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Marygrove College, the University of Detroit-Mercy, and Sinai Grace Hospital. “If they coordinate and buy together, that will spur housing and retail development,” he says.
Housing and retail development is exactly what’s planned for the Opportunity Detroit project announced by Rock Ventures last week. Building on what Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures founder Dan Gilbert has already done downtown—purchasing 22 buildings with a total of 3 million square feet of commercial real estate and investing nearly $1 billion in the city’s commercial core since 2010—Opportunity Detroit envisions creating six distinct destinations that will draw visitors to the city.
And the amenities planned for those destinations are exciting: a beer garden and temporary basketball court for pick-up games and tournaments in Campus Martius; art installations, movie screenings, and concerts in Capitol Park; and new retail and office tenants along the Woodward corridor.
“Detroit stakeholders need to know this vision is real,” Gilbert said in a press release. “It is a wildly exciting, incredibly well-thought out plan that will be activated immediately. Residents, office workers and visitors will experience a dramatically different Detroit in two years. We are committed to impacting the outcome and we are relentless in getting every Detroiter to join us in this campaign.”
No Detroiter Left Behind
Every Detroiter, even my friend Terina Davis? She hasn’t set foot in downtown in years, thanks to the fact that she doesn’t drive and has a bad back, a bad heart, and bad eyes. What does she think of what Opportunity Detroit has planned downtown? How does she feel about Detroit Future City’s idea of turning vacant land close to her neighborhood into ponds and forests?
“If they’re building something downtown, does that mean extra taxes?” she asks. “They’re trying to bring people back, but if they don’t have good transportation, how are they going to get there? And the police? Fuck it,” she says with a dismissive wave, reflecting the cynicism many residents feel about the department and its ability to keep people safe.
Seventeen years ago, Terina’s block held seven apartment buildings that were neat, clean, and full of tenants. Then, suddenly a few years ago, when something went wrong, the landlord stopped fixing it. The streetlights went out three years ago. Families with three or four kids began moving into one-bedroom apartments. As the buildings became noisey and crowded, those who objected moved out.
Since it seemed clear that the landlord wasn’t paying attention, squatters began moving in “and messed up everything,” she says, which drove more paying tenants out. The landlord came back and removed all the washers and dryers from the buildings. Scrappers came through after and took the radiators and the rest of the appliances. Soon, one building after another was taken over by drug dealers. During a police raid, a fire broke out that destroyed one building almost completely.
Now, there is only one habitable building left on Terina’s block where people pay rent. In another building, two former tenants-turned-squatters are living with an illegal electric hook-up but likely no running water, since one of the men showers at Terina’s apartment on the weekends. To keep other squatters out, they changed the locks on the front and back doors.
The rest of the buildings are utterly gutted—windows smashed out, trash piled everywhere, insulation and garbage billowing out of burned out hulks. Women and children avoid walking past them for fear of getting snatched and taken inside. If the rest of Terina’s neighborhood goes the way of her block, she could be looking at a city-sponsored relocation package in a few years.
“It’s downright disgusting,” she says of the current state of Detroit. “People don’t care. They won’t even give you a smile.”
But in the future Detroit imagined by the Detroit Works planning document, people do care. In fact, in that city, someone has built a thriving small business deconstructing blighted housing like the buildings in Terina’s crumbling apartment complex. The streetlights are back on, and you don’t wait an hour for a bus that takes you around the corner to the bank. I ask Terina to imagine it, and she does, hesitantly, and agrees that if it could ever be achieved, it would be amazing—like the Detroit of her youth.
Keeping people like Terina engaged is a major focus of Detroit Future City going forward. “We can never rest on our laurels,” Pitera acknowledges. “If we stop and say, ‘Now we don’t have to work,’ that’s our first mistake. I’m feeling more nervous about this since the plan was released because I want to make sure engagement continues to implementation, and make sure action occurs.”
Pitera says the plan will move forward by collaborating with and leveraging the resources of the 200 organizations that are stakeholders in the project, including corporations and foundations with real money to invest. “We’re convinced that if we don’t ignore the civic structure we built in the process and we let that become the infrastructure to implementation—that’s sustainable.”
Pitera believes that once people see good things happening, the momentum toward meaningful revitalization will build. The first things implemented will be small, but in five years, he predicts that things will begin to stabilize and people will see growth.
For a comparison, Pitera looks to Pittsburgh. In the 1980s, there were “little moves” being made toward rejuvenating an old steel town. Now, Pittsburgh is considered a bastion of arts, culture, and economic development. But in Detroit, it’s important to note, the city’s collapse has been much deeper and more widely felt.
“This work is unprecedented at this scale,” Pitera adds. “It’s not a civic engagement plan, or a land use plan, or an economic development plan—it’s all of that. I’ve been asked to speak all over the U.S., and I’ve met with people from Germany, Thailand, Japan, and Russia, and all of them are interested in this work for different reasons. We can be a premier example for people to follow. We say it’s a 50-year plan, but you don’t have to wait 50 years to get excited about the plan.”
Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or firstname.lastname@example.org.