Detroit Works project to offer vision for city: Turn liabilities into assets
Hannah Birnbaum, left, and Dan Pitera share a laugh while working on a project at the Detroit Works planning team office on Friday. Pitera, a professor of architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy, is co-chairman of the organization's long-term planning effort. / WILLIAM ARCHIE/DETROIT FREE PRESS
Two years into its often rocky and controversial process, the Detroit Works project is about to unveil its draft strategies for remaking the city -- steps that might include everything from training unemployed people on dismantling derelict homes to creating artists' colonies in empty factories.
Between now and Sept.20, the Detroit Works Long-Term Planning Team will host a series of community meetings, open houses and other events to acquaint Detroiters with its ideas. The team then will take their feedback and work it into final recommendations by the end of October.
An advance look at some of the ideas provided to the Free Press last week reveals an overall vision, along with dozens of specific recommendations.
The overall vision is clear: Detroit should make assets out of its liabilities -- rotting factories, derelict houses and dozens of square miles of vacant land. Empty factories could become "live-make" spaces for artists. Vast stretches of vacant land could be turned to urban farms, reforestation projects, greenway recreation paths, rainwater retention ponds and other "blue-green" infrastructure.
Taking its effort as a whole, the Detroit Works team believes it is breaking new ground with the breadth and depth of its recommendations, said Toni Griffin, the New York-based urban planner who co-chairs the long-term planning effort.
"You get lots of great urban design visions," she said last week. "You get lots of great economic development strategies. You get lots of great operational plans. ... I think Detroit today is really at the forefront of trying to create a broad-based document that integrates all these issues."
Obviously, key questions will remain even after the team delivers its final report. Among those: Who would pay to implement the dozens of specific recommendations, and what will prevent this report from collecting dust on a shelf like so many others before it?
"It has to be a living document," said George Swan, vice chancellor of the Wayne County Community College District and a member of the Detroit Works steering committee. "It's been the intent to engage people in the community.
"The intent is to create a sense of ownership, and that ownership is what will make this more than just a report or a series of recommendations. People can say, 'That's my voice. This is my neighborhood.' "
Many different futures
A key point is that different neighborhoods will require different strategies.
"Every place has a future. It doesn't have to be the same future," said Dan Pitera, a professor of architecture at University of Detroit Mercy and co-chairman of the long-term planning effort.
Dan Kinkead, an architect at Detroit-based Hamilton Anderson Associates and a technical adviser to Detroit Works, echoed that. "There are a lot of opportunities here, there are a lot of options, but not every option can go everywhere," he said.
Underlying the entire Detroit Works effort is the need to improve everyday living conditions for Detroit residents, who are among the poorest urban dwellers in the nation, he said.
"If everything we're doing here cannot improve the quality of life for Detroiters, then we arguably might as well not be doing it," Kinkead said.
Based on drafts reviewed by the Free Press -- none of which are close to being finished -- the final document will be thick with data charting every aspect of life in Detroit, from the health of residents and the location of vacant lots to clusters of employment, crime and recreation.
The report will focus on five key areas: Economic Growth; Neighborhoods; Public Land and Facilities; City Systems, Infrastructure and Environment, and Land Use, Zoning and Urban Design.
This week, the Detroit Works effort is unveiling its draft strategies for two of those areas: Economic Growth and Neighborhoods. Strategies for the remaining areas will be rolled out in coming weeks.
Which strategies get applied where will depend upon existing conditions in each neighborhood.
Stronger districts, such as downtown, Midtown, the busy Vernor Highway area in southwest Detroit and upscale neighborhoods such as Indian Village or Palmer Woods, might be targeted for new retail, commercial or residential efforts.
Mostly abandoned areas, such as those found in much of the far east side, might be targeted for more greening strategies: urban farms, reforestation, recreation corridors, rainwater retention ponds.
Mayor Dave Bing launched the Detroit Works project two years ago as his signature effort to revitalize the city. The project immediately ran into trouble. Bing prompted a firestorm of criticism by saying the program would relocate residents out of declining neighborhoods with incentives -- an assertion that proved impossible to carry out in the face of opposition.
Then, too, the initial public meetings held in fall 2010 proved chaotic. Hundreds of residents jammed the meetings to complain about city services. Hopes to use the meetings for a thoughtful discussion of urban planning possibilities fell apart.
Amid mounting criticism, Bing split the Detroit Works effort into two parts. One part, dubbed the short-term effort, would focus on pilot programs to focus on service delivery in a handful of neighborhoods. The long-term program, led by Griffin and Pitera, would produce a document looking at strategies to implement during years, even decades, to come.
All along, the Detroit Works program has battled a perception that a handful of outside experts would impose their vision on the city. The long-term planning team has held dozens of community meetings, engaging thousands of Detroiters in meaningful conversations, Pitera said.
"The intent is to create a sense of ownership. This is not a plan that's coming in from on high," Swan said.
An article of faith among the Detroit Works team is that Detroit's liabilities can be turned to the city's advantage.
"What we're trying to do is take these areas and take those things that hold them down today and flip them into something that can hold them up in the future," Kinkead said.
More Details: What is Detroit Works?
Announced in 2010, Detroit Works is Mayor Dave Bing’s signature effort to improve the quality of life for Detroit residents. After a rocky start, the program split into two parts: a short-term effort to target resources to a handful of neighborhood pilot programs, and a long-term planning effort that looks at citywide issues during the next 50 years. The draft strategies described in the Free Press today could form part of the long-term planning team’s final report, which the team says it will deliver by the end of October.
More Details: How the public can be heard
The Detroit Works Long-Term Planning Team will hold a series of community meetings and open houses to engage the public between now and Sept. 20.
Among the events scheduled so far:
Open houses will be hosted at the Long-Term Planning Home Base at 2929?Russell St. in August and September from 1-7?p.m. with brief presentations at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. The open houses will focus on draft strategies that relate to the following topics:
Tuesday: Economic Growth
Aug. 14: Neighborhoods
Aug. 21: City Systems, Infrastructure and Environment
Aug. 28: Land Use, Zoning and Urban Design
Sept. 4: Public Land and Facilities
Meanwhile, four community conversations about the draft strategies will be hosted Sept. 10-14. The locations and times are:
Sept. 10: Northwest area. Leland Missionary Baptist Church, 22420 Fenkell
Sept. 11: Northeast area. American Serbian Memorial Hall, 19940 Van Dyke
Sept. 12: Central/near east area. Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, 3606 E. Forest
Sept. 13: Southwest area. Detroit Hispanic Development, 1211 Trumbull
In addition, more information about community engagement can be found at the Long-Term Planning Team’s website at http: //detroitworksproject.com . A Detroit Works staffer can visit community groups by arrangement. Call 313-259-4407 or e-mail info @DetroitLongTerm.