An Ode to the Blank Slate

The Federal DoT created a program for cities without real transit to further-develop vehicle-based mobility alternatives with which they will then call themselves “smart” for doing so. In other words, DoT created the Columbus, Ohio grant program, and – Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won it.

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I’ve written about the Smart City Challenge before, including when I came across a CityLab article that discussed this proposal along with possible mobility-oriented interventions in the Linden neighborhood (one of those interventions was my “Bus Box” proposal). I was pleasantly surprised to see Linden, a neighborhood for which I’ve done a lot of work, getting CityLab recognition. Now that the surprise is over, I am sorry to say, I am a little underwhelmed.

Columbus’ Winning Proposal

It’s complicated. To be fair, this application is about getting people moving, and not necessarily providing old-school “transit.” This grant is deliberately intended to pilot future technologies that should rightfully deviate from how transit is usually provided. That said, it’s also an awful lot of hoopla for a proposal that scrapes the bare minimum. This Wired article offers an excellent and unbiased (well, glowing) account of the full application, which will execute the following projects:

  • Autonomous vehicle pilot project to link currently non-accessible (via transit) employment centers
  • Mobility kiosks in the low-income Linden neighborhood, specifically geared toward pregnant women
  • Development of a universal transit pass that syncs with COTA (the bus authority), rideshare apps, taxis, and bikeshare

The real strength of the application was the local partnerships brought forth by Columbus’ determination to win this grant. A classmate of mine with an excellent blog detailed the following “total packages” among the 7 finalist cities, in order of leverage:

  • San Francisco: $150 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Columbus: $90 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Austin: $50 million of in-kind services pledged (which could be worthwhile coming from a tech hotbed)
  • Denver: “Total value of $84 million” (so an additional $34 million of leverage?)
  • Kansas City: $15 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Pittsburgh: Additional $11 million pledged by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Portland: None

Edge, San Francisco.

However, Columbus’ real advantage may have been the blank slate of transit offerings it currently boasts. We have a bus authority. San Francisco has BART which is underfunded but still excellent. Austin has commuter rail. Denver has one of the top LRT networks in the world. Kansas City just opened their new streetcar. Pittsburgh has the T, augmented by really cool “busways.” Portland has it all. DoT may have been attracted by the fact that a Columbus pilot offers the opportunity to implement “smart” technologies in an isolated environment, without cross-over influence of actual transit. As Gizmodo puts it: “Columbus will be able to demonstrate how a city which doesn’t have the time or capital to build out a massive rail network can use the next wave of transportation tech—autonomous vehicles, smartphones, sensors—to get residents moving in an efficient way that will get more cars off roads and lower emissions.”

Smart Challenges For Wicked Problems

Who’s to say Columbus doesn’t “have the time or capital” to build out a rail network? We won’t make time. It’s been a non-starter my entire time in Columbus.

For those that live, work, and get around in Columbus – what does the “Smart City Challenge” victory actually mean? If you’re not pregnant in Linden, what does this victory actually mean? Is everybody in Linden pregnant? What does an autonomous vehicle pilot project really do for a struggling built environment that needs placed-based, not dis-placed, solutions? Having a cool car that can pick you up for your OB/GYN appointment does little for job access, education access, creating recreational opportunities, and fostering passive walkability.

Having written a study on infant mortality in South Linden, I can tell you that lack of car ownership is not an environmental cause. Lack of mobility options, yes, car ownership – not exactly. The full gamut of factors contributing to this neighborhood’s unacceptably high infant mortality rates are:

  • Poor access to affordable and fresh food
  • High obesity rates vis a vis unwalkable environment
  • High stress resulting from crime, speeding traffic noise, and economic insecurity
  • The neighborhood’s only OB/GYN is across the tracks, on a site that was available on the cheap, for lack of resources to build a true neighborhood health center
  • Housing that is often riddled with environmental contaminants
  • Poor maternal care education (prevention of tragic accidents)
  • Other

Linden even has an underfunded BRT-lite project, in need of additional funding and wraparounds to qualify as true BRT, that this grant ignores.

For myself, I deliberately forced myself to use Columbus’ transit for the entire two years that I was in grad school. My thesis was on TOD, and to develop a sense of empathy and deeper understanding, I wanted to experience what it is like to actually rely on transit – too few planners have done this, in my opinion. I can tell you that being reliant on transit in Columbus is not fun. It means waiting for buses that are irregular (my outer backpack pouch has schedules for the #7, #18, #2, #8, and #21 – which I’m pretty sure are just suggestions), unpleasant and stressful, occasionally unsafe (frequent reports of LGBT discrimination and abuse), frequently broken down (I have had three COTA buses break down on me), and so on. For half of the year, add the bitter cold. During the warm months, the buses are often re-routed or indefinitely delayed due to frequent marathons, festivals, or parades on High Street. So while I don’t mean to be a fly in the ointment, I am very passionate about Columbus developing the first-rate transit it so badly needs, and this is not that.

This reminds me of the time I asked the otherwise-excellent outgoing mayor, Michael Coleman (a true role model of civic leadership, I must say) if Columbus was interested in pursuing transit to capture more development demand in the form of sustainable TOD, and his response was “Columbus is so TOD, we now have Car2Go!”

The Case for Real Transit in Columbus

The background context is that Columbus is a community that harbors deeply anti-transit sentiments. It’s a car culture. As Columbus has re-urbanized and more or less “gentrified-in-place” (raising density while developing true mixed-income), it has found auto workarounds. The city routinely grants TIF deals to cover the costs of parking garages to facilitate neighborhood redevelopment. The frustrating thing, as a planner, is that Columbus is a really great city that has what it takes to be “the next Great American City” (sound trumpets) a la Austin or Portland. Transit is the one disconnect – the stubborn pitfall that Columbus can’t get out of.

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The essence of Columbus is neighborhoods, which is ironic for a city best-known for its iconic commercial spine. Above is the most important photo you will ever see (to-date) of Columbus. Of course I am biased, because it is my own, but this photo illustrates better than I could describe the relationship between downtown, the “neighborhoods,” Ohio State, and the High Street corridor. Despite being such a linear city (not to be fooled by the radiating hub-and-spoke of sprawl, density levels and economic activity literally follow High Street) many voting citizens in Columbus pretend to be pro-transit, but just unsure of where it could go or who would use it. This oft-repeated refrain requires the above aerial study. If any city were ripe for a transit corridor, it is Columbus. You don’t need a Nelson Nygaard study (though we have that, too) to tell you where a rail corridor should go, just go up high and say “Eureka, I have found it!”

cbus.JPG What gives Columbus so much potential is that it is a vastly underrated historic city. Overshadowed by the former fourth-largest (Cincinnati in the 1800s) and fifth-largest (Cleveland in the 30s, 40s, and 50s) cities – Columbus falls for the notion that it too is not historic. On the contrary, Columbus is one of the most historic state capital cities, and features some of the most impressive Victorian-era neighborhood fabric anywhere in the United States. These historic neighborhoods are also dense, walkable neighborhoods. However, it is also best summarized as a collection of independent fiefdoms (unique neighborhoods or “villages”) that have spurned planning and transit to stave off the threat of connectivity to their surroundings. A great example of this is Clintonville, a truly wonderful neighborhood whose infamously NIMBY residents are either known as Clintonvillains or the Independent Republic of Clintonville. I truly empathize for any developer feebly attempting to build very high-end apartments for “those people” (you know, renters, like myself).

These fiefdoms are wonderful places. They’re walkable, charming, and valuable. They could be very transit-supportive. Columbus has an almost-endless list of them, from German Village, to Beechwold, from Franklinton (an emerging fiefdom), to Olde Towne East (shout-out to those OTENA gentrifiers, Flag Wars!) and the rest of the “Villages,” be they Victorian, Italian, Merion, and so on. Their calling card is that they all occupy inner-city locations without inner-city connectivity. While I adore cobblestone and brick-paved streets for aesthetic and sense-of-place arguments, I suspect they have been preserved so well to inhibit drive-through traffic.

The divisions of Columbus bring us to realities about inequeality and the geography of opportunity. The Kirwan Institute, based at Ohio State, is an excellent think tank dedicated to the study of poverty and urban inequality, and best-known for “opportunity mapping.” Their Columbus Opportunity Map, essentially a blended metric of quality of life and economic opportunity across Columbus census tracts, is viewable on Arc online. You have to open the filter control and turn off the neighborhood layer, which is just meaningless color-blocking, and turn on the neighborhood opportunity index. You will then see the following map for all of Franklin County:

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While economic opportunity follows High Street, those who enjoy that economic opportunity do not cross High Street. To the east lies a sea of neighborhoods cut off from the city’s spine, by railroads, freeways, etc. These neighborhoods’ problems are largely due to issues with access, whether it be to jobs, education, healthcare, etc. We need a transit network that connects these neighborhoods to the economic spine of Columbus. On top of that, truly linking the diverse and multifaceted (and almost entirely densely-populated) communities that line both sides of High Street would catalyze additional economic potential by bridging the gaps wherever they exist.

Toward the Right Solution

m-1_20map-0Columbus just won $150 million of funding through an incredible public-private partnership. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City are all building their modern streetcars (trams) for less than that. However, Columbus needs much more than a downtown circulator streetcar. Columbus needs something like the M-1 Rail, which I’ve covered extensively, which serves a true need by filling the gap and forging strategic connectivity. The 3.3-mile corridor, envisioned as the first phase, connects two currently-disconnected rail systems and makes the broader Detroit Transit Authority bus grid more efficient. Ran by the suburban RTA (SMART), the M-1 Rail will also link the two disparate transit authorities serving Southeast Michigan, and it will do so through a corridor that links all of the city’s major economic, cultural, and institutional assets.

The M-1 Rail is a slam dunk because it is the perfect place-based transit project. It was also made possible by significant private- and philanthropic-sector contributions, which covered most of the cost, in addition to about $45 million in FTA grants.

Sound familiar?

Columbus needs an M-1 Rail, whether that is “smart” or not – something that provides real, meaningful transit. Columbus does not need a ride here and there for expecting mothers – it needs a transit pipeline for everyone.

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Challenging and Serving Detroit

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While there is nothing unique about having a challenge, according to City of Detroit Chief Talent Officer Bryan Barnhill, the challenge of holistically revitalizing Detroit is unique and noble. Challenge Detroit is an exciting and innovative leadership and professional development program that brought me up to Detroit in Mid-May. Not only was it a great time to be in Detroit, with the best weather I have experienced there to date, but it was a truly inspiring program and mission.

cd1We were treated to a first-class, two-day program with one-on-one interviews with Detroit-area planning and design firms, networking events, guided bus tours of the city, field sessions with community stakeholders, and then a wrap-up “Mini-Challenge” to design a park around a vulnerable population. While the “Mini-Challenge” is designed to simulate service projects that Challenge Detroit Fellows undertake regularly, this “Mini-Challenge” was distinctly fun, giving us the opportunity to address a serious challenge with mediums such as play-doh, pipe cleaners, buttons, and popsicle sticks. My table, tasked with designing a park that is inclusive of homeless populations, produced a vision for a “Food Farm” park that addresses food insecurity through community gardens, a farmstand, and programming spaces.

cd2While I may still yet become involved in Challenge Detroit myself, there are some transferable values that could yield similar results for other cities. As the non-profit sector has been uniquely involved and empowered to work on Detroit’s systemic issues, a major point of emphasis is that it won’t be “fixed” or “solved” or even “helped.” The “solution” is something else. Toward this end, the program teaches a project planning philosophy called “Design Thinking,” adopted from Stanford University’s design school.

Backed by these non-profit stakeholders, Challenge Detroit is unique for bringing in top-notch talent and embedding them into the community that they will serve. Rather than “fix, solve, and help,” the idea behind Challenge Detroit is “live, work, play, give, and lead.” I think this bold idea emphasizes that while Detroit needs givers and leaders, it also needs every-day people who just want to live, work, and play. For 30 lucky fellows, the program also offers the opportunity to develop one’s career while serving this amazing mission in an amazing city.

Housers Must Lead on Lead

Flint happened. We all know about it.

Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Philly also happened. Nobody realizes it. For lack of political convenience, awareness of the rest of this lead paint iceberg remains sub-surface.

7% of Flint’s children are lead-poisoned. In Cleveland, the number is 14%. In Cleveland’s historic Glenville neighborhood, formerly the suburban “Gold Coast” of the Rockefellers, the number is 26.5%. If resources were made available for better testing, public health practitioners believe the number could be as high as 40%. Nearly half of children in Glenville could be lead-poisoned.

Similar hot-spots abound in most older cities.

lead_crime_325Lead-poisoning doesn’t just lower IQ. Studies show that moderate lead poisoning can lower IQ by 5 points. Worse yet, lead paint has been proven to make afflicted individuals more violent. That is the exact part of the brain that lead affects, and it turns out lower IQ isn’t the only way this manifests itself.

The trend is nearly indisputable. Yes, there are outside factors to control for, but…

  1. Lead paint contact soars. Violent crime soars.
  2. Neighborhoods are afflicted by lead paint. Neighborhoods are afflicted by violent crime.

The NYT is doing their best to raise awareness with a “smoking gun” article, which I put in air quotes because it is nobody’s fault.

It is hard to raise awareness for a problem that is nobody’s fault. However, more than awareness, we need to raise funds. Whether broad awareness comes or not is besides the point because this lead contamination crisis shouldn’t be about politics. In fact, the lack of broad awareness and political interest could actually be an opportunity to fly under the radar and cut through the political gridlock.

There are funds, just not for lead paint abatement. The lead contamination problem is a historic preservation problem. Outlawed in 1978, the U.S. has made incredible strides toward putting a lid on the lead paint problem. Outlawing leaded gasoline made a big difference.

However, the CDC funds to test for lead paint have been cut by 40%, in part because public officials are under the misimpression that we solved this problem.

In 2003 the Ohio Legislature created a lead paint abatement fund, as federal resources became rolled back. After the press gala they just forgot to actually fund it. Oops.

There is a bill in Congress to provide over $200 million to replace lead pipes across the nation. If only it weren’t for Utah Senator Mike Lee’s legislative hold, citing that Michigan has a budget surplus and doesn’t need help (despite that the bill in mention is for any community impacted by lead pipes).

lead-paint-removalThe federal government actually withdrew the City of Cleveland’s 2012 lead paint funding application because they didn’t like the city’s track record in fixing this problem. Not sure how that computes; I’m reminded of when Judge Judy once said “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” It seems like the Feds defunded the city’s efforts, then refused to fund additional efforts because they didn’t like the city’s effort. Alrighty then.

The NYT article that I praised earlier goes after the city for spending $30 million on the Browns Stadium. You can’t unequivocally praise or vilify anyone/anything. They are wrong here. My biggest pet peeve: Arguments that imply that rust belt cities shouldn’t do projects (like every other city) until they solve every basic problem (that exists in every other city). Yes, we have lead paint. However, what does that have to do with the NFL? Take the sports and other amenities away and then not only do Cleveland’s problems get bigger but Cleveland becomes less relevant and less familiar.

You gotta be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

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However, there is a program that could help: The Hardest Hit Fund. I need to become better-informed about this program, but the Treasury just added an additional $2 billion to what was a $7.6 billion program to address housing problems in the “hardest-hit” communities.

The money overwhelmingly goes toward demolishing these communities. That is the predominant federal thinking toward rust belt cities: take their money, tear them down, make their residents move elsewhere, and pipe their water to the south.

Ohio in particular just got a big fire hose of $100 million that can only be used for demolition a la “blight removal.” It does nothing to help historic communities. It is in fact a huge detriment to historic preservation, which is the solution to removing contaminants in historic homes. I don’t know why this isn’t obvious.

This means you can get funds to erase the abandoned home that nobody lives in, but not a dime for the lead-plastered home next door inside which children are growing up.

We have an obsession with tearing down vacant and abandoned properties. The common argument against the HHF is that you’re tearing down these community’s future opportunities. You never know what neighborhood will come back to life next. That said, the better argument is that you’re solving for a cosmetic problem when a much bigger actual problem exists next door.

This vacant and abandoned obsession is a new thing, since the 2008 housing crash. As the new kid on the policy block, it has gotten all of the attention. Lead paint is the old kid that can’t seem to ever graduate high school. Nobody wants to deal with it anymore.

In Cleveland, this effort (the “blight removal” one, not the lead paint one) is led by the Thriving Communities Institute at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, of which the very capable CEO is Jim Rokakis. Rokakis is an impassioned crusader for Cleveland’s inner city communities and an expert on urban housing. I would encourage historic preservationists to extend the olive branch and work together with him on finding how these resources could be put to better use.

There has to be a better way. Revenue neutral, less homes torn down, more lead paint removed, better housing, and stronger families. What’s not to love?

Next week I will be in DC, meeting with Sherrod Brown, Jim Jordan, and Steve Stivers. The agenda is mostly about streamlining the historic tax credit. My agenda will be focused on these Hardest Hit Funds and killing two birds with one stone: Saving the diamonds in the rough amongst our housing stock, and getting lead paint out of homes where children are growing up.

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Join me. Reach out to Congress, reach out to the Feds (Treasury, Federal Reserve, HUD, etc). Reach out to local leaders like Rokakis and especially your local land bank. Reach out to public health officials – they stand ready, willing to work together with housing and urban development practitioners. In fact, that’s the way forward – partnering with land banks, housing groups, and public health. The goal is a healthy housing program.

Don’t attack them. Don’t scapegoat. Sometimes these things happen where we’ve got a problem and it isn’t the fault of anybody in particular. That doesn’t mean we can’t work together when we aren’t working against “another side.”

There is hope. NYC is a model for lead paint abatement. They have effectively reduced lead paint contamination to 2% in what is obviously an older city. They didn’t do it by tearing homes and apartments down. They did it by abating nearly every dwelling unit, with strict inspection standards matched with abatement funds, and repurposing historic housing into healthy housing.

 

Meet the coolest transit project in America: M-1 Rail

Detroit, the city that refuses to die, and the city that got America moving, has gotten a little well-deserved help with their new streetcar. Detroit is long-known as one of those cities where transit projects go to die, with countless different iterations of this same project reappearing every few years. To this point, it’s worth mentioning that the People Mover system (photographed extensively in my 2016 trip) was always envisioned as a “last mile” circulator once people get downtown on a larger transit network that hasn’t materialized until now.

I don’t really know if this project is the coolest transit project in America. I’ll say it’s pretty unlikely. M-1 Rail is a mere $125-180 million endeavor, which puts it firmly in the New Starts realm, while more established transit cities like Seattle are doing crazy things like capping an entire urban freeway, LA is doing subway extensions, Atlanta is developing a copy + paste model for air rights construction over MARTA stations, Minneapolis wants 75,000 downtown residents, and Dallas fully intends to protect its claim to the most light rail of any city. These cities don’t blink at spending billions – yet Detroit’s little $125 million project has been such a topic of controversy. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called it “The worst transit project in America.” It’s hard not to wonder if this is a cogent anti-streetcar argument or just thinly veiled annoyance that this city refuses to conform to the negative outside press. (I feel guilty even offering this up as click bait, but I still feel compelled to offer totally contrasting viewpoints.) If he can make such an unfounded claim, then surely I can counter that by calling it the coolest transit project in America. M-1 Rail brings out the best in transit projects and has a tremendous array of benefits to offer Detroit. In many ways, this small transit project is the little engine that could.

dettransit_mapBoiling M-1 Rail down to its lowest common denominator, this project is a very small but vitally important link that ties together a regional rail network that is finally coming together. M-1 Rail, spanning the Cass Corridor between downtown (served by the very cool and very retro People Mover) and New Center (where Amtrak’s Wolverine and SEMCOG’s commuter system cut through Detroit City), is a 3.3-mile link (red) between these two existing (blue) transit systems that don’t currently intersect.

Now, given that there are some interesting corridors in the rift left by these two systems, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to connect the closest points of these two disparate transit networks? Even without knowing much about Detroit and specifically the neighborhoods that lie between the two transit systems, it would seem to make sense within the regional context: By making that connection, rather than having three disparate transit systems, you now have a single whole network that serves the Detroit region.

b99329484z-1_20151130190435_000_gvcmn04b-1-0It so happens that besides the obvious slam dunk within the regional context, that the localized context further propels the case for M-1 Rail. Woodward Avenue, Michigan Highway #1, is America’s only urban national scenic byway. There are only 30 national scenic byways. Step aside Euclid Avenue (CLE), High Street (Cbus), Wash Ave (STL), Fifth and Forbes (Pitt), Vine Street (Cincy). Woodward Avenue is the granddaddy of all of the great urban main streets.

I have a lot of “crazy theories” one might say, and one of them is that you can usually go up to a tall vantage point and look out over a major city and either point out specific transit corridors, or what should be specific transit corridors. Go to the CN Tower and you can literally see the veins of high-rises that fan out across the city, most notably along Yonge Street, where towers rise up for a dozen or so miles from the low-rise scale of Toronto’s surrounding neighborhoods. In a city without rail, the same experiment is basically a quick-and-dirty method of studying prospective corridors. In Columbus, go to the Rhodes Tower observation floor, and even if you know nothing about Columbus you still can’t help but notice how the entire city literally rises up at High Street. Similarly with Detroit, go up to a tall building on Wayne State’s campus and then look out over the city. You will see the above view. If you were struggling with where to do transit three years ago, the above view would be somewhat illuminating.

The financing of M-1 Rail is the most interesting urban experiment I have ever seen. Detroit City is in fact kind of an outsider to this entire project. This project has been planned, approved, and implemented by a complex partnership between Detroit’s non-profit sector and the federal government, which literally “required an Act of Congress” to allow public-private partnerships to count as the local match required by FTA. It also leverages New Markets Tax Credits, which is the first time NMTC’s have ever invested in public transit, thanks to LISC, Great Lakes Capital, and others. Four foundations, including the Ford and Kresge foundations, also contributed millions. Detroit’s corporate community stepped up to the plate to buy naming rights at each station, contributing far more than a name is really worth.

The financial pieces (totaling $180 million) of this project are as follows, mostly in little $3 million chunks here and there:

  • Kresge Foundation – $49.6 million
  • FTA TIGER I grant – $25 million
  • FTA TIGER VI grant – $12.2 million
  • Quicken Loans – $10 million
  • State of Michigan – $10 million
  • Detroit Downtown Development Authority – $9 million
  • NMTC (LISC, Great Lakes Capital, etc) – $8 million
  • Penske Corp. – $7 million
  • MEDC – $7 million
  • Illitch Holdings (Little Caesar’s Pizza) – $6 million
  • Ford Foundation – $4 million
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan – $3 million
  • Chrysler Foundation – $3 million
  • Detroit Medical Center – $3 million
  • General Motors Co. – $3 million
  • Henry Ford Health System – $3 million
  • Wayne State University – $3 million
  • Wayne County – $3 million
  • Ford Motor Co. – $3 million
  • DTE Energy – $2.9 million in-kind
  • Compuware Corp. – $1.5 million
  • J.P. Morgan Chase – $1.5 million
  • Hudson-Webber Foundation $1 million
  • Bank of America Foundation – $300,000
  • Ford Motor Co. Fund – $100,000

Notice you won’t see “City of Detroit” anywhere on said list. Nor will you see “taxpayers of Detroit” on the list, in any way (through some taxing district, etc). I just think that this is amazing. At a minimum, it’s a testament that the Rust Belt community ethos is alive and well in Michigan, even after a community has broken down and weathered such a storm. 

At this point I must confess that I started out intending to just whip up another quick photo tour and press “publish.” While that is still forthcoming, I just can’t stress enough that with this transit project the devil is in the details. If you bother to look at these details, it really is the coolest transit project in America.

And it is becoming reality.

Progress as of January 2015:

Progress as of February 2016:

Which eventually will resemble these renderings:

So, if you like what you see, mark your calendars for sometime in 2017 when M-1 Rail leaves the station, revolutionizing how visitors (tourists and suburbanites alike) will experience Detroit City. It will be an experience that keeps people coming back and hopefully creates enough concentrated activity to rub off on the less-revitalized remainder of the city.

Rather than insist that every project solve every problem (zero-sum), M-1 Rail is worthy of our support and admiration as a singular solution in a city that collectively needs a lot of singular solutions. M-1 Rail doesn’t fix everything overnight; however, it does fill in the missing link, build on Detroit’s existing assets, connect the city to the broader region where most jobs have moved, and give the city something captivating to build on for the future.

Detroit: 2016

Now a year removed from bankruptcy, Detroit is moving on and building the strongest momentum that the city has had since its precipitous decline began, more promising than any other flash of hope that came and went in the past. You can’t come to Detroit today and not see that this is the Comeback City; It’s happening.

Click here for the photo tour from my 2015 trip.

m-1-rail-route-mapSomehow, I seem to be making a personal tradition of making an annual Detroit trip during the winter. I also somehow always luck out and get a weekend that is “relatively” warm, so I’ve really lucked out (2015’s trip was in the 30s, but wedged between two Polar Vortex weeks; 2016’s trip had temps in the 50s). All of this said, and even in the “Comeback City,” there really isn’t all THAT much change in 1 year. A few new scaffolds covering some buildings, such as the Griswold Bldg on Michigan Ave that’s now pretty far along. The booming M1 Corridor isn’t all that unchanged – it’s mostly the same building projects still underway, and the light rail is still under construction, although the street is a little bit more passable.

The one area where there has been a lot of change is the new Redwings Arena. One of the grandiose old hotels are gone, yet the other (two twin hotel towers) still stands, and the arena totally dwarfs everything in the southern end of Midtown. Across Woodward, the western-most block of Brush Park is seeing a lot of new development. Huge projects going up between Woodward and John R.

As always, you gotta start at the Market, especially if it’s a Saturday and the weather is sublime. This area was previously artfully gang-tagged all over, which is now giving way to an actual public art initiative called Murals in the Market. There is a map of murals on their website, but several are new in just the last year, such as the really awesome googly eyes. There are more pics inside the market in my 2015 pics, as this time I mostly explored the surrounding market district, where several distilleries and breweries have given way to cold storage and meat market businesses. The Eastern Market is as old school as it gets.

Murals in the Market

The Eastern Market is just east, across I-75, from Brush Park and Midtown Detroit. The two areas, arguably Detroit’s most active on a nice weekend day, are still pretty disconnected. Of course, Brush Park still has a ways to go toward regaining its lost luster. The M1 Rail project is chugging along, making Woodward Avenue a little more passable than before, and it all looks great. The new Red Wings Arena is also topped out.

Midtown & M1 Rail

 

Confession time: I LOVE the Detroit People Mover. I wanted to hate it so badly. It’s everyone’s favorite kind of rail project to pick on. It’s a monorail, it doesn’t connect to the street level, you need quarters to ride it, and it only does a 3-mile loop around downtown. I always tried using it as an example of a bad rail project. But it isn’t. The Detroit People Mover somehow works. Every single time I’ve seen it, it’s packed full of people. You have to literally squeeze onto it. It could be sped up – it doesn’t need to stop at every station for a full minute or two – but the best thing about it is the headways. With 5 trains simultaneously making the 3-mile clockwise loop around downtown, a train comes every 3-4 minutes. It’s really awesome.

Downtown Detroit is also really awesome. Similarly, I really wanted to hate the Renaissance Center. It’s the most typical fortress city urban renewal project you’ve ever seen. Did I mention that it’s massing is ugly and intimidating? But it’s also really cool, and I finally made it to the Coach Insignia bar up on the 73rd Floor, which makes the Renaissance Center alright with me. Next time you’re in town, you’ve got to go. Go get a drink (not badly priced at all) and watch the sunset. If you hate fortress corporate towers like me, it will still make you fall in love with the Ren Cen.

People Mover & A View From the Top

Corktown is probably my favorite little pocket of Detroit. The main reason for this is probably Slow’s BarBQ. Easily the best BBQ joint I’ve ever been to outside of KC, and I would know bc I’m kind of a foodie tourist.

West is (was) Best

And lastly, I finally made it to the Heidelberg Project, which is truly the weirdest thing I have ever seen. In fact, that is all I have to say about it. Enjoy.

Departure From Reality

Until next time, Motor City!

Detroit: 2015

I spent my birthday last year in Detroit, which may seem like a strange place to celebrate one’s birthday, but I really dig Detroit, and it also coincided with the Detroit Auto Show and a Red Wings Game. Didn’t actually make it into Joe Louis Arena for the game because there were too many brewpubs to try! Priorities, you know.

I wanted to put up these year-old pics from Detroit because I am going back this weekend, with a group from Ohio State’s MCRP program. We have a “City Trip” series each semester that is really the highlight of our student programming, and in the past have done Cleveland, Louisville, and Pittsburgh. Since posting these will also help me clear up space on my phone for new pics, those will surely be forthcoming. It’s kind of what I do. 🙂

Bearings

Detroit is really undergoing a nascent renaissance as it moves on from bankruptcy, which by the way may end up being one of the better things to happen to Detroit. While the slate has been wiped clean at City Hall, the actual city itself and the neighborhoods that comprise it are anything but a “clean slate.” That’s actually one relatively common misnomer about Detroit that gets under my skin when bandied about by fellow planners. Detroit’s communities are still extant, and while it’s true that many block groups have been essentially erased from existence, a lot of community fabric and community stakeholders still remain. For instance, southwest Detroit (Mexicantown) is still pretty densely populated.

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As far as gentrification goes, it goes without saying that Downtown and Midtown are relatively stable. And while the city is only 138 square miles, somehow it seems substantially larger. The sheer magnitude of Detroit is lost on many people – it’s 138 square miles of densely packed neighborhoods. The “gentrified” Downtown and Midtown core, now pushing northward into New Center, is such a thin slice of this huge city, but it’s still a more significant urban core than most cities have.

The hardest hit parts of Detroit are east and northeast Detroit, the Grand River Avenue / I-96 corridor, and south Detroit. Historically, south Detroit was the rougher part of town, whereas today it’s probably not quite as challenged as other parts due to stable affordable housing in Mexicantown. Better parts exist along the eastern riverfront (Jefferson Avenue corridor) and in the NW tip of the city, north of Grand River Avenue.

I feel guilty doing this, but this photo tour will focus exclusively on Downtown, Midtown, and the Corktown and Eastern Market areas that branch off of Woodward in opposite directions. That said, within this corridor, there is more than enough to satisfy the pickiest cultural tourist – world-class architecture, museums, food, public spaces, event venues, and all linked by decent transit that will soon become world-class transit (once the M1 Rail opens).

Photo Tour

Corktown is becoming a hotspot of Detroit’s foodie scene, and also features some loft housing. The neighborhood, just west of downtown along Michigan Avenue, is anchored by the incomparable Michigan Central Station, which is getting rehabbed!

 

The Eastern Market is Detroit’s public market. Every self-respecting Rust Belt city must have one of these. The Eastern Market is different in that it’s a larger complex, less oriented toward tourists, and more oriented toward wholesale clients. It’s surrounded by a district that features more touristy “general stores” and some of the coolest graffiti I’ve seen this side of Brooklyn.

 

Downtown Detroit is alive and well. Its sidewalks must go through an emotional rollercoaster – yes, sometimes totally empty – but other times, full of nightlife even on frigid weekend late nights, or full of downtown residents jogging or walking dogs, people going to work, or brunch, and the strangest phenomena observed was a legitimate Sunday mid-day “rush hour” when the grandiose Art Deco skyscrapers open their doors for architectural tours. You will literally see the sidewalks packed with hispters and families alike, taking photos and taking in the vibe of the irreplaceable Art Deco architecture.

 

Midtown Detroit is the new economic engine of Southeast Michigan; the true embodiment of an “eds and meds” district, which you read more about on Midtown Detroit Inc’s website. This economic engine is different from Downtown in that it is fully leased and developers can not keep up with demand. It’s also different than office tower clusters in Troy, or Southfield, in that it is walkable and transit-accessible. This economic engine is different from Royal Oak or Birmingham, awesome as those are, in that it is actually in the City of Detroit where economic development is needed most.

 

Lastly, some of the city’s most beautiful and enduring spaces are along the eastern waterfront, where the Detroit River opens into Lake St. Clair. The Detroit River is the only point where you can cross south into Canada, and in the middle of it, is Belle Isle. East of there, you see cool landmarks along the lake such as the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.

CityLab Officially Channeling CAVE: Champions BAN on Historic Districts

Fight with Richard Florida. Check. It’s like a well-known rite of passage for any academic. I have always taken issue with some of the destructive reporting and advocacy at CityLab. One day they’re categorically against public housing authorities (which do a lot of good), the next they’re against all streetcar projects for some reason, and it so happened that over the weekend the new fashionable stance is against historic districts. Not just any one historic district, but you know, ALL of them. Richard Florida then indignantly defended throwing Rust Belt historic preservation under the bus, saying they “aren’t pro or anti city, [but rather just] objective and fact based.” Rather than wait for the other side to get an article, here are my own objective and fact-based responses. Whatever that means.

Their stable of writers remind me of that crazy uncle (in my case, my very own Dad is our family’s crazy uncle) who can’t have nice things, and sees an ulterior motive behind every corner. In other words, Citizens Against Virtually Everything. You just can’t win for trying.

throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater1In fact, CityLab would like to unite with Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin who according to a twitter exchange I had with the author Kriston Capps, have the “right idea for the wrong reasons.” So there you have it, when Tea Party Republicans aren’t busy regulating water quality in Flint, they’ve got a lazer focus on the housing affordability crisis caused by historic districts. Right. And the splash photo accompanying the article was that of a baby literally being thrown out with the bathwater. (I wish)

In case you doubt that the reputable (supposedly?) people over at CityLab would actually write and subsequently publish this:

Houses, on the other hand, are often poor candidates for historic preservation. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for people who love residential architecture (as I do). Historic homes and neighborhoods can be immensely significant, culturally and architecturally. But houses belong to owners, and in the U.S., the tried-and-true way to build wealth is to acquire real estate. Historic homes, typically gorgeous single-family homes, are often powerful assets.

So when local- and state-government bodies grant preservation status to historic districts—sometimes entire neighborhoods—they do not always simply protect culture, architecture, and history. Sometimes they also shore up wealth, status, and power.

So the charge, so far as I read it, is that insisting on single family zoning of historic homes not only squeezes low income families into a housing problem, but is actually just a conspiracy to “shore up wealth, status, and power.” Also, the author could have pointed to some research on this. That would have lent an understanding of how HP districts work in the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin), which is where this article is premised.

Read on…

“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations?” said Wisconsin Republican State Senator Frank Lasee in a statement. “Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy.”

I’m a little shocked by the credence CityLab is lending to this essentially anti-intellectual argument. There aren’t 40 pages of rules telling you what you can and can’t do with your historic home. There is a helpful guide that may or may not be that long, but I assure you that the rules can fit on one sheet. This goes to Richard Florida: I’ve been a long-time supporter, but come on man. If you take yourself seriously, you can’t be the publisher of ignorant CAVE talk. What is this FOX News? Here are the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which are mostly just good practice for us all.

Behre reports that Charleston is changing its architectural-review process, which could ease the way for more ambitious growth. Charleston residents aren’t all against the idea. And as his longtime readers know, the people of Charleston bear an authentic interest in architecture; it’s not a front. Still, the same class of argument being levied against cutting-edge campus design is being used to thwart more affordable housing, and that’s a problem. The result is a Charleston elite of increasingly wealthy downtown residents, and an affordable housing crisis for everybody else.

This giant paragraph-long sentence fragment literally blew up my WordPress, but it’s important to get it in here because of how wrong it is. It’s the crucible closing argument in a whole vignette Capps wrote decying Charleston as “a model for how not to do preservation.” Charleston is actually not a model as much as it is a grandfather of the historic preservation movement. I erroneously wrote in this paragraph that the National Trust conference was in Charleston, when it was actually in Savannah – two cities I frequently combine, to be honest. Thanks to Jennifer Bailey for pointing this out, as well as this fun fact of the day: Charleston was actually the first city (1931) to designate its own local historic districts.

I can not actually speak to everything that has ever transpired in Charleston, and if it’s anything like my own hometown or the cities I’ve grown to call home, I certainly can’t defend everything they have ever done. I share Capps’ passion for equitable urban development. Here’s the bottom line: How many low-income accessible jobs are supported by the tourism industry in South Carolina? How many cities, not beaches, in South Carolina have a tourism industry?

I’ll do the research on that, just because it’s not difficult. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that of Charleston’s 331,000 non-farm jobs, Leisure and Hospitality account for 46,000. You can look this stuff up. 46,000, and that’s not even counting all of the services supported by that Leisure and Hospitality industry. Altogether it’s a HUGE opportunity for low-income families where the bread winner may not have a college degree. And it’s made possible by something as annoying as Charleston’s unique historic charm and its resistance to modernity.

I would argue that Charleston IS a model for how TO do preservation: Focus on critical mass, preserving the larger context, and doing something significant enough. Preservation shouldn’t be about saving one landmark here, an old school there, etc. It’s value is in the whole, not the pieces. Few communities have been more successful at turning historic districts with heritage tourism into an economic engine, but something like this exists at a smaller scale in many of our communities, wherever we call home. This type of grassroots economic development is the essence of the patented Main Street Approach.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference Attendees

Read on for the grand hoorah:

That case against historic districting is similar to the case against protectionist single-family zoning anywhere. And the question isn’t just aesthetic, it’s constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year on “disparate impact” means that wealthy communities cannot keep affordable housing out because wealthy residents feel that they’re better off without it. The federal government’s Affordable Furthering Fair Housing rule means that cities and neighborhoods cannot use single-family zoning to keep affordable housing at bay.

As cities confront the growing nationwide housing crisis, there will be both a need and a market for building more densely, even in the most precious neighborhoods. Historic preservation is a tool better used to protect community assets, not private assets. Historic preservation is a tool better used to safeguard the historical resources in which everyone can take pride—not the historical resources that were only ever allotted to winners by race-based housing policies.

It’s always nice when an author just comes right out and says what he/she really wants to say. While the author didn’t exactly do that, he came close by just spitting out whatever he thought might stick… Supreme Court! Disparate impact! Wealthy communities! Single-family zoning! Nationwide housing crisis! The end [mic drop].

There is indeed a nationwide housing crisis. My generation is saddled with debt, over-educated, and more often than not living at home in the ‘rents basement. I’d be doing that myself if the family basement wasn’t already snagged…by my little brother…so alas, I venture out into the cold in the Rust Belt, where Millennials actually can make it these days. Michigan and Wisconsin are in the Rust Belt, and Michigan is a place I go often. Have even worked on some projects pertaining to its communities and have networked with many of its housing/development/planning professionals. They do good work Up North, and withstand a lot of blows from the Snyder regime. HP has always been under fire with this regime, and generally if Rick Snyder doesn’t like you, you must be doing something right!

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Michigan history is on the downward slide, but don’t worry: “Right idea for the wrong reasons!” -CityLab

One of Snyder’s first actions was eliminating the historic tax credit (which was a blow to every community in the state, esp Detroit), which he then followed-up with a new rule that HUD’s Hardest Hit Funds need not undergo a Section 106 Review. Sec. 106 is a SHPO review process that all federally-funded projects undergo in order to ensure our taxpayer dollars aren’t irreparably leveling cities left and right. We try to keep the wanton destruction to a minimum, but what can ya do? Snyder’s 2nd move was to expedite the extent to which HUD money can be used to dynamite what’s left of Detroit, basically. Now the latest is the proposal to “ban” historic districts, which is really just the hat trick! For you southerners, that means a 3-fer. What-a-deal (if you hate history). I drew the above handy diagram in case the direction of this arc is lost on you.

Furthermore, the article shows zero understanding of how community development in the Midwest works. The assumption is that the wealthy are clinging to their historic homes or moving in en masse, pushing out the poor, and giving us the nationwide affordability crisis.

Actually what is happening is that cities are clinging for dear life, desperate for families to move back, regardless of socioeconomic background. Historic districts in the Midwest aren’t bucolic small towns inside the big cities. In reality they are full of life and diversity. They are the densest parts of Midwestern cities. They are a home for immigrant communities, creative class, young professionals, and minority families – all of whom call each other neighbors. They are what is working amidst a lot of dysfunction in our cities. According to this Fannie Mae report, historic rehabilitation accounts for 50-60% of all construction activity in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and D.C. It is nearly 80% of what is happening in St. Louis.

As for Detroit, you better go see it now, because if the State of Michigan gets its way, there won’t be much left. In Detroit, historic districts are actually the only stable parts of the city. I would argue that anything that can provide stability in that city is a good thing. According to this article, historic designation has largely kept foreclosures out of historic districts. It has also injected these communities with federal historic tax credit equity, that they are desperately in need of. State tax credit equity was also brought forth by historic designations, before Snyder killed that. It’s not just Detroit, either. This is typical of every large Midwestern city with declining or stable growth. It’s called “asset-based revitalization,” which is the strategy where you work with the people and the building you already got.

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Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation and Midtown Detroit Inc. are teaming up to rehab several old decades-empty buildings into quality affordable housing, using both federal historic (not possible without historic designation) and low-income housing tax credits. Read about this project and see more photos on MLive.com.

Not only are these Rust Belt historic districts NOT pushing poor people out, they have actually been one of our best strategies to repopulate inner city neighborhoods. In almost every case, these neighborhoods are growing more income-diverse, which is exactly the goal of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. Before you cite policy, you might actually want to read the policy. Not only are these neighborhoods attractive for affordable housing projects (I believe in putting affordable housing in good communities, but that’s just me), but oftentimes historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits work together. In Ohio, Round 15 of Historic Preservation Tax Credits (the most recent) alone made possible $32.5 million in rural affordable housing, where the need is greatest in our state.

During a twitter exchange with the author, I and Belt Magazine asked him where in Michigan have historic districts pushed out the poor? He offered Grand Rapids. Again, Reeeeeeesearch man. It turns out that in Grand Rapids, historic districts are gaining safe, decent, affordable housing in the 100s of units. This article alone cites several concrete examples that combine historic and affordable. I could go on ad nauseum, but instead Let ME Google This For You. In the Midwest we’re big on teaching people (pundits) to fish (research on their own). Wait no, he only meant that Grand Rapids spawned the Michigan GOP. Not sure what that has to do with the price of rice in China, but the more you know!

Many state historic tax credit programs actually have an inclusionary affordable requirement, which is as much as anyone can do to combat the nationwide affordable housing crisis. You can look that up on the Novoco website. In the end, fixing this problem won’t come from finding a panacea. The problems are multi-faceted, and so must be the solution. What is working, ie historic preservation, must be a part of that calculus. Killing historic districts isn’t just throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it’s throwing the bathwater out with the baby.

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