Detroit's Future, Fractured

Submitted by Bill Lucas on Sun, 07/28/2013 - 03:02

So, Detroit is bankrupt.

It's somebody's fault. It's lots of people's faults. It has 100,000 creditors. Some are more important than others and need to be made more whole.

Regardless of who's at fault or who comes away less scalped, Detroit needs to be left in a functional, sustainable state at the end of the process.  It can't be left in a condition that forces it into another insolvency some years ahead.

How do we envision a post-bankruptcy Detroit?  What solution would enable it to have enough revenue to provide public safety, trash removal, elections, road maintenance, lighting, and administrative services?

The answer is that there is probably no set of conditions that can be reasonably expected to provide that outcome.  There is no way that the remaining residents and businesses can provide enough tax revenue to run a city as large and with as much aging infrastructure as Detroit.  But that isn't a plan.  We still need one.

When corporations go bankrupt and are restructured, separate viable operations are often split off and sold to the highest bidder. A theory is that under more focused management, these parts can thrive where they were previously overlooked and disregarded.  The similar model may be applicable to a city that's too large to support itself.  This is not to say that parts of Detroit should be sold to other communities. Rather, those parts of the city which can be considered cohesive sets of neighborhoods and business areas with similar needs could be better off as cities in and of themselves, no longer as parts of Detroit.

That Detroit concentrated its development on certain areas like downtown and midtown while ignoring vast residential tracts is not disputed, not for the last 30 or more years.  If given a chance to govern themselves and control their own tax revenues, those outlying areas stand a better chance of focusing maintenance and development on their most pressing needs and most promising opportunities.

How many separate cities might Detroit be broken into, and where might the borders be drawn?  One of the defining historical trends for Detroit has been the coursing of freeways through it.  These freeways have been described as decimating formerly contiguous neighborhoods and hastening their fall.  They now might be used to our advantage, however, as new city borders.

Let's pick as our first candidate for new-city status the East Side close to the Detroit River.  Just using I-94 and I-75/I-375, plus maybe Riopelle to the water, we can define a mostly residential area of maybe 25 square miles that includes a high-utilization manufacturing corridor along Conner, the edgy-but-growing Eastern Market district at its west end, and an underutilized riverfront.  (Let's leave Belle Isle out of the equation for now.)  Advantages are a decent tax base, a long border with the high-population-density Pointes and the development potential of the riverfront.  Disadvantages are the wide dispersion of decrepit, "gap-toothed" housing blocks in its midst and, if that weren't enough, the deteriorating hulk of the Packard Plant.

A second new-city candidate has to be Southwest Detroit.  Using I-94 on the north, the Lodge on the east and the existing city border on the west, we can define a area of about 15-18 square miles that includes Mexicantown, the Motor City Casino, the Ambassador Bridge (and any city revenues derived from it), part of the Marathon refinery, an (again) underutilized riverfront, and the redevelopment potential of the well-known Tiger Stadium and Michigan Central Rail Terminal sites.  Advantages are a decent tax base and the experience and success of the Mexican-American community in keeping an at-risk area alive.  Disadvantages are (again) wide dispersion of dead residential areas, the Michigan Central Rail Terminal (it plays both on sides), and the greed and power of Matty Moroun and the Detroit International Bridge Co., which might try to take controlling ownership of the newly downsized new-city in which it operates.

An obvious pick for another new-city is the central business district (CBD) and the Woodward corridor up to Highland Park.  East and west borders would be I-75 and the Lodge, respectively.  This area of 5 or so square miles has already received the most attention for the past few decades and thus has many advantages:  a downtown, a large university and cultural center, banks, sports venues, casinos, and entertainment districts.  Disadvantages are few, but would include a relatively low residential population whose needs might be subject to dominance from business interests.

The next obvious area is everything on the west side that isn't Southwest Detroit.  The whole area is bisected by the Lodge, Jeffries, and Southfield freeways.  If we stuck with the freeways-as-borders paradigm here it would result in five new-cities.  That's probably too many.  One solution might be splitting it approximately in half along the Jeffries freeway and Davison Avenue.  This would leave two of Detroit's richest neighborhoods, Palmer Park and Rosedale Park, in the northern half.  Alternatively, we could split the area three ways using the Jeffries and and Lodge as dividers, but this somewhat elongates the middle new-city. However, if we took the easternmost part of that, the 5-6 square mile area bordered by the Lodge, I-94, I-96, and Davison Avenue, and "gave" it to the the CBD, that would bring the sizes of the three more in line with each other, at about 13 to 25 square miles, and give the CBD some of the population and size it was lacking. And it wouldn't hurt the CBD to be responsible for an area that is hurting economically (and which was at the core of the 1967 riots). The advantages, and disadvantages, of the Northwest side new-cities are their high concentration of single family homes sites. It's a positive when those homes are standing and lived in, negative when they're empty, deterioriating, or gone.

Now to the Northeast side.  Bounded by 8 Mile, I-75, Hamtramck, I-94, and Harper Woods, this area does not have much going for it. The percentage of abandoned, dilapidated, or demolished properties here is highest in Detroit. With some imagination, however, its desolation could be to its advantage.  The Davison freeway could be extended through gap-toothed neighborhoods to join up with the southern ends of Mound and Groesbeck and create a new shortcut to the manufacturing centers of the northeast suburbs.  The new corridor could be a source of genuinely new investment.  Similarly, the too-small City Airport could expand, not along the existing runway line, which is hemmed in by cemeteries at both ends, but just west of that line. The neighborhood through which it would hypothetically run is one of the most sparsely populated in the city and has zero chance of making a comeback on its own.  And if northern suburbs (read "Warren") have a problem with cargo jets flying over them, tough.  They have done nothing for Detroit in decades except raise generations of white racists to badmouth Detroit.

Last but not least is Belle isle.  If this park were to go to any one new-city, the others would complain.  It should probably be offered to the state at a price of $2bn cash, and maybe settle for $1bn. Alternatively, it should stay in the shared possession of all the new-cities, with a per person charge to enter it, but free to (ex-)Detroit senior citizens.  Long-term, it may make financial sense to turn the eastern half of it into an area of luxury homes and condos. No one goes canoeing through those woods anymore anyway.

These new-cities would not automatically have more taxing power and revenue than a one-piece Detroit.  However, we're looking at an outcome that HAS to occur: land and homes will still be there, people will still be living in them, and services will have to be provided to them.  We need the best option for all areas within the current city borders to bring about stability and growth.

Separate new cities covering the former Detroit land mass probably have the best chance of reducing the risk that we'll all be dealing with another financial failure in Detroit in 20 years.