoods and create mainstream America in our neighborhoods. You can do it when you get the neighborhoods cleaned up … addressing the blight, giving people a reason to open up a hardware store or drug store or some type of facility.”
He said he would also get the city out of the real estate business by turning city-owned properties over to Realtors to sell and put back on the tax rolls. The companies would have to indemnify the city against them “screwing up a title or a deed or something.”
Detroit City Councilman Nicholas Hood III issued a Neighborhood Bill of Rights, which says that Detroit residents are entitled to clean, safe schools and streets, prompt emergency services, functioning streetlights and fire hydrants, police protection and shopping districts. He also says that the same effort made to improve downtown should be made in the neighborhoods.
He proposes giving vacant city land in neighborhoods to smart, committed developers to create family-style entertainment such as bowling alleys, movie theaters and roller-skating rinks.
“What we need now is a creative strategy on how to use the 40,000 vacant lots we have,” says Hood.
He also supports giving tax breaks to businesses and homeowners.
“A tax break for every dollar of investment people put in their house,” says Hood.
State Rep. Kwame Kilpatrick says that if elected mayor he would rebuild communities with his Core Neighborhood Development Plan, which proposes dividing the city into 10 areas and developing them according to their specific needs.
Kilpatrick says that it is necessary to develop Detroit neighborhoods “or you will never be able to sustain a tax base here. Politics 101 says to have a strong city, you have to sustain a strong tax base. People actually have to live here. People don’t choose to live in a city because casinos are downtown. I don’t care how many casinos you put down here. You can’t tie the whole economic strategy to casino growth. People live here if they have good schools, safe streets, parks, open space … walkable communities. And if we don’t do those things, we won’t be able to retain families. I don’t care what kind of new shiny building you have here. So there has to be a real core neighborhood development.”
Read "Message from the hood," a collection of interviews in which Detroiters make it clear that they want one thing from the new mayor: "Take care of the neighborhoods."
Listen in on Jack Lessenberry's conversation with a Detroiter who voices her concerns before this incredibly important election.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org