With a new bridge, streetcar line, arena and lots of new housing all on the way at the same time, the greater downtown Detroit seems finally to have reached a long-predicted watershed moment.
It has been 40 years since ground was broken on a building that its creators dubbed the Renaissance Center to embody Detroit’s hopes for brighter days. In the years that followed, many projects inched forward in the city’s recovery efforts: Comerica Park, Ford Field, three casinos, the renovations of the long-shuttered Book Cadillac and Fort Shelby hotels.
But that progress now appears snaillike compared with the pace and promise of today. With a planned international bridge, streetcar line, 44-block arena and entertainment district, revamped riverfront and lots of housing, greater downtown Detroit seems finally at a long-predicted watershed moment. Big projects breaking ground, plus a palpable optimism among the most powerful and wealthiest people in the city and state, could push Detroit into a recovery that transforms it dramatically in 10 or 20 years.
George Jackson, who recently retired after 12 years leading redevelopment efforts for Detroit, predicted greater downtown in 10 years will finally come to exhibit what elusive state planners call “walkable urbanism,” implying a dense environment of shops, residences and commercial and entertainment spaces where people rely more on walking, biking and public transit.
“It’s going to be a city that is extremely more walkable, both in terms of perception and reality … with feet on the street” at night and during the day, said Jackson, who retired this year as president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.
In cities like New York, Toronto and San Francisco, people are willing to walk much farther around their downtown areas, and that’s likely to happen in Detroit, he said. And he expects the blank spots on the greater downtown map to come alive gradually with new investment. “There will be a lot more fill-in type businesses where you don’t have gaps from one destination point to another.”
Hundreds of new rental apartments are in the pipeline in the Woodward corridor and along the east riverfront, which in turn should draw more retail and restaurants. The long-dormant Capitol Park district is alive with construction crews hammering and drilling. The Ilitch family’s Olympia Development broke ground last week on the new arena district. Woodward Avenue has become a maze of orange barrels and barriers as M-1 Rail construction transforms the street. Billionaire Dan Gilbert has bought or controls 60 downtown buildings, filling them with employees of Quicken and its spin-off firms as he touts downtown as a new center for tech start-ups.
As Detroit’s civic leaders and billionaires move their grand visions forward, a cross-section of leaders remind that crime, low-performing public schools and too many workers without needed skills can stall or hold back the renaissance.
Even so, there is big-time public and private investment under way and loads of optimism from those who have the means and clout to make change happen.
Gilbert, perhaps the city’s biggest booster, preaches a vision of Detroit that is almost idyllic — and is working relentlessly to make it happen as he promotes downtown as a tech start-up hub and place ripe for investment.
“Ten to 20 years from now, Detroit will be a city that not only has a booming downtown fueled by technology businesses of all kinds, but a city that is experiencing substantial growth of development in both the residential and commercial areas of its neighborhoods,” Gilbert said last week.
“It will be a city that has emerged as a hustling, bustling, optimistic and energized destination for people of all races, backgrounds, ethnic groups and ages.”
Whispers of concern
Of course, there still are unanswered questions about the Detroit of tomorrow.
■ Coleman A. Young International Airport: Municipal leaders hope to attract scheduled passenger service to what used to be called City Airport, a service that ended more than a decade ago. But Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr has suggested the city might sell the airport, a possibility rife with uncertainty.
■ M-1 Rail: Then, too, hopes that the 3.3-mile M-1 Rail might become the first leg of a much broader regional transit system rest on tri-county voters approving a future new tax to pay for it, perhaps on a 2016 ballot. Taxpayers may not be in a mood for that.
■ I-375 expressway: City and state planners will soon offer a plan for remaking the expressway on downtown’s east side. They might recommend raising the trench-like expressway to become a surface street, which could deliver a dramatic impact to downtown’s cityscape. But planners may also recommended rebuilding I-375 as it is now.
■ Real estate: The vagaries of the real estate world also could cool off today’s red-hot development market in the greater downtown area. Should a recession strike or interest rates rise significantly, the rush to create residential apartments and condos might slow or stop, as it did during the 2009 recession and real estate crash.
Even some of the sure things come with a few whispers of concern. The M-1 Rail line, now under construction along Woodward, has enough money to finish the line, but paying for long-term operations still carries a question mark. M-1 officials say selling naming rights and other financial options will take care of it, but that remains to be seen.
Crime and schools
And the twin challenges — crime and schools — show little signs of resolution and present the biggest obstacle to a prosperous Detroit of 10 or 20 years from now.
Detroit remains a dangerous city for too many residents, and too many children in Detroit Public Schools lack the skills needed for a modern world or to be college-ready. Recent efforts to tackle these problems — better policing and educational reform — may be helping somewhat, but few believe Detroit has anything but a long road ahead to major crime reduction and significant improvement in school system performance on standardized tests and other common measures.
A cross-section of civic leaders reached by the Free Press offer almost identical perspectives on the future Detroit: Enthusiasm for the new developments taking shape, but caution for the deeper underlying challenges.
John Mogk, a longtime law professor at Wayne State University, said the shedding of the city’s debt through bankruptcy and the reorganization of the city’s administration by Orr and Mayor Mike Duggan should result in the more effective delivery of services.
“Blight should be dramatically reduced, lighting and municipal waste collection improved, law enforcement made more responsive and open space more productive,” he said.
But Mogk cautioned that poverty, crime and education challenges will be harder to solve than simply building a few new buildings downtown.
“There is little progress being made today to change conditions in these areas, and it may take 10 to 20 years for significant gains to be realized notwithstanding a concerted effort by the city’s leadership,” he said.
Glenda Price, president of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, considers herself an optimist. “I see many signs of immediate progress, as well as signs of new ways of thinking which will influence the long term,” she said. “Yes there will be bumps along the way, and we will not have a straight-line upward trend, but generally the future is positive.”
Price added that the challenge is to bring along all Detroiters and not leave many behind as downtown prospers. “This will not be easy, but it is essential,” she said. “If we confront the education deficits, I believe that the crime rate will decline, poverty and its attendant consequences will be minimized, and creativity and innovation will follow.”
William Jones, CEO of the workforce training organization Focus: HOPE, said education reform and workforce development are crucial to Detroit’s future success.
“Unless concerted efforts are made on a large-scale basis to re-educate and train Detroiters to participate in digitized service industries where customized or customizable products are produced in advanced manufacturing plants characterized by blindingly fast transaction speeds, poor and working-class people will be left even further behind,” he said in an e-mail to the Free Press.
Robin Boyle, chair of the department of urban planning at Wayne State University, echoed that.
“Without improved skill development of the working-age population living in the city,” Boyle said, “growing businesses will be very difficult. Creating large-scale work-preparedness and training programs are a prerequisite for getting Detroiters back to work and for building wealthier households in the city.”
Jackson, recently retired from his longtime post at the DEGC, offered one final note of caution.
“I think the foundation of what’s happening is very strong, but we also need to not lose our sense of urgency,” he said. “These windows never last forever.”
■ M-1 Rail is under construction
■ The Ilitch family’s arena project broke ground this month
■ Hundreds of new residential units are in the pipeline
■ A new bridge to Canada seems likely to happen
■ Crime and schools continue to challenge
■ Unemployment remains well above statewide levels
■ Not every project proposed actually gets built