If You Rebuild It, They Will Come, part 1
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not from Detroit. I moved here 5 years ago and knew little about the economics or the politics that encompassed the city and surrounding suburbs. My first real education was listening to the 2005 Detroit Mayoral debates featuring then incumbent Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and challenger Freman Hendricks. One of the more memorable moments was the heated debate about the need to demolish homes. Due to the mass exodus over the past 20 years and increasingly poor tax base, the city didn’t have enough money to demolish all the homes nor did they have the resources needed to rebuild.
This discussion prompted me to look at the U.S. Census data to find out what the population shift actually was. In 1950, Detroit had over 1.8 million residents. In 2008, it ranked as the United States’ eleventh most populous city with 912,062 residents. In almost 60 years, nearly one million residents moved out of Detroit, many landing in the suburbs. In just the last 30 years, 250,000 have traveled the same path.
Furthermore, since 2005 almost 44,000 of the 67,000 homes that have gone into foreclosure have remained empty, and it’s estimated that the demolition cost for each vacant house is about $10,000. Total demolition would equate to a hefty $440 million price tag. That coupled with a city deficit around $300 million and a public school system deficit of $260 million, the abandoned houses are not going anywhere fast. In an effort to combat these ill effects of blight, the city recently applied for $47 million in federal neighborhood stabilization money, with half earmarked to tear down more than 2,300 vacant homes. About $8 million would be spent to rehabilitate vacant houses and $4 million to construct new houses. It’s definitely a start, but the stabilization would only cover about 9% of the projected demolition total. To make things worse, the Detroit News reported that for the first time since 1981, the number of homes demolished outnumbers the number of new home permits obtained by builders.
By attracting artists and designers, Detroit will establish a creative footprint that will lead to the production of goods and establishment of services that will help to create a stronger tax base while helping revitalize the city.
It’s hard to get excited about these kind of reports, but since I have been here, I have slowly watched Detroit change, and people are starting to take notice. The nation has heard plenty of negative stories tied to the antics of the car industry, the former mayor, and the circus formerly known as the Detroit city council. But they are also starting to hear about the stories of individuals and groups that have bucked conventional wisdom and moved back into the city. I am excited and very supportive of the individuals who are stepping forward to change the complexion of the city. I do believe it will be the people, the strength of SE Michigan, that will transform the neighborhoods because the city of Detroit does not have the power, the leadership or the resources to do it. With what little resources they do have, they should be working vigorously to establish an infrastructure that will attract artists and designers to the region. By doing so, they will establish a creative footprint that will lead to the production of goods and establishment of services that will help to create a stronger tax base while helping revitalize Detroit.
To clarify, demolition and rebuilding homes is essential to the rebirth of Detroit neighborhoods, but it’s a long-term solution because Detroit does not have the support system that allows people to sustain everyday activities like grocery shopping and effective public transportation. I would goes as far as proposing that Detroit give the houses away with the sole mandate that the houses need to be occupied with utilities restored. Instead of using the stabilization money for demolition, use the funds to create a buyer incentive program. Give away cash to homeowners interested in buying a home. Give homeowners more cash if they utilize sustainable construction. The logic is that the buyers would understand the risks involved but savvy enough to realize the cost of either tear-down or refurbishing is, relatively speaking, an incredibly cheap investment. If the house is in a state of disrepair, tear it down and plant a garden. If the house is able to be refurbished, then rebuild. There are several well publicized examples of this approach that we have mentioned in past articles including the Powerhouse and Habitat for Hamtramck.
But again, this is long-term thinking. Risk-takers will inevitably move in for the investment and entrepreneurs will move in to create change in a city that needs a new identity. If Detroit wants a sustained influx of people moving back into the city, then it needs to focus on projects that bring communities of art and designers together. Specifically, the city should refocus its energies on repurposing land, industrial parks and abandoned factories to create a stronger infrastructure that is friendly to entrepreneurs and creative professionals. With large groups of activity and sustained traffic, areas of commerce would develop providing the day-to-day necessities that neighborhoods and families require.
A good example of developing communities of activity is the Argonaut building. Designed and built in 1928 by Albert Kahn, the building originally occupied by the GM Design studios (that sat empty for almost a decade) has been remodeled and is now owned and occupied by the College for Creative Studies. The Argonaut (now called the Taubman Design Center) will house a middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate design programs as well as a design research center. Buoyed by millions in state and city tax credits, the building is an example of Detroit doing it right. The building and its various levels of activity will create 200 new jobs while 2000+ visitors are projected to pass thru the building on a daily basis. Located just off of Cass Ave and Baltimore St, the New Center area will inevitably be transformed by the sheer activity that will now take place in a daily basis. Opportunities to own and operate storefronts will become a reality because the students, faculty and professionals entering the building will want and need to consume services that don’t currently exist.
In the upcoming months, we will examine several successful models of business and community building that exist around the globe and in our own backyard. By highlighting these projects, it is our hope that people will simply ask the question: what would happen if I moved to Detroit?
This essay was originally published on Pixelgawker.com on 8/6/09.
Chad Reichert received his undergraduate degree in graphic design from Valparaiso University, attended graduate school at the California Institute of Arts, and completed his MFA in Graphic Design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Chad is also an assistant professor at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and he is currently serving as president of AIGA Detroit, the professional association for design.
- The Great Job Myth (December 22, 2009)
- A Convergence of Higher Education and Quality of Life (May 17, 2010)
- We Are Outliers (May 13, 2010)
- Editors and Image Makers: On Photographing Detroit, part 1 (November 12, 2009)
- Lansing’s Entrepreneurial Revival (February 26, 2010)