Wednesday, May 23, 2007
How To Re-Populate Detroit: New Uses For Land by Akindele Akinyemi
Over the past decade we have been bombarded with messages about growth management, urban villages, smart growth and new urbanism here in Detroit.
One might even conclude that Detroit must be well on their way toward fostering the transformation of their aging and underused downtowns or low-density, suburban commercial cores into vibrant, higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented urban centers. Although that may be the case in several instances, it is far from the truth region-wide.
The reality is that private market forces acting alone have not stepped up to the challenge uniformly throughout the region. It’s true that the city centers of Chicago, Charlotte and Atlanta, and a few other locations, are examples of urban redevelopment success stories. However, the vast majority of development — even over the past new-urbanism-inspired decade — has been low-density, single-use and auto-dependent in nature.
As long as relatively cheap land is available at the fringes of our metropolitan areas, the private market will continue to shy away from denser, multi-use infill redevelopment in the older suburban town centers and commercial cores — unless, of course, the private market can be convinced otherwise.
But before the private market can be convinced, local municipal leaders have to be convinced that it is in their community’s interest to spend the time, energy and money to help convince the private market!
The free market will respond when the demand is there, but those perfect-market theories don’t always pan out. In fact, the demand may be there already, but other, easier and possibly more profitable development opportunities may found elsewhere — on greenfields and/or at the urban fringe. Meanwhile, every year new single-use, one-story mega-retail establishments amid expansive parking lots crop up in or near our city's commercial cores and town centers, effectively pushing off desired redevelopment another 25 years or more.
So why should communities actively pursue the redevelopment of their town centers? Among the litany responses to that question, ranging from enhancing quality of life and sense of community to creating development that generates fewer daily automobile trips, perhaps the most convincing might lie in the notion of fiscal responsibility.
One thing that should be offered that if there’s one thing that all municipal leaders will agree on, be they Democrats or Republicans it’s “fiscal responsibility.” After all, what could be more fiscally responsible than achieving greater redevelopment and use of city center land, where literally hundreds of millions of dollars in expenditures have been made in infrastructure and public facilities? If these expenditures were made to accommodate future urban development, then, how can communities afford not to capture that desired urban redevelopment?
If I am running for state representative next year I would stress the importance of using municipalities’ as urban redevelopment tools.
One issue that has faced many communities is how to accommodate certain developments that typically do not achieve the community’s urban redevelopment goals, such as large megastores.
There’s no reason why smaller urban communities cannot consider requiring that certain developments in their commercial centers be modified from the standard, suburbanized model. Perhaps housing can be included on the site. Perhaps other commercial uses can be included, especially if they break down the overall bulk of the project and provide a more storefront character along a key pedestrian street. In fact, requiring co development of key sites can be precisely the catalyst that it takes to get certain desired uses, like office or housing.
By bringing developers together for one site, land costs may be shared between the different components, effectively making certain projects actually pencil out where they might not on their own.
This is why areas like Brightmoor and the North End in Detroit need land banks.
Although land bank programs are often viewed as only a fiscal policy, they can have comprehensive benefits. A fiscally oriented land bank policy only focuses on quickly acquiring and placing land back on municipal/county tax roles. This approach is effective but shortsighted in relation to issues of community development and sustainability. To maximize its potential, land bank programs requires planning and goals that extend beyond fiscal benefits. The goal of the land bank should be community development.
The land bank is a redevelopment tool to assist the city in meeting its other community development needs, such as housing, job growth, public safety etc. Land bank programs should be targeted to meet these other goals and interlinked with additional planning initiatives of the city, such as comprehensive planning or neighborhood development plans. Land bank programs should also be aligned with existing development initiatives and development incentive programs to maximize the potential for redevelopment.
Furthermore, when we are not using vacant land it has a direct impact on the health of urban areas. In Detroit, vacant land is a not just a nuisance but accelerates the deterioration of neighborhoods, increases criminal activity and robs the city of valuable financial resources. A successful land bank program could have a significant impact on the future of Detroit. Many cities similar to Detroit have initiated land bank programs and most have seen beneficial results. A land bank program is not a simple solution to urban decline but a tool to spur redevelopment in urban areas. To maximize the potential of the land bank program, it must be structured and coordinated with other planning initiatives. Careful coordination of a land bank program with existing redevelopment initiatives can create a synergy which will aide in meeting the multiple goals of community development.
So while people are gearing up for State Representative races in Detroit think about REAL development and not listening to A-teams or Grassroots PDs who offer no solutions to the urban crisis here in Detroit. Remember, we are offering solutions to the problems that will help re-populate Detroit not chase people away like those grassroots who uses race as a wedge issue.