It's all about the "re-" these days when people talk about the city's future:
Reimagine Detroit, journalist John Gallagher urges in his recently released book title.
Redesign the crumbling, outdated city infrastructure, the planners say.
Realign the city departments and services to save money, the fiscally minded clamor.
Mayor Dave Bing has dubbed the effort the "Detroit Works Project," a simple if vague moniker to describe his administration's goal to re-build, re-shape and re-position Detroit.
Bing has charged city leaders and an advisory committee to craft a plan he and City Council can use to guide future decisions about city programs, development, mass transportation planning and other urban efforts.
Having held five sometimes contentious community meetings this fall, attended by about 5,000, Bing's team will conduct dozens more workshops this winter. Residents will speak. Planners will plan. City business will continue, but sometime next year, after the input phase has been completed, the mayor promises to share what his administration's vision will be to restart, redevelop and perhaps eventually repopulate the city.
They will all try to match city policy with the current reality: a city with far fewer people that can't rely on the fruits of the automotive industry and needs to reinvent its future.
Here's what all involved hope will be produced: a plan that honestly addresses Detroit's problems and the conditions of the people who live here, and offers solutions that both government and the private sector can provide.
This week, Metro Times brings readers a selection of conversations about the eventual plan, the process and some of the factors that will determine or be affected by its success. From interviews with academics, city officials, neighborhood leaders and advocates of particular, relevant issues we bring perspectives, philosophies, opinions and researched realities to further discussion about what Bing and his people face.
If they pull it off, a new Detroit could emerge. If not, well, we'd rather not re-flect on that.
The three women leading Mayor Dave Bing's Detroit Works effort bring both local experience and national perspective.
One, Marja Winters, is a long-time Detroit city employee, another, Karla Henderson, is a relative newcomer to the city's administration but has experience in Highland Park and Ann Arbor.
The third, Toni Griffin, is a national leader in urban planning and has been credited for successes in the revitalization of areas of Washington, D.C., and Newark.
They admit to being surprised, if not completely blindsided, by the angst and occasional hostility they've faced, especially during the five well-publicized community meetings held to seek community input about a future plan for the city.
"We were ready to have a conversation about what Detroit should look like in 2030, and there were some citizens who needed to talk about the challenges we face today," says Henderson.
As Bing's group executive for planning and facilities, she works with Winters, deputy director of the city's Planning and Development Department, and Griffin, the Harvard-affiliated "hired gun" whose Kresge Foundation-paid salary has drawn ire from some who see the private funding of her work by the suburban-based group as a symbol of outsiders trying to take over and profit from the city.
Still, the women have embarked on an ambitious project: create a new plan where none has succeeded with at least the two previous mayoral administrations to address the city's shrinking population; redesign city operations to match the financial realities of the city's troubled budget, currently facing a deficit of between $85 million and $125 million; stabilize neighborhoods for the people who continue to live in them; attract economic development through existing and future projects; and craft guidelines for how to manage Detroit's roughly 40 square miles of vacant land within the city's 139-square-mile footprint.
Their next step is the 40 community forums planned through January, where residents will again have a chance to vent their frustrations. Still the trio hopes to focus that energy on the plan for the future.
"We're kind of flushing through some of these ideas, but we know we need to continue to create a dialogue about some of the near-term challenges that our citizens are facing," Henderson says. "But that's a function that theoretically, practically the city should be performing anyway. So the other half of the discussion is this project."
Metro Times talked with Griffin, Henderson and Winters and heard about some aspects of the project.
Metro Times: What's happened since those five famous meetings?
Henderson: What's happened since the last five meetings is that we got a ton of information. We had to kind of absorb all of the information and be able to put it into some categories. We had comment cards. We had people on video giving the messages. We had the scribes going on. We need to take all that information and put it into something, a summary. And we want to make sure we are responding to what the citizens' needs are and what their desires are about this process.
Winters: We're looking at how to get the longer term buy-in of the plan and the mobilizing — to have people thinking longer term and about implementation, the longer end of the plan.
Henderson: We need to create a space for people. That was loud and clear.
MT: Beyond the meetings, what's the hope of getting buy-in on the project?
Winters: I think the first is related to the everyday essence of what we have to do in government. We talk about this whole idea of building trust and building confidence from the residents. Once we have a plan, is it going to be implemented? So sort of along the way we think that making sure we do a good job of delivering city service on a daily basis and being responsive builds that confidence and that trust and fuels people's passion and hope to be engaged in this process. Something that can actually come forth and be fruitful and productive for the city.
MT: What framework or goals for the process do you have?
Griffin: One of the goals of the plan is to help the city be more strategically aligned and coordinated around how and where they spend their resources. As in using and looking at a number of other works that are going on, the work around the elimination of blight and looking at school capital programs as well. What we're hoping to do through this effort is to help agencies citywide better align and focus their resources in ways that leverage one another and help create more neighborhood sustainability and more neighborhoods of choice.
Winters: I think in essence the name describes it. When you think about the inefficiencies of how city government is run, much of that contributed to how the population is sparsely populated all over across the city. How can we get to a point of creating a better quality of life for the residents? And then also, how can we be a more efficient and effective government in response to the citizen population? Certainly we want a sustainable community in the city of Detroit. We want a functional and efficient government and we want to enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods across the city of Detroit. This process is the "how do we get there?" I think everybody brings different perspectives and thoughts to the table about how we get there, but I don't think we'll find lots of people who will disagree about wanting more green space or their quality of life enhanced.
MT: How much of this is focusing on the city administration and how to organize it?
Henderson: Right now we have a technical team on board that's looking at the majority of our operational departments, looking at things like, does it make sense to say, outsource forestry, for example. What are some operational things where we can get a cost savings and efficiency, provide a better services? What are some of those that we consider no-brainers? We are looking at operations of departments also.
MT: What efforts are going on now that actually are part of the long-term plan, whatever it turns out to look like or include?
Henderson: For me it's demolition, because we know we have structures that need to come down. We can plan all we want. And we are going to plan all these wonderful things for the city, but the blight is still sitting there. You've got to get rid of the blight so the opportunity to repurpose the vacant land can occur. We're going to be taking down 3,000 structures this year. We've identified (mainly federal) funding for 3,000 structures next year and hopefully we'll have some funding to get some of the commercial structures down along Gratiot and Michigan avenues. We believe we need to start addressing that so when the plan does roll out we're not then spending the next three years demolishing structures, that the land will be ripe for this new plan, whatever it may be.
MT: Two of the other headline-generating efforts are the Woodward Light Rail and the greenways that are planned and somewhat funded throughout the city. How do projects like that fit in with Detroit Works?
Winters: When you talk about Transit Oriented Development — and the Woodward Light Rail is the big one — how are strategies and investment aligning on that corridor? How do we think about land and the economic development strategy for that area? Greenways and open space are always huge considerations. The Parks Department is rethinking their master plan and thinking about, as there's a decline in resources, how do they decide which parks to invest in? So, as we start looking at information on which neighborhoods are strong and which neighborhoods are sort of disconnected from parks, that information will be helpful to them as we make these kind of decisions.
MT: What about regional coordination?
Griffin: Absolutely, but we're certainly taking the approach that the city wants to be a good regional partner, therefore wants to make sure it's operating on its highest efficiency, help create sustainability in government and for the city but we also recognized in this effort that we do need to have important regional conversations. Transportation would be an obvious one but looking at new economic opportunities is an equally important one.
MT: How detailed have you gotten with the plan so far, for example, on the issue of vacant land and green spaces?
Winters: Not to any degree and detail yet. I think when you have conversations about what to do with the underutilized, vacant land, people want to pit one use against the other. The reality is we have a lot of vacant land we can utilize for a variety of different purposes. It's not that we want to use it all to create green spaces. But if green spaces are missing from neighborhoods where there's going to be a strong presence of families with children, we need to think about that. Or to the extent that green spaces can be linkages from neighborhoods to downtown or links from one to another or to the riverfront, we're thinking about those things, but we're really not at the point of having detailed conversations of what those green spaces can look like. But it's certainly one of the things we're looking at for the underutilized vacant land.
MT: In addition to the public forums, how else is the city gathering data from which to create the plan?
Griffin: The team is going to be looking across nine technical categories: land use and land development, neighborhoods and housing, open space and ecology, environmental sustainability, urban design, historic and cultural resources, transportation, infrastructure, and public services. Right now the team is about midway through doing an initial assessment of what existing conditions are within each of these categories. And finding any challenges as well as any opportunities that can inform the plan. We are definitely looking at this planning framework as a plan for implementation. So it's very important in whatever we come up with that we understand the operations and implementation portion of it. Certainly getting a sense of how certain city services are operating and functioning currently, and the impact of having a city whose infrastructure is larger than its population is probably going to ever be again, how do things get reorganized and reformed to help match the vision going forward?
MT: How do you use that data to convince the residents this is needed?
Griffin: It's going to be, as you can imagine, quite a large amount of technical data. Part of our job in designing a civic engagement strategy is to try to break that information down in ways that people can understand, people who don't talk like us in the profession. We start going deeper, deeper into the process and engaging stakeholders and residents to provide them with this information in a way that's digestible and easy to understand so we're all cooperating ultimately on some of the tough choices we're going to have to make.
MT: What is an example of such a tough choice?
Griffin: Tough choices are like the ones that have been happening already around transportation systems, for example, where we put them, and around where do we demolish dangerous properties? These are some of choices that are happening now.
MT: How do you overcome the resistance and suspicion to Detroit Works that we've already seen?
Henderson: We keep talking honestly and transparently, admitting when we make mistakes, being forthright and being able to adapt and understanding that we don't have all the answers.
MT: Detroit doesn't have a great history with promises about the benefits and successes of other city-led projects like the casinos on the waterfront, the Poletown plant, the Renaissance zones and the neighborhood initiatives suggested by the previous two mayors. How can the Bing administration overcome that track record?
Winters: I think implementation will be key. When you hear people talk, they say, "We went through a planning process and nothing ever happened." So I think, to the point that you can build up and have some key deliverables and timelines and resources, once you get to that phase, so that implementation is actually happening, that's important. I also think being up front and realistic and open about what the real problems are is important.
Henderson: We've got to have the tougher conversations as well. How do you tell a group that's been doing work in this neighborhood for 10 or 15 years that the data shows that we should not put any more housing stock, that we shouldn't build anything else right there? How do we be as honest about what the data is showing us and sharing that and putting it all out on the table and then coming to some kind of agreement? We know there will be people that will not be happy with some of the recommendations that come out of this. If you've been doing the work of the community for all these years, we don't want to discount that, but it's a much different city at a much different time and so that's going to be difficult.
Winters: I would just add to that the point that the plan needs to be as equitable as possible. People feel like something good is happening at the expense of something bad happening to somebody else. With one of our guiding principles being equity, the goal is to make sure it's a win-win situation and nobody is left off in a worse situation as a result of what we're doing with this plan, so that everybody doesn't see it as one neighborhood over another, or neighborhood versus downtown, or me versus this person. It's what is the best situation for the greater good for the citizens of the city of Detroit.
Charter commission has role in forming city's future
Unlike the initial Detroit Works meetings, which were rowdy affairs that attracted a total of about 5,000 people, the Detroit Charter Commission has been relatively quiet as it pursues its role in planning the city's future.
While the mayor's Detroit Works team figures out, in part, how to restructure and realign city services to better match what resources are available and what population needs to be served, the Detroit Charter Commission is at work on related issues.
Elected to create a new city charter to also deal with how to implement council-by-districts, the panel has been meeting, thinking and planning since shortly after voters chose its nine members last year. They will eventually draft a document that, if approved by voters, could rearrange the number and power of Detroit's elected officials, eliminate city departments or prescribe certain city operations — all actions that would affect, support or challenge the Detroit Works project. With the council-by-districts part of the effort, the three processes could help form a newly styled Detroit government.
While there is no formal connection required between the Charter Commission and the Detroit Works effort, the commission has invited the mayor and the City Council to offer suggestions. They were due this week but both the administration and council have asked for an extension, says Jenice Mitchell Ford, commission chair.
The commission this weekend (Nov. 20 and 21) at its second formal convention, will consider the issues of privatization of services, consolidation of departments, neighborhood and community development, transportation, planning and economic development — all issues Detroit Works is addressing as well.
At present, the charter requires that there be a certain number and certain types of departments in city and also contains other prescriptions for the the city's operation. For example, when Kwame Kilpatrick resigned, the charter dictated there be four mayoral elections — both the replacement primary and general election, and then the regularly scheduled primary and general election — within the calendar year to fill the vacancy. That clearly was an unneeded expense to a cash-strapped city.
The charter also does not mandate a health department or public health services except to say the city "shall" provide a hospital and health service. The charter does, however, require a human rights department. Whether other city departments, other levels of government or the nonprofit sector could do such work is a moot point right now: The charter requires it, the city has one.
"That's an example of how some departments and services can streamline but until the charter takes the mandatory out then the current or any administration's hands are tied," Mitchell Ford says.
Her election to the commission was Mitchell Ford's first public office. An attorney at Foley Lardner, she recognizes the role the Charter Commission can play in shaping the city's future.
Metro Times: Are people realizing the bridge between the Charter Commission's effort and Detroit Works?
Jenice Mitchell Ford: We've been getting more questions about that, just trying to make sure that three separate processes that are going on in the city right now are working in some sort of coordinated fashion. You don't want to have all this duplicative work going on. You have the mayor's Detroit Works projects. You have the Charter Commission and the City Council and the districting issue. There is some question as to whether these things are being done in silos or are you working together.
MT: But the Charter Commission is a separately elected body. How does that change what your responsibilities are?
Ford: I would say the Charter Commission, as a fundamental principle, the Charter Commission tends to be a pretty independent process. You don't want people to believe that the executive branch and the legislative branch are driving the process, drafting the document by which they have to abide. However, in our work we have continuously and from the beginning up to now reached out to the mayor and the City Council and said, "Give us your recommendations for changes to this charter so we're not making decisions in a vacuum."
MT: Part of what Detroit Works is seeking to do is match what services are provided with what money is available in the city budget. How does the commission address that issue?
Ford: The threshold question for a lot of this is what are core and non-core city services? What do the citizens believe is the city's responsibility toward them in the context of current and future financial situations and in the context of a declining population? In large part we're still attempting to provide the same level of city service that we provided when we had lot more population and a lot more money to do it. This process really allows us to ask the question, "What are core city services that the city must provide?" In my opinion, just as a taxpayer and citizen and a resident, you can put everything you want to put in the charter, you can put everything you want, but in the end if we are in a position where we can't do it, it's just words on paper. So what is the point of that?
MT: Are there services or departments that are untouchable?
Ford: The are certain things that I think people just have an expectation that their city provide: garbage, police, fire, water. When you get into stuff like public lighting, is that something that people really expect their city to provide or can that be provided a different way?
MT: Does a "different way" means privatizing it?
Ford: Well, I guess that would be one way to look at it or just that we don't provide it and we allow DTE to do it or Consumers or something like that.
MT: So one thing the commission could do with a new charter is allow or encourage more privatization?
Ford: There is a current privatization section in the charter and it provides for a pretty onerous, nine-step process for privatizing services that are provided by the city. That was one of our very, very well attended meetings. You had people from the union side being very vociferous about maintaining that language and then you had a lot of people who feel differently who are not as vociferous.
MT: The Charter Commission is scheduled to present its draft document during the spring and the mayor's preliminary Detroit Works document should come out later next year. How will each be different?
Ford: The charter is a more broad structure. We would just speak to the framework of the transportation department, for example, or enabling language for a regional authority whereas the mayor's works project would actually get into the details of it, the meat and potatoes of its operation. That's the distinction of what the charter would do on an issue versus what the mayor or a City Council ordinance would do on an issue.
MT: But charter has influence on what the Detroit Works plan — and any future city operations — will be?
Ford: I agree.
The charter convention is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21, at the Brenda Scott Academy, 18400 Hoover St. Another convention will include presentations from the city's executive and legislative branches the weekend of Dec. 4 and Dec. 5 at Cass Technical High School, 2501 Second Ave.
THESE THREE THINGS
It's generally agreed that mass transit, urban farming and eminent domain are all issues that must be addressed by the Detroit Works plan. What's not agreed upon is how that should be accomplished. This is what several experts have to say about these issues and how they relate to the plan being developed.
Projects are planned and at least partially funded for a high-speed train to Chicago and for a light rail system up Woodward Avenue at least to the city boundaries. Both projects could support future economic development and help "green" the region, says Cece Grant, Michigan organizer, based in Detroit, for the national nonprofit Transportation for America.
Metro Times: Why should mass transit be included in the Detroit Works plan?
Cece Grant: I think people don't realize how good of a job Detroit is doing in planning the housing development and the economic development around the light rail corridor. It's about much more than a train. It's about stabilizing neighborhoods. You have a 25 percent housing growth in areas where there is a train station in other cities. As the city goes about right sizing and stabilizing neighborhoods, we're going to have those core areas where it will be a lot easier to bring development.
MT: But the only mass transit planned for the city — high-speed rail to Chicago withstanding — is the light rail from the riverfront to New Center, with a plan to extend it to Eight Mile. Can that make a difference?
Grant: I think it may sound trite, but Rome wasn't built in a day. When you're doing mass transit from scratch basically, you have to start somewhere. You can't bring rapid transit systems to the entire city all at once because it costs too much money and it's too resource intensive. I believe that the Woodward Corridor is just the start. Once people see all of the excitement, all of the development that comes around the Woodward Corridor, it's going to be a lot easier to duplicate that success along other corridors in other neighborhoods in other cities.
There's no discussion of Detroit's vacant land without some reference to urban farming. But planners and other experts are far from unanimous in their opinions about its worth or potential for the city.
Metro Times: Should urban farming be included or embraced in the city's redesign?
George Galster, professor of geography and urban planning at Wayne State University: It's a buzzword which I think is ambiguous because it masks many subsectors within that world that are trying to accomplish different things. For example, there is one group that is really just trying to use this as a tool to provide fresh vegetables to a population that often doesn't have much opportunity to get such a thing. It's almost a health kind of related motivation. That's fine.
Another group sees urban farming as a way to socially organize communities and give kids a chance to experience a healthy recreational activity and maybe to organize more general collective activities in neighborhoods that might involve street patrols and cleanups and who knows what other good things could happen. So, as a vehicle for community organizing, that's absolutely OK.
Other people want to do it because it's a fine hobby and there's lots of vacant land potentially available to do it and that's all fine too.
And there are some people who talk about doing it for commercial business purposes. It's possible that they could make a profitable business out of it. It's possible. This is going to be tricky because we really don't have a lot of precedent on it. The business model is really unproven. I'm going to remain on the sidelines and see what happens in that regard.
John Mogk, professor of law at Wayne State University who chaired a governor's task force in the early 1970s that tried to address issues of providing public services, encouraging private sector investment and addressing regionalism:
The nice thing about urban farming is there are many benefits to be achieved and it can be carried out on parcels both small and large. The benefits are you actually may be able to address the issues of hunger and poor nutrition, increase the self-esteem of individuals who are involved in it.
You can create community cohesiveness. You eliminate blight and increase the greening of neighborhoods where it occurs and you actually might have some people who are able to support themselves supplementally with an income or actually professionally, actually have a job involved in the urban agricultural arena. It can be done in large sites and small.
And we're talking about the debate and the issue as it relates to Detroit. Detroit has 30,000 acres of vacant land. Detroit currently doesn't have a zoning ordinance or master plan that refers to agriculture, so they're in the process of seeing how that can be addressed. One approach is to set aside certain agricultural districts where you might allow large farms and regulate them for use. I see no downside to having one or several pilot for-profit farms when you have so much vacant land and so much more that's coming online because, in the absence of that particular type of farming being undertaken, it's unlikely anything else will be developed on that site.
Kurt Metzger, executive director of Data Driven Detroit, a two-year-old nonprofit that seeks to provide information to help guide policy decisions in the public and private sectors:
I'm just so tired of urban farms. I have a colleague and she says "plantation" every time she hears that. She says, "Gee, they're going to let us work on the farm?" What kind of jobs are they going to be providing? Maybe it's money for the owner, but what does that do for job generation, what does it do for neighborhoods, development?
Perhaps it was a politically astute move to gain support, perhaps an honest attempt to allay widespread concern among residents that the city would forcibly take people's homes to clear land for whatever plan emerges. Whichever or both, Mayor Dave Bing said earlier this year he wouldn't use "eminent domain" as part of the strategy to redesign the city.
Still, the discussion of eminent domain as tool and its availability and suitability for the Detroit Works projects continues.
Michigan law recently changed to make it tougher for governments to use eminent domain for economic development projects. But Russ Harding, previously head of the state's Department of Environmental Quality and currently director of property rights network at the fiscally conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, says not everyone who might be affected is aware of their rights and when their property could be taken.
Metro Times: How did the new law change what governments can do and what protections homeowners have in the case of governments clearing out blight?
Russ Harding: We don't allow entire neighborhoods to be declared blighted. They have to look at each individual property. Where government does take something, they have to meet market values, plus in addition what would cover the cost of people moving at all.
MT: How can governments use eminent domain for different types of projects?
Harding: Most people would agree that there's a legitimate government action to take property for instruments of commerce, for example, or where you've got to have a highway, a utility corridor or even a school. But when you start saying we'd rather have a Ritz Carlton than a Motel Six, that's a different issue.
MT: Michigan recently changed state law to explicitly prevent properties from being taken for economic development. Why?
Harding: Michigan, along with many other states, said that we want to protect private property and that we don't think that making the taking by the government of private property for commercial reasons or to try and raise revenue is appropriate.
MT: How do the typical political sides line up on issues related to eminent domain?
Harding: This crosses the political spectrum. Often your poorer, economically disadvantaged populations are most affected by this. They usually lack the resources to represent themselves against these sorts of government takings. On the conservative side of the spectrum, I think it's more the freedom issue and the idea that government should not be doing this. It's not a proper role of government. The two sides sort of come together on it. There's been a lot of political support on it. The resistance tends to be from your government types, your planners and your bureaucrats and those folks who think they should be able to plan the economy and that sort of thing.
MT: The Detroit Works Project, when it's presented, could show plans for future land use for a variety of purposes including public, like parks, and private, like housing or other economic developments. How could the dynamics of eminent domain law influence how the city implements the plan?
Harding: In Detroit you're talking about an entirely different issue than in other parts of the state. It's not so much driven by wanting to bring economic development in. It appears to me that it's being driven by the realization that they can't support the infrastructure and the kind of service for the population. That's a little different than the economic, but I think the statutory and constitutional protection that Michigan has on private property could be a barrier to the mayor and others that might want to do that.
MT: So how can the city possibly accomplish a citywide redesign of land use and population distribution?
Harding: What I would suggest is that if they can provide incentives and a vast majority of the people take those, maybe they can accomplish what they want to. It's going to take some patience and some time. I would think the city could be making a mistake to move too quickly and to force what people don't want.
IN SEARCH OF A VISION
An architect, academic and lover of the city, University of Detroit Mercy's Stephen Vogel and his faculty are leading tours of Detroit every month for visitors from around the globe who come to see what they've read about: a city ready for a new design.
Vogel, dean of the School of Architecture, sees the timing as finally being right: a new mayor, a federal government perhaps willing to address urban and holistic community issues and a city that just can't fundamentally survive without some new effort, energy and initiative.
Metro Times: Why now? Why do you have more hope than at any other time in the last few decades that something will work?
Stephen Vogel: I think Dave Bing is the first mayor that we've had who understands. Kwame may have understood it but he was busy doing other things, and I don't think in the era of Dennis Archer there was acknowledgment, at least public acknowledgment, that the city was shrinking and would continue to shrink. I don't think that it was acceptable to talk about until now. Now everybody is talking about it, the government and the private sector are talking about it. I see that as a positive thing. I think reality just made it undeniable.
MT: Haven't other efforts at economic development been made in Detroit?
Vogel: In the 1990s, no matter how many billions of dollars you spent on projects downtown, it's just a tiny fraction of what the whole city issue is. And the net loss is still 10,000 people a year no matter what you do. We've had great growth in the city in the Hispanic, Muslim and some of the Far Eastern communities, but it hasn't offset the net loss per year. I'm not saying the city will never grow again, but we have to deal with the issues at hand and deal with them positively, not negatively.
MT: Why is there such international interest in Detroit?
Vogel: If you look at all the textbooks on urban design or planning they're all based on growth. There is no textbook on Detroit. In a way we're sort of carving new ground. There's a general sense around the world, maybe not so much in America, that all cities are heading in the direction that Detroit is. To put a positive spin on it, however, is when architects or urban designers or planners see images of Detroit, they see it in a romantic sense. They see a very unusual environment and they see opportunity to become involved in this environment. I haven't had a group visit once that didn't fall in love with Detroit.
MT: But that international interest isn't necessarily shared by people living here.
Vogel: Some people do see Detroit as sort of a testing ground. Of course, if you're living in a neighborhood that's being tested ... that's different. A lot of people in neighborhoods have been planned to death, they think, and what has it gotten them? I think people's skepticism, rightfully so, is very high. I just happen to think that Bing is a man of integrity, and the city really intends for something positive to happen out of this.
MT: What would your Detroit Works plan look like?
Vogel: I think there are three or four major elements. One is a strong greater downtown. You know the T shape: the riverfront east and west from downtown and up Woodward. That's actually quite well along. I also think to make this work they need to go back to the ward or district system. Then maybe the third element that I've heard it called different things: reinforcing urban centers or urban villages, having neighborhood density. Fourth is what happens with the vacant land? One of the terms we use around here is productive landscapes.
MT: Does that mean urban farming?
Vogel: Yes, but you can't just do urban farming. There are other productive landscapes. This gets into green energy and some of these other things. You can't say we're going to have 50 square miles of park. We can't maintain the parks we have let alone adding to it. So there has to be some sort of landscape where jobs can be generated.
MT: Is there a precedent anywhere in the world for another city doing this kind of re-design?
Vogel: No, not even close. There's nothing on the scale of Detroit's vacant land. But you can build a new city in Detroit. I think that's the point. We have to stop thinking about this as negative. We could become the greenest city in the world, literally and figuratively.
MT: Is there anything that makes you think there are actually federal dollars for this?
Vogel: They say that Washington wants to do something for Detroit. Generally speaking, when you have a Democratic president you can get a pipeline of money. But the problem with Detroit has always been they didn't have this bigger vision. I think if the mayor can present a bigger vision to Obama, assuming he survives all this political turmoil, I can't imagine us not having a lot of support. Whether the Obama administration has an urban agenda or not, I just can't imagine there not being support for it. But I think Detroit has trouble articulating [a positive vision]. You can articulate the problems of the city, but can you articulate really positive vision of what the city could become?
A VIEW FROM LAFAYETTE PARK
Now in her 70s, Harriet Saperstein is retired.
Retired, that is, from her paid employment — which was mainly in Detroit-based urban planning jobs dating back to the 1960s, when she researched the effects of urban renewal in what is now the Lafayette Park area.
A sociology teacher in the 1960s, she left the classroom to work as a Detroit city planner where she was for more than 20 years. After that, she ran HP Devco, the economic development organization in Highland Park, for 17 years until retiring just three years ago. Now she volunteers with four nonprofits, turning her attention and efforts to Belle Isle, the city's recreational and green space, affordable housing, and business development, and she keeps a schedule speaking to classes and community groups.
She's also the chair of the Woodward Avenue Access Association, a group that strives, in part, to make the M-1 Corridor work for the region by improving the density of its neighborhoods, preserving its historical and cultural sites, promoting and supporting business opportunity and coordinating the 11 communities and two counties the roadway passes through.
Saperstein's lingering youthful enthusiasm blends with the realism of a senior citizen who doesn't underestimate the sometimes overlooked resources in the city and the region. She's cautiously optimistic but honestly pragmatic about the future of the city she calls home.
Metro Times: You've been a resident of this city for nearly 50 years. What advice do you offer the mayor and the Detroit Works team?
Harriet Saperstein: You've got to have a kind of vision, but I'm afraid if we start trying to get the perfect plan we'll never get anywhere and it will never get pulled off. I'm sure there are some people who feel that what the mayor's doing is busily talking about the fact that he will have a plan because he doesn't have one; or the opposite, that he will have a plan because he's got one hidden in his back pocket. There's just a fear and a concern about that that's out there.
MT: People have talked about "shrinking" the city. How is that possible?
Saperstein: You can't shrink a city, and particularly this city can't be shrunk in a certain sense because some of the healthy areas are around the sides and the polka dot holes are in the middle. But that doesn't mean that we can't find ways to reorganize areas. That also doesn't mean that some people won't be paying in pain or that it's not going to cost a lot of money to do.
MT: So if we assume the plan has to do with influencing where Detroiters live in the future, offering incentives somehow to have them locate in certain neighborhoods to create density, what factors could help the city construct such a plan to make that happen?
Saperstein: If we have light rail, it will be a lot easier to pull it off. Light rail creates density and creates development around the density. People talk about using eminent domain to take people's property. In the past we have used eminent domain for economic development and now we can't do it the same way anymore. (See the Eminent Domain section of "These three things," P. 18.) One of the things we have to look at if we're talking about reshaping the city, we can do it with parks, interestingly enough. We're going to have trouble doing it with industrial or even residential developments. We have to find a way to do that that isn't eminent domain. That makes it much harder.
MT: Does such a way exist?
Saperstein: I think there are creative ways of doing incentives. I think the churches have a real role to play in this. People don't want to move, but if their church moved a half a dozen people together or if you sponsored cooperative moving and cooperative kinds of things, if you paid people enough to give them a better space than they have but help them move, literally pay for their moving — every 25-year-old letter in a box or photograph that they wanted to take with them — and somebody was coming with them that they knew and would be half a block away, or there was going to be a bus that would continue to take them to the same church. There are creative ways of thinking about doing this. But they're social, they're not just financial. They're social and structural and I don't think we're thinking about these alternative ways of moving people and getting them into community-based businesses and cooperative and new housing. You could be talking about creative alternatives. Is anybody talking about creative alternatives?
MT: You've visited numerous other cities around the world, Hiroshima specifically, that rebuilt after an atomic bomb was dropped. Does that change how you think about Detroit and what it has experienced?
Saperstein: That was a city that was functioning and viable and very positive and we're talking about a city — or take many other cities destroyed in war time. We haven't had a bombing, we haven't had a tsunami. We haven't had a hurricane, but we've had one continuous monsoon and we have to find a way. Individual umbrellas aren't enough against the monsoon.
MT: So what do we do?
Saperstein: It's a two-prong approach. One is the little actions that individual and groups and churches and organizations are doing. You don't sit and wait for the big plan. You just do stuff. The other prong is some kind of vision or plan or the process of moving toward that. If we wait for the plan, no. We can't do it. But the little things aren't enough. How do we get a synergy from those little things to make it work further? We can't keep spending our time talking about what we were. We can't even always spend our time talking about what we are. We have to look at what we want to be and what we want to be is a viable city.
MT: So can Mayor Bing pull this off?
Saperstein: I don't know whether Bing can pull it off but the city has to pull off a way of reorganizing and redistributing the population. Some people will benefit, and I would like to mitigate the worst of the hurts. But we are hurting now. People living in poverty areas where the lights aren't on and crime is rampant are already hurting. We can make life better for them too. I don't think the question is can Bing pull it off? The question is can the city and its people pull it off?