Members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet made a whirlwind visit to Detroit Friday, bringing promises of $300 million in federal funds. But top officials from Washington come here all the time, and millions of federal dollars have poured into the city for decades.
Their visit, and all the complicated news it generated, tended to obscure a truly significant bulletin of the day: Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, the rajah of downtown, is getting involved in Detroit’s neighborhoods for the first time. He wants to eliminate blight. All of it.
That’s man-bites-dog kind of news.
It’s extremely rare for a business person at Gilbert’s level in Detroit to take on such a monumental public challenge, especially one whose success can be both quantified and observed.
And it's equally unusual for a big-time Detroit businessperson who is prominent in reviving downtown to move into a high-profile and long-lasting project in the city's neighborhoods.
It was announced Friday that Gilbert, the 51-year-old billionaire who has made national headlines for his work in transforming downtown, is one of three people who will serve on a task force that will try to figure out how to demolish Detroit’s tens of thousands of abandoned buildings. Roy Roberts, the former emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools, will serve as the executive – or “land czar” – who will lead the effort day-to-day and report to Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager.
Gilbert didn’t mince words Friday on the blight task force’s goal: “We have to get it all down,” he told reporters.
At the recent Techonomy Conference at Wayne State University, Gilbert hinted he was thinking beyond downtown when he said: “To get the neighborhoods going, we’ve got to take town the 78,000 or so—we don’t even know the exact number of structures that need to be taken down, mostly houses. Once we can get that done, you will have open pieces of land, and you’re going to have, more importantly, hope and optimism.”
And Gilbert means demolishing every last abandoned structure. He even discussed erecting a big count-down board to keep score.
“Maybe I’m out of my mind, which I am for various reasons,” he said. "You get these structures down and, I mean, all of them, not most of them, all of them.”
The challenge is almost unimaginable. The 139-square-mile city has an endless landscape of abandoned houses, commercial buildings, factories, old police precincts, fire stations, churches, schools and one very big train station. The blight stretches from Alter Road on the far East Side to Five Points on the far West Side. Despite the best intentions of many mayors, none has made much of a dent in ridding Detroit of blight. In fact, it gets worse all the time.
The 78,000 abandoned buildings that Gilbert cited comes from Orr’s Proposal for Creditors, released in June. Gilbert is also correct in saying no one really knows how many there are.
In 1989, several crews organized by the Free Press counted all the city’s abandoned buildings and came up with a total of 15,215. That seemed like a stunning figure at the time, though blight then was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is today.
Dealing with blight is also a bureaucratic nightmare. The average cost to demolish a house is $8,500, Orr’s
report said. Addressing blight requires coordinating with several state, county and city agencies, and blight removal is governed by multiple codes and a number of overlapping jurisdictions. Then there’s the messy business of sorting out the ownership of the building.
Such a daunting project is not the kind of thing Detroit’s top business leaders normally get involved in. The goal of their projects usually is something vague and unquantifiable, such as improving race relations, or something traditional, like raising money for charity.
After the 1967 riot, for example, department store magnate Joseph L. Hudson Jr. accepted a request from the governor and mayor to head New Detroit, but the original purpose was not defined, other than to make things better after four days of insurrection. A few years later, Henry Ford II organized financing for the Renaissance Center.
But constructing a building, even one as big as the RenCen, pales beside eliminating all of Detroit’s abandonment.
Gilbert’s play downtown, though, shows he is not the usual Detroit business leader. And, not surprising for someone who owns casinos, he’s a gambler. His Rock Ventures has brought 9,200 employees to Detroit’s central business district in three years and has purchased more than 30 buildings with 7.5 million square feet of office space, which is more than two Packard Plants, speaking of blight.
Gilbert is also playing a key role in another project that has vexed leaders for decades: Mass transit. One of his top lieutenants is Matt Cullen, the CEO of the M1 rail line on Woodward Avenue, which is scheduled to break ground in the coming weeks.
The New York Times said Gilbert’s downtown investments “amount to one of the most ambitious privately financed urban reclamation projects in American history.” It added: “If this area turns around, no one will profit quite like Mr. Gilbert, but the risk looks as great as the potential reward.”
The two other people on the task force with Gilbert are Glenda Price, president of Detroit Public Schools Foundation, and Linda Smith, executive director of U-Snap-Bac, an East Side nonprofit.
On Friday, Obama administration announced Detroit is to receive $150 million to fight blight and spur redevelopment by funding demolition of homes and commercial buildings and the Detroit Land Bank to help manage derelict property and support affordable housing.
If Gilbert, Roberts and their team meet with success, it essentially will create a new city, and one that would be ripe for the sustainable metropolis of swales, ponds and green neighborhoods set out earlier this year in the Detroit Future City plan.
Gilbert is no fan of urban farming, though. When he envisions land cleared of blight, he sees developers rushing in to build anew.
At the Techonomy conference, he said:
“When that blight is gone, maybe we don’t have to be talking about shrinking cities because it will be such a rush of people who want to get into low-value housing — when all the utilities are there and the land is pretty much close to free— not exactly free, but close to it — and all the utilities are there, it becomes very cheap for a builder/developer to develop a residential unit, and they are going to develop them and develop them in mass as soon as we get the structures down and maybe we don’t have to worry about raising peas or corn or whatever it is you do in the farm.”
Let the countdown begin.