Detroit Design 139: The City's Response to the 'Downtown-Neighborhood Divide'?

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Outside the Detroit Design 139 exhibit at 1001 Woodward Ave.




In the wake of his crushing mayoral primary victory in August, reporters crowded around Mayor Mike Duggan. One asked about the “two Detroits” narrative his opponent, state Senator Coleman A. Young II, was pushing, the idea that downtown/Midtown are much different than the rest of the city. But the mayor was having none of it. “I really don't want to talk about this narrative anymore, it's a fiction coming from you. It really is,” he said.

But plenty of other voices have said just the opposite. “Absolutely there’s a truth to that, there always has been,” said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University. “It’s nothing new.”

As the election pushes on, Young has continued to try and make the election about that divide. Duggan wants to show that all neighborhoods matter.

With all that playing out, the City is unveiling this week a shiny new tool to fight the narrative of a divide: Detroit Design 139.

The project, a partnership between the City, Dan Gilbert's Bedrock Detroit and other groups, is in essence a museum showcasing the best development projects across the city that have already broken ground or will in the next year, with a few exceptions. It op its doors to the public on Thursday, and for the next three weeks visitors will be able to browse the space at 1001 Woodward Ave., a building owned by Gilbert in downtown. The media got a sneak peek on Tuesday.

The project is being unveiled the same week Crain's Detroit Business is hosting its fourth annual Detroit Homecoming, where several hundred expats return home to learn about the changes in the city and about investment opportunities. The opening, invite-only reception for that group is being hosted Wednesday night at the Michigan Central Station in Detroit's Corktown. 

Of the 38 featured projects, 18 are outside the 7.2 square miles that make up downtown and Midtown and 20 are within that area. Because they wanted to be mindful of the neighborhoods’ role in these processes, said Maurice Cox, the director of Detroit’s Department of Planning and Development, the same materials will be on display in four Detroit neighborhoods.

Cox’s is essentially in charge of the physical part of the city’s resurgence, and he, like his boss, Mayor Duggan, doesn’t believe in the downtown-neighborhoods divide.

“I have pushed back on the notion that the renaissance is only 7.2 square miles wide. Ninety percent of the work I do is in the other 132 square miles. I think we have to build on the incredible work that's happened in the core, and use that as a template and a springboard to talk about shouldn't all parts of Detroit have similar aspirations,” Cox said. “The answer is yes, and our job in planning is to create that framework for that conversation.”

But Adolph Mongo, Young’s campaign manager, doesn’t buy that.

“If we ever put all the proposals for downtown and Detroit all together, we’d have a city bigger than New York,” he said.

Cox and Melissa Dittmer, Bedrock’s vice president of architecture and design, created the exhibit to “shine a light on the best of what's happening in a built environment, and inviting the public to be a part of that conversation.”

“This is not meant to be an academic exercise in what conceptual design could do for the city,” Dittmer said. “This is meant to be innovative, contemporary design that's implementable and on track to be built within the city. That's really important for us to keep track of that.”


Dittmer and Cox at the Detroit Design 139 exhibit

Walking through the space, it’s hard not to get excited. Panel after panel shows plans for neighborhood spaces being transformed from decades-old blight to inviting greenery or a bustling community space.

“I think people are getting a little preview of what design excellence looks like in the next generation of both the built and natural environments,” Cox said. “Finally they're starting to see evidence the things they've seen happen in other communities can happen here as well.”

Mongo said the Duggan administration isn’t doing “anything” for the city’s neighborhoods. “The people have been left to fend for themselves,” Mongo said. “There may be a few [projects], but you have to really go into these neighborhoods. We go into them, we ride the buses and we walk the neighborhoods every day.”

Cox said all of the planning efforts were done with deep engagement through dozens of community meetings.

Detroit Design 139 is asking the city’s residents to buy into the City’s plan, which goes something like this: Downtown is the city’s commercial core, Midtown its entertainment core. Stabilizing and revitalizing that area is a priority, but next on the list are more populated, historic parts of the city outside the 7.2 miles. Then come those areas that are the most depleted and unattractive to developers.

The process is complicated, Boyle said, but in general that approach makes sense. "When you have a property market that was as weak as what Detroit suffered, it's absolutely the correct thing to do, to make sure that if you are going to bring funds into Detroit you’re going to protect it," Boyle said. "It is perfectly logical that they have gone to areas where they can protect their investment."

Now that the 7.2 miles are on their way to being fully redeveloped, Boyle said, the next challenge is to use the same mechanisms that worked there in the city’s neighborhoods. "That is a really difficult question," Boyle said. "The nature of the development is different. The challenges of getting funds flowing into neighborhoods, we have plenty of evidence of how hard that is."

Mongo believes the neighborhoods should have equal priority, not be a later step in the process. “If they really wanted to do something, they’d do as much as they’re doing in downtown and Midtown,” he said. “They gave the Fitzgerald neighborhood $5 or $10 million, but that’s nothing compared to what they put into downtown.”


A map of the developments highlighted by Detroit Design 139

Looking on the Detroit Design 139 map of projects, plenty of white space is still visible, devoid of any highlighted development.

Cox stressed that many other projects are either in the works or didn’t make the cut for the exhibit. On display are only 38 projects, picked by an international panel of experts, that have already broken ground or will in the next year, with a few exceptions. Dittmer said the plan is to repeat the process at least every two years, creating a continual display of the forefront of Detroit design.

“My hope is to show them that quality development is possible in Detroit, and if it's possible in that neighborhood that's featured there, then it's possible in theirs as well,” Cox said of Detroiters who have yet to see development in their area. “It's about creating a certain expectation.”

 







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