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.

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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.

comparing-detroit-e1408330846213

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.