Monday, January 26, 2009

Bad or worse choices

I don't envy Ken Cockrel's job. Today the News lists his options for balancing the budget. Observers expect 1) the closure of city parks and recreation centers, 2) the selling of remaining city assets at bargain prices, 3) at least 1,000 layoffs, and 4) a new deal to sell the city's rights to the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.

Is he sure he wants to run for a full term? His old job sure is popular. As of Friday, nearly 330 people had taken out petitions to run for City Council's nine open seats -- and the deadline isn't until May 12! Each applicant needs 458 signatures to make the ballot, so they won't all qualify, but a couple hundred might. Good luck standing out in that list. Better hope your last name begins with an A or a B.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

No thanks

As I wrote not long ago, the city needs a better vision for the reuse of its vacant land. Let me add to that. The city needs a vision that is sensitive to the city's history and its current residents.

Let me give an example of a vision that's not. In Dome Magazine, Craig Ruff, a Michigan policy wonk, advocates a total overhaul of the city (Hat tip: Model D). He'd like to build light rail lines, widen the city's main spokes to 12-lanes roads, and line them on either side with public parks 10-blocks wide and miles long. Completing the mass relocation of residents and property in the pursuit of "greatness" will require "(a) a huge investment of state and federal money; (b) willing and involved Detroiters; (c) city policymakers willing to cede control over half their land; (d) extremely bold thinkers in Lansing; and (e) a visionary team of designers and architects who are given wide, even dictatorial, berth."

Thanks but no thanks. Detroit needs revitalization, not to be leveled and replaced with something else entirely.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The battle of the bridge goes on

Good news. The U.S. Department of Transportation has approved a government-led plan to build a new bridge to Canada a mile downriver from the current one. Just don't expect to see it built any time soon. Matty Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador, has vowed to sue the Detroit River International Crossing Project to prevent it from competing with his plan to build a new, privately-held span directly alongside the Ambassador. DRIC has strong support in Southwest Detroit and Canada, but Moroun is a billionaire and a bully (see Forbes) with many Michigan lawmakers on his side. This will be a long fight.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Transit in sight

The News has a great essay on the new regional mass transit plan, how it will work, and what remains to be done -- namely, fund it. To get involved and stay up to date, check out Transportation Riders United, the transit advocacy group. (Is three links enough?)

Detroit, media darling

Now that our main industry is on death's doorstep, the world's media has taken a keen interest in our decline. The Free Press links to ten examples of the booming genre. I'd call the Weekly Standard's piece the most demeaning, but our own Mitch Albom (must we claim him?) didn't do us any favors either when he penned a sob/survival story for Sports Illustrated. Many have commended him -- D-Tales calls it the best story ever on Detroit -- but I'm with Model D on this one. We're not just martyrs braving our bad luck, and there's much more to this city than poverty and blight. It's time to shut up about Hudson's and start talking about the future -- or even just the present.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Land to spare

Everyone knows Detroit is underpopulated, but the image above sure drives the point home. Detroit's population is rapidly falling below 900,000, but the city has enough land to house three times that many people. Low density has led to widespread abandonment of property to the point where one-third of all city land -- equaling the size of San Francisco -- may now be vacant.

Unfortunately, the vacant land isn't contiguous, so it's not easy to redevelop, and no one has a clear idea what to do with it. When the Free Press asked the mayoral candidates for ideas, none responded. Readers suggested large-scale reforestation or urban farming, as Grace Lee Boggs and others have advocated.. Sustainability experts have recommended focusing on developing seven densely populated urban villages -- Southwest Detroit, Corktown, Downtown, Eastern Market, Woodbridge, Midtown and New Center (see the Power Point). None of these schemes are particularly easy to implement given the actual distribution of vacant lots scattered throughout all the city's neighborhoods, but clearly the city needs a better vision and a real plan to deal with excess property.

Friday, January 9, 2009

DPS gets something right ... or not

Just a year after it was first announced, the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies, an arts academy for seventh to twelfth graders, is set to open in the newly redeveloped Argonaut Building. This is public education done right -- a focused curriculum, major institutional backers, a pledge to graduate college-ready students, an architectural gem saved, and an economic boost to the New Center area.

Update: In the comments, a reader points out that this new school is not, in fact, a DPS initiative. Daniel Howes calls it a "public school" in the first sentence, but it's actually a private charter -- one that is free and open to any applicant, but private nonetheless. Oh well, it was nice to imagine for a moment that DPS was capable of reform.

Give to the arts ...

Because GM no longer will. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Music Hall, the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Detroit Institute of Arts, among others, will all lose major operating support this year. Other foundations are bound to scale back support as well. Endowments have shrunk along with the stock market, and charitable contributions fall as jobs are lost. Some of our most important cultural institutions -- and many of the smaller, more local ones -- could be lost to the economic downturn if new benefactors don't emerge.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Never get too optimistic

So the year's off to a bad start. Standard and Poors lowered the city's credit rating to junk bond status, requiring the city to pay its creditors $400 million dollars to prove the city's solvency. Bear in mind the city was already projecting a $300 million budget shortfall. This year's budget cuts will be brutal.

Over at the Metrotimes, Jack Lessenberry has a devastating column on Detroit Public Schools. "Detroit's only hope lies in fixing the schools," he writes. "It's as simple -- and as maddeningly difficult -- as that." Mass transit, urban gardens, downtown lofts -- those are all great developments, but without functioning public schools, the city is doomed. DPS is not functional.

Monday, January 5, 2009

On to a new year

2008 was a tough year for Detroit. Kwame went to jail, the auto industry collapsed, the Lions went 0-16, many major projects were scaled back or eliminated (think Cadillac Center, new Quicken headquarters), Detroit Public Schools fell into further disarray, and just about every piece of copper plumbing in the city was stolen by scrappers.

Yeah, it was a tough year. But it wasn't all bad. Structural changes are finally being made to reposition the city post-recession. Detroit is closer to building mass transit than it's ever been (see TRU). Thanks to the Greenways Initiative, the Detroit Agricultural Network, Greening of Detroit and others, new trees, gardens, and greenways are popping up across the city -- most visibly along the riverfront and through the Dequindre Cut. The city finally has a realistic shot at curbside recycling. Major non-profits are underwriting the arts and new creative enterprises. Detroit Renaissance, among others, is working to restructure Detroit's economy and grow new businesses.

I could go on. 2009 will be another tough year (the city's unemployment rate is already 21.6%), but it won't be all bad and it's bound to be interesting. Now that I'm back in Michigan, I'll be updating regularly as the mayoral elections get underway and the new year begins. Some things to watch for: Will we fund mass transit? Who will lead DPS? What projects will the federal stimulus fund? Who will build the second span to Canada -- Matty Moroun or the government? Will Quicken still move downtown? Will the Illitch family announce a new hockey arena? Will Cobo expand? And just how bad will things get before the economy turns around?