The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Detroit’s Reclamation Project

A view of a block in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, one of the city’s revitalizing inner neighborhoods.  Source: detroit.curbed.com

A question I’m often asked is this — is Detroit’s resurgence for real?  Are the signs of progress in Detroit’s downtown enduring?  Can Detroit bring itself off the scrapheap and become a booming city once again?

I’ll give you a sense of how often this comes up with me.  At a speaking event I attended at the City Club of Cleveland last month, it was the first question asked of me.  I get 3-5 questions on the topic each week via Twitter and Facebook, from all over the country.  I probably get 2-3 e-mails a week on it, from curious urbanists or from reporters.  A Detroit newspaper reporter interviewed me just last week with a variant of the question.

Apparently, I am the go-to person on this critical question.

I often wonder about the motivations of the people who ask me.  I think there are thousands of people who are genuinely intrigued with Detroit’s collapse, and honestly root for the city’s comeback.  I think there are some who wonder if similar forces are at work in other cities (hint: they are), and are concerned that a similar collapse could happen in other cities nationwide (another hint: they could).  People wonder if Detroit’s experience provides answers for revitalization.  And even more people wonder if the city’s current rebound is sustainable, or has a ceiling.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and the simple answer to this is yes, Detroit’s current resurgence is real, and perhaps the most strongest and most enduring resurgence there in my lifetime.  However, I think it’s better to consider what’s happening in Detroit as a reclamation of what it once had, and a restructuring that prepares it for the next phase of the city’s evolution, rather than an economic boom akin to, say, what’s happening in a Charlotte, Dallas or Houston, or steady growth as in San Francisco or Seattle.

That’s alright, and that’s necessary.

Let’s quantify what exactly is happening in Detroit today.  Most observers acknowledge that Detroit’s resurgence in highly concentrated downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods.  In 2013, the Hudson-Webber Foundation, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Downtown Detroit Partnership, Midtown Detroit, Inc., Invest Detroit and Data Driven Detroit put together a data report on the city’s downtown and six adjacent neighborhoods that are the focus of activity.  This is definitely a small slice of Detroit’s 139 square miles of land area, but activity is abundant there:

  • District Detroit, an effort underway to develop an entertainment, sports, office and residential complex just north of downtown, is led by the Ilitch family, owner of Little Caesar’s Pizza and the Detroit Red Wings hockey team.
  • Detroit’s Midtown area, also just north of downtown and home to many of the city’s arts and cultural institutions and Wayne State University, has been the site of dozens of new mixed use developments with hundreds of new units designed to attract Millennial urban dwellers.
  • Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, the city’s oldest neighborhood and one that’s grown in trendiness over the last half-decade, is set to receive more investment in commercial and residential development, pushing its recent successes to the next level.
  • Detroit’s development resurgence is being tied together by a brand-new streetcar line that opened last month, the QLine.  The 3-mile streetcar connects downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods where activity is taking place, and there are hopes that the line could expand further outward and gain additional branches.
That’s a sample of what’s happening in Detroit — in the city’s core.  Beyond the core, there are far fewer signs of activity, and there are still the wide swaths of vacant and abandoned land that have come to define the city.  There are still intact but struggling neighborhoods that are legitimately concerned about how downtown’s current spurt could impact them — positively or negatively.  
Using some economic measures, we can see that Detroit has yet to witness the full economic impact of its resurgence.  Between 2010 and 2015, Detroit proper ranks 35th out of the core cities of the 53 largest metro areas in terms of per capita income change, and remains last of 53 in actual per capita income.  Detroit’s per capita income is just $14,523, or about one-fourth of San Francisco’s $55,366.
But if we take a longer view, and understand Detroit as a reclamation project, we gain a better understanding of the importance of the resurgence.
Here’s what I mean.  Think back 125 years ago, before the auto industry made its imprint on the city.  Before it was ever the Motor City, Detroit was simply the economic and cultural hub of a midsize Midwestern state in Michigan.  It was a border city to a friendly and language-sharing nation in Canada, and a primary international trade route as a result.  An easy 1890 comparable to Detroit would’ve been Milwaukee, itself the economic and cultural hub of a midsize Midwestern state in Wisconsin, or perhaps Buffalo, a border city (but linked to New York City through state boundaries, railroads and the Erie Canal).  Had the auto industry boomed in some other American city, Detroit probably would’ve attained a similar size and scale to Milwaukee and Buffalo.  But we know what happened; Detroit became the global center for auto production, that altered its fortunes forever.
Fast forward to the middle of the last century.  Internally, Detroit was being racked with the racial tensions that culminated in the 1967 riots and the white flight that accelerated under Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor.  Externally, the city’s auto industry was facing — and responding poorly to — increasing global competition.  
Detroit’s loss of global dominance in the auto industry is well documented and understood.  However, the vacuum of population loss meant that Detroit also lost its stature as the state’s economic and cultural hub.  People, jobs, businesses and institutions left for the suburbs or left the region entirely.  
I pull this image out occasionally so people understand how Detroit really is unique in its abandonment:
Similarly, I’ve written about the jobs imbalance between Detroit and its suburbs, and found that while the metro area has slightly fewer jobs per capita than some other metros, it has drastically fewer jobs within the city’s boundaries — and that works as an albatross around the region’s neck.
However, after decades of having people turn their backs on the city, Detroit is reasserting itself as Michigan’s largest city, its economic and cultural hub.  Businesses that left for the city decades ago are returning.  People who vowed never to enter the city limits again are coming back.  Millennials who grew up in the suburbs but want an authentically urban experience are increasingly finding that it’s available to them in the Motor City.  The city is reclaiming its stature.  It’s becoming something closer to what it would’ve been had the auto industry never took off in the Motor City.
This is a critical first step for the city.  It must do this before it can do anything else.  
It’s important to identify how and when Detroit’s reclamation project started, and it started long before most outsiders took notice.  In my view, Detroit’s comeback began as this new century started, and sports played a critical role as catalyst.  The Tigers’ Comerica Park baseball stadium opened in 2000 to replace the old Tiger Stadium, and the Lions, having been in suburban Pontiac in the Silverdome since 1975, christened Ford Field downtown in 2002.  In 2003, suburban-based software company Compuware announced it would move into a new headquarters in downtown Detroit.  These moves began to signal to metro Detroit residents that visiting the city could be safe once again.
Billionaire Dan Gilbert, mentioned earlier, started his downtown buying spree in 2010.  But it was the mobilization of the Detroit’s business and nonprofit sectors in the midst of the city’s fiscal oversight and eventual bankruptcy that turned the tide.  After decades of believing that the fortunes of the state’s largest city were unimportant, it became clear that a Detroit fiscal collapse could bring the whole state into crisis — and they acted.  Detroit is still reaping the benefits of the public/private/nonprofit mobilization that brought the city out of bankruptcy, and provided a stronger foundation for its rebirth.
Earlier attempts at Detroit revitalization have failed, sometimes spectacularly, because they failed to address root causes or follow all the steps of a reclamation process.  New auto plants designed to shore up manufacturing employment still couldn’t withstand global competition.  The Renaissance Center and People Mover gave the city the “things” that other cities offered, but without substance.  By the ’90s, the human, financial and psychological withdrawal from Detroit was complete, and something had to happen to revive the city’s soul.

Today’s Detroit resurgence is successful for that reason alone — it has begun to revive the city’s soul.  Where once people saw no future in Detroit, they now see possibilities.  Where people once saw the city as a bad investment, they are now willing to confidently roll the dice.  Again, Detroit isn’t growing because a lights-out economy is creating thousands of jobs.  It isn’t pulling large companies from around the country.  And while the auto industry is doing better, Detroit isn’t rebounding because of that, either.  It’s rebounding because people are feeling better about the city.
Of course, Detroit’s African-American community has long believed in the city’s future, but now they’re not alone in that view.  They’ve been joined by newcomers who bring interest and resources to places that have lacked those for decades.  Within the city’s neighborhoods there’s considerable skepticism about the direction of today’s resurgence.  The continued success of the reclamation project, and whatever occurs afterwards, rests on how well it can balance the wishes of the newcomers with the aspirations of longtime residents.  If longtimers don’t benefit, the resurgence fails.  
Detroit may spend another 5-10 years undergoing reclamation.  More suburban residents and businesses will return.  More ex-pats will feel compelled to come back.  As that happens, it’s hoped that the next phase of revitalization will be discussed and implemented — deciding what will be the economic foundation for a revitalized Motor City.
What will that be?  I’ll discuss the options in a future post very soon.

6 Responses to “Detroit’s Reclamation Project”

  1. D Holmes

    Great analysis. I read this article 3 or 4 times thinking about a response. I read very few articles providing any useful insight into the manner in which reclamation is taking place in Detroit and other major rust belt cities. It is appropriate and makes economic sense that reclamation will take place first in the highest amenity areas. In Detroit, these include the downtown (full of remarkable historic buildings), the riverfront, the university area, the historic warehouse district, and some intact high quality residential areas within a short walking distance of these other areas. This is the exact same list of areas that have been the most intensive focus for reclamation in Milwaukee over the past 30 years (with the exception that Milwaukee has an additional focus areas in the lakefront). Focus on these areas makes sense from a real estate economics perspective. It's also essential to any long term economic strategy for both cities – to create distinctive, authentic, high value, and high amenity urban environments that has more to offer than any other areas in the metro areas or states and which will help the cities compete for talent against other metro areas for the next century.Another characteristic that Milwaukee, Detroit, and other major rust belt metros share is an enormous supply of vacant land and vacant historic buildings in or near the downtowns and high amenity reclamation areas. These represent an incredible asset for transformation that does not exist in many other cities, with the ability to recreate these areas in a manner that is great for pedestrians, bicyclists, kayakers, that provides green space where none existed, that includes high caliber green stormwater infrastructure, and other features. Milwaukee is in the final stages of completing a truly extraordinary downtown riverwalk – a project that would only be possible in a rust belt city where industrial decline made available nearly the entire riverfront for reinvention 150 years into the city's history. As a result of these former industrial areas in or near the high amenity neighborhoods, Detroit has opportunities for reinvention that likely will never be available to cities like Dallas, Houston, or Phoenix. These areas also have enormous capacity for population growth. I figure Milwaukee could add 50,000-100,000 residents in these types of areas without any gentrification occurring in residential areas. In Detroit, it might be 150,000-200,000 residents. That's good news and bad news – as it means there could be decades of significant population growth with no spillover impact on most of the struggling or abandoned inner city neighborhoods.These struggling neighborhoods require their own set of reclamation strategies. Milwaukee is employing dozens of strategies, but the challenge is enormous – and the results still don't show up in the various national poverty rankings of major metro areas. One component of Milwaukee's strategy is to do everything possible to save houses that can be saved, and to remove those beyond saving as quickly as possible. Another is to focus on revitalization of the historic commercial corridors in these residential areas – which can then serve as key neighborhood amenityies It's impossible to revitalize blighted abandoned neighborhoods that don't offer some type of significant amenity. That's why I think Detroit could take every possible correct step over the next 50-60 years (i.e., make better decisions about things within their control than every other major US metro) and still have 50 or 60 square miles of neighborhoods in blighted conditions similar to today. In my opinion, that's just the reality of how reclamation will take place in Detroit as well as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Buffalo.

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  2. D Holmes

    To add to my comments above, I wish that there was more realistic analysis (like yours) occurring regarding reclamation of Detroit and other major rust belt cities, rather than this endless need to place the reclamation projects into some convenient conceptual box (the reclamation is real, the reclamation is an illusion, the reclamation is overfocused on the downtown, the reclamation is ignoring the inner city residents, etc.). Reclamation will be slow, difficult, and in a different form than coastal urbanists are familiar with. This does not mean it isn't real, sustainable, authentic, and appropriately focused.

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  3. Pete Saunders

    Thanks so much for your comments. I always enjoy your thoughtful responses.What's happening in Detroit and Milwaukee and other Midwestern cities is something different and can't be fully explained by the process at work in coastal cities. They're not booming, but they are seeing a rebirth. In Detroit's case it truly is a reclamation project: reclaiming its previously recognized position as the leader of cities within the state of Michigan. That's enough to make it a significant city, auto industry or no auto industry.But reclamation is making new kinds of cities, as you suggest. You're right that Rust Belt cities could accommodate tens or hundreds of thousands of new residents without any spillover into existing troubled neighborhoods. That's something that sounds great to angst-ridden gentrifiers on the coast but no so much for longtime residents of those troubled areas. I think, as you do, that we'll have different looking cities in the Rust Belt, with plentiful open space and green infrastructure serving as boundaries between stronger and weaker areas.Without starting another column, here's how I think it will play out in Detroit. The city will undergo a sort of nested reclamation that expands outward from downtown in phases. Each nested area is separated by man-made boundaries that are recognized but hardly understood. Redevelopment moves to the next level only when prices soar within the previous phase, and fears about the next level subside. The first phase, the downtown reclamation project, is underway. The seven square miles of downtown, Midtown and other adjacent neighborhoods are near their peak. Beyond that is the next level — the area between them and Grand Boulevard, which encircles about 17 square miles of the city. Eventually redevelopment will take place there, and when it hits its peak people will start to look further outward to the ring between the Boulevard and the rail right-of-way of the defunct Detroit Terminal Railroad. The area between the Boulevard and the DTR is ripe for the open space and green infrastructure development you describe, and might get that before urban redevelopment reoccurs, but that would be the next logical level of nested reclamation. Beyond the DTR is the post-WWII inner ring suburban type development that's declining rapidly; I don't know if nested reclamation reaches that level.What will it mean for the city? I think by midcentury Detroit will have a dense and diverse inner core, a relatively empty ring of open space and green infrastructure, and a third ring of neighborhoods in decline. It'll have slightly more people than it does today, largely on the strength of redevelopment in the core. But it will never again attain the population peak it had in 1950, and it will look quite different from coastal cities. More food for thought. Thanks again for your comments.

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  4. D Holmes

    Thanks for your comments. Your article, and comments, have inspired some further thinking regarding the lexicon of redevelopment, and use and significance of terms such as reclamation vs revitalization vs resurgence vs renewal vs rebirth vs reinvention. I have used these words somewhat interchangeably in my work, but I’m now realizing that reinvention may be the most powerful word – and perhaps the one most relevant to Detroit. Redevelopment occurs to some degree in all cities. Reclamation, renewal, and revitalization are positive terms, but also carry some negative connotations (suggesting that the process now underway may result in only a partial return to some superior past condition).I think reinvention may be the most appropriate and significant term for what is occurring in Detroit, Milwaukee, and the other major rust belt cities. It’s the most applicable term for what I see occurring in Milwaukee’s downtown and near downtown areas (as well as some of the most challenged inner city neighborhoods). Reinvention brings with it the possibility of achieving not just an improved condition, but something that is potentially far superior to anything that existed in the past. In my opinion this is an accurate description for what has occurred in downtown Milwaukee – which is now a far better place to live, work, or play than existed in the 1950s or 60s when the city’s population and manufacturing employment were at their peak (but the city was full of outdated office and apartment buildings full of asbestos and lead based paint; hundreds of aging, outdated, and poorly sited industrial buildings; served by aging infrastructure spewing contamination into the air and rivers, etc.). Nearly every component of Milwaukee’s infrastructure has been updated over the past 40 years. The lakefront has been cleared of railroad tracks, landfills, and a military base. The riverfront areas completely transformed as well as the rivers themselves. Something like 20 million square feet of former industrial buildings converted to office or residential use.While cities like New York City and Miami are undergoing profound changes, I’m not sure if the term “reinvention” applies – or at least not to the degree it does to cities like Milwaukee or Detroit. Same for Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, etc. These cities have all grown enormously in size and population over the past 30-40 years, but are arguably just larger versions of the cities still tied to the same economic and growth strategies. The abandonment that occurred in the major rust belt cities (in particular, in or near the downtown areas and along the waterfronts), creates the conditions for a focused “reinvention” to occur in the core areas of these cities – in a manner that I don’t think is possible in non-rust belt cities. (Think about how difficult it is to remove something like a freeway system when it has been in place for 50 years – or the railroad tracks that amazingly still cut through the center of the highest value land in Chicago). Detroit – with its unprecedented level of abandonment – has potentially unmatched possibilities for not just renewal but for wholesale reinvention.

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  5. Allen Berrebbi

    I will be visiting Detroit in a few weeks and I'd love to see some of the exciting things happening. What should I see and where would I start?

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