Saturday, April 25, 2009

Urban gardening continues to grow

The News has a great review of urban agriculture in Detroit. In the past decade, dozens of community gardens have been planted across the city, like the inspirational Georgia Street Garden on the city's east side. And now, Model D reports, the movement has state backing. The new Garden for Growth program lets neighbors lease state-owned vacant land for one year tax-free if they create a park or garden on the lot. More than 6,000 parcels are eligible in Detroit alone!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Right-sizing the Rust Belt

The New York Times reports on proposals to "right-size" the city of Flint. Since the 1960s, the city has lost nearly half its population, and a third of those remaining are in poverty. To restore density and make city services more efficient, the County Treasurer would like to shrink the city's footprint by shutting down the city's least populated blocks and neighborhoods. “Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” he says. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.”

As I've written before, Youngstown, Ohio, has already adopted a plan to right-size the city as its population drops. Many believe Detroit should do the same, though it's a matter of considerable debate. Also sure to spark debate are mayoral candidate Dave Bing's recent remarks to the Detroit News's editorial board on rebuilding Detroit's vacated land:

Estimating there are about 70,000 parcels of vacant land citywide, Bing said his first priorities are to clear land near and around schools, churches and senior citizen complexes. He would eventually create areas similar to what people have come to expect in some suburban communities. "A lot of people who moved out of the city are middle-class people, and I don't think a lot of them feel we've got the communities they like to live in," Bing told The Detroit News editorial board. "Wouldn't it be great if we could look at some of this vacant land to build a city within a city?

"It would be great to have a city like Birmingham in the city or to have a (place) like somewhere in Grosse Pointe so that those middle class people have an option to come back."

Something tells me Bing will have some explaining to do.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Jobs, please

Rochelle Riley has a telling column on a Renaissance High and Harvard grad who chose to move back to Detroit but can't find a job in his field of choice, urban planning and development. The point here is pretty obvious. In a state rapidly losing population and half of its own college grads, shouldn't local businesses and agencies do everything they can to recruit and retain the local talent that actually wants to stick around? Yes, Detroit has a small, thriving do it yourself culture, and young entrepreneurs regularly kick off cool new businesses and non-profit projects, but let's be honest, that path is for the courageous few. Something needs to be done to keep the other 95% in town, starting with a clear path to whatever good, steady employment remains in our post-auto economy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

City going full circle

I'm still not sure what I think of the Hantz Group's plans to bring full-scale commercial farming to Detroit. There just aren't enough details yet, though this web chat with Matt Allen answers a lot of questions.

On the plus side, a large farm will put vacant land back to use, generate tax revenue for the city, and draw positive publicity from around the world. Best yet, it could help break the stigma that mars Detroit's abandoned lots. Most of this vacant land would be fairly easy to build on (red tape and taxes aside), but developers don't even consider it because of its fallen history. Vacant land in Detroit is just presumed worthless. A successful reuse project could change the perception of Detroit's vacant lots from an albatross to an opportunity.

Now for the caveats, mostly based on speculation:

  • A third of the city's land is vacant, but most of it isn't contiguous. Will a farm displace people? By what process and for what compensation? In the web chat, someone asked if "people [would] be asked to move or relocated, or would the farm just go up around them? " Matt Allen responded, "... both. Our intention is to have the area inside the farm site empty."
  • How much tax revenue will it really generate? When asked, Allen wrote, "well that is to be determined but we cant pay 81 mils, we are at the point where that is being discussed along with other issues." That is to say, Allen wants a special lower tax rate for the farm -- "an ag rate." Will other businesses get to pay this new lower rate or just them?
  • What about pesticides and other runoff? Allen says MSU Extension is partnering with the farm to monitor the environmental impact, but it's worth worrying about. This won't be an organic farm. Allen says they'll be using "conventional ag methods" -- and conventional agriculture methods are toxic.
  • How will the farm be secured? Are we talking cornstalks surrounded by barbed wire? This could look great or look terrible depending on the measures they take.
  • And what about Matt Allen? I don't advocate guilt by association, but he is Kwame Kilpatrick's former Press Secretary after all (and he's been publicly arrested for domestic abuse). That does invite a certain level of scrutiny.
In short, I eagerly await their business plan.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Save Michigan Central Station

As most know by now, City Council has voted to demolish Detroit's most iconic landmark, Michigan Central Station, and if the mayor's request is approved, federal stimulus funds will pay for it.

We need to save this structure. Yes, it's in bad repair. Thanks to the neglect of its owner, billionaire Matty Moroun, the building is a shell of its former self, torn apart by scrappers and the elements. No, no one knows what to do with it. The size of the structure, its distance from downtown, and the prohibitive cost of rehabbing it have so far killed all the proposals to save it. Yet it should be left to stand.

MCS is a national landmark, a Beaux Arts marvel, and an icon of Detroit -- broken down, abandoned, but still beautiful. It embodies the history of the past century and should remain as a testament to those times. Ideally, MCS would be rehabbed, but even as a ruin, it will draw interest and attention for decades, like the ruins of old Europe. Perhaps, as a Detroit Yes poster suggests, just the facade could be saved and serve as the centerpiece of a renovated Roosevelt Park. Regardless, preserving some or all of this historic structure will be better for Detroit than the certain alternative -- another rubble-strewn, vacant lot.

Remember, nothing will replace MCS, not for many years. Many say the station stands in the way of new development, but there are no viable plans to reuse the space. Once destroyed, the lot will join the network of urban prairie spreading across the city. And at what expense? The city will not only lose its history and sense of self, it will waste its federal stimulus dollars, not on creating jobs, as they're meant to do, but on permanently destroying the urban fabric. This money should go toward creating the next economy, not destroying the remnants of the industrial past. Knocking down MCS is a mistake we'll long regret.

7/17 Update: Read about the volunteer effort to clean up and save Michigan Central Station.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Unexpected good news

To my surprise, the News is reporting that plans to build an $80-million outdoor mall at 8 Mile and Woodward are proceeding. Yes, the project has already been delayed for two years, and today is April Fools' Day, but if the developers are to be believed, construction could actually begin as soon as next month. If constructed, the Shoppes at Gateway Park would be the largest commercial development built in Detroit in fifty years.

The mall would also mark a major transformation of the corridor. While the neighborhoods to the west (Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest) are among Detroit's most affluent, the area just south and east of the proposed mall is as desolate as any in the city, with vacant lots and burned out homes outnumbering occupied dwellings. What's more, the major anchor of the area, the State Fairgrounds, is being shut down by the state. So the new mall will truly be a turn of events.