HSR would have made World Series even sweeter

World Series 2016 aftermath: Cub fans crying in the streets of Chicago, rejoicing around the country, and Indian fans themselves not feeling cursed but just glad to be a part of a World Series for the ages. ESPN declared Game 7 as the greatest game of all time.

I had the pleasure of being in Chicago, as a Cleveland fan, during Games 3 and 4. I was in Chicago anyway for work and a concert that weekend. I love Chicago and make the trip frequently, as do many others in Ohio. Chicago is the Paris of the Plains, and for those of us within a 5-hour drive shed (OH, MI, IN, IL, WI) of the Windy City, it is the best weekend getaway around.

However getting there can be unpleasant. You have to drive through flat, ugly Indiana.

Considering the role that Chicago plays as the Midwest’s hub city, it stands to reason that if the Midwest had a functional transportation network, Chicago would also be the hub of that. Right now advocacy on regional rail development is stymied by entrenched political interests that don’t want that. Case in point: Ohio and Wisconsin giving back $1.2 billion of high-speed rail funding.

Michigan however has not been shy about its intent to benefit from its proximity to Chicago and other states that don’t want to similarly profit. So for that reason, the idea of a Midwest hub-and-spoke rail network is primarily being advanced by Michigan at this point. So much so that they’ve even put together this awesome video of a White Sox fan hopping on a train to Detroit for a White Sox – Tigers game.

There is no reason that this video couldn’t be real life in the future, and not just limited to White Sox and Tigers fans, but also Cubs and Indians fans. This World Series benefited from the proximity of both cities, as well as the similarities of both long-suffering fan bases.

However it could also apply to anyone aspiring to a weekend getaway, for fun or family or business. As the Midwest grows closer together, we should all benefit from our proximity relative to the rest of the country. Embarking on a regional plan for transit is one of the top means the Midwest has at its disposal for remaining competitive, and even edging out the rest of the country in the future. The question is if our politics will allow it.

Back home from Cleveland, Cincinnati, Nashville

It’s been a whirlwind of a week, which has kept activity on here to a minimum. I start an exciting new job, and consequently chapter of my life, this week. It is my hope that getting back to the 8-to-5 schedule will give me some time in between or in the evening to finish building out this website in a way that meaningfully contributes to revitalization planning.

Cleveland is always a gem. I’m not sure of the utility of signage to tell you that you’re obviously in the City of Cleveland, but the organic PR value of these signs have paid for themselves several times over.

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With and without photo editing, and signage. Considering the photo editing I used was just a few adjustments on Instagram, that gives us a representative sample of whatever is on the hashtag #Cleveland right now.

Cincinnati is also a gem. Being a Cleveland partisan, I suppose I’m supposed to rag on Cincy. Truth is it’s tough, especially with a streetcar! They were just doing testing when I was walking around OTR. FTA requires each of the 5 rolling stock to undergo 500 km (about 300 mi) of testing spread across different days and pedestrian/traffic/weather conditions.

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And then lastly, I recommend all revitalization-minded planners take a trip to Nashville sometime soon. You don’t have to take in the country music – there is plenty of other music, sights, and sounds – and above all, you really can just feel the energy and effort that goes into a city on the rise.

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The above photo is the Parthenon replica that was built to commemorate the centennial of Tennessee’s statehood, and the latter was my hotel view near downtown. The growing Nashville skyline comes with a westward gradient that often goes unseen in the city’s skyline postcards.

And lastly, the Columbus skyline view from my new loft’s rooftop deck! Always nice to come home to another emerging city, albeit the Most Normal City in America (really puts my travels in perspective once I come home).

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Probably some better angles of this view to come. It’s hard to really get in the groove on a realtor’s leash, who probably wouldn’t want me scaling the gutter for the perfect clearing/proportions/angles etc.

Bitter on Twitter

IMG_4374Transit authorities rely on adept communication staff to relay vital information to those who rely on their services to get to work every day – this is the baseline upon which most RTAs have established their twitter following. The CTA (Chicago’s “L”) twitter feed is a great example of an RTA using social media primarily for rider alerts.

Transit is also undeniably cool, particularly the rail-based variety. Another common typology of social media activity around transit is hype-based, whether planned or organic. For instance, the Cincy Streetcar twitter is a great example of a hype-based twitter feed, promoting the intangible advantages of their mode of transit.

Then there’s advocacy, which comes in both positive and negative flavors. When I used to ride Cleveland’s Rapid to work every day, once a year was transit advocacy day, in which organizers canvassed trains and buses to raise awareness of the political and funding challenges that may be unbeknownst to rush hour commuters. That’s advocacy the old fashioned-way. Twitter is the new way to advocate.

When it comes to transit advocacy, CityLab’s preferred means of communicating is ye ole fashioned angry tweet. Nothing gets the anger out better than 140 characters or less, it seems. I myself have tried to refrain from Twitter drama, but they say that is for the weak of tweet!

When SF’s BART was down back on Trainmageddon Day, they stood in awe of BART’s twitter meltdown, which CNN also covered. When Cleveland RTA faced hours-long waits for the Cavs Championship Parade, CityLab once again stood in awe of the angry tweets (directed at the State of Ohio). Who will they egg on next?

Here are some choice tidbits:

You can follow Cleveland RTA @GCRTA for even more saltiness to come. Hopefully Cleveland wins another ‘ship so that person can finally celebrate!

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Spent Memorial Day weekend up in Cleveland, and took a few photos of the city’s changing cityscape. This isn’t a comprehensive photo set, but rather just a few snapshots I came across over the course of a weekend. Click on the image for full-size and captions.

 

Lastly, no trip to Cleveland would be complete without watching the sun set over Lake Erie, this time through a thunderstorm (which intensified into a tornado warning).

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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.

1 Month: DC, PHI, NYC, PIT, CHI

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My apologies to readers of this blog who may have noticed that I’ve slowed down; I intend to remedy this by uploading components of my thesis and also with a few planned articles to highlight lessons I’ve learned from this recent swarm of trips.

What I’ve been up to lately: Finishing and defending my thesis, graduating with my Master’s in City and Regional Planning, still working for a tax credit syndicator, following-up on Congressional lobbying efforts for Preservation Action, the inaugural convening of RBCoYP, and applying for jobs! Whew.

Here is a brief travel tease…

DC in Mid-March:

 

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Philly in Mid-March:

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NYC in Mid-March:

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Pittsburgh in early April:

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Chicago in mid-April:

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No favorites! Besides the last city I’ve visited at the moment, whichever that is.

DC: WMATA TOD Tour

IMG_4554The Washington Metro is by far one of the most successful transit networks in North America, both in terms of ridership as well as economic development. As it relates to economic development, it isn’t just that WMATA makes TOD a priority, but also that the system performs well for practical commuting trips (with surge pricing to operate 2-minute rush hour frequencies), and revitalizing neighborhoods by concentrating 713,000 daily riders into walkable marketplaces.

Such was the case with Columbia Heights in particular, where I have spent a lot of time on the ground myself. One (delicious) word: pupusas. The area surrounding the Metro station at 14th and Linwood has been totally revitalized, but not without a high degree of public planning, investment, and long-term involvement.

Ravaged by riots in 1968, the neighborhood was subject to decades of failed revitalization efforts before transit reached the neighborhood. This included the creation of two redevelopment authorities (RLA, NCRC), and a string of failed development projects due to the neighborhood’s struggling economic base and subpar purchasing power. According to this MNCPPC presentation: Things changed in the 1990s as WMATA invested over $500 million into three new entrances, which surrounded 14th & Linwood with air rights development that the District of Columbia then provided $48 million of subsidy to support an anchor shopping center.

It looks great:

The $48 million District investment, following WMATA’s expansion into the neighborhood, catapulted the neighborhood to revitalization. That investment created a 20-to-1 ROI, with over $1 billion in resultant TOD, spread across 55 development projects.

• Since 2001, within a half‐mile of the Columbia Heights Metro Station, 55 development projects, valued at $912 million, under construction or completed

• 3,200 new residential units  Nearly 700,000 SF retail

• >36,000 residents live within a 10‐min walk of the Metro station, and nearly 40% of the population is between ages of 25‐44

• Projects include:

– 53,000 sq ft Giant Food grocery

– DC USA with retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Marshalls, Staples, and Bed Bath and Beyond.

– The 250‐seat GALA Theatre and the Dance Institute of Washington

– Highland Park and Kenyon Square mixed‐use developments: 412 residential units; 20% affordable; 20,000 SF retail– The redevelopment and reuse of the Tivoli Theater

Source: MNCPCC

While placemaking is one obvious ingredient in the success story of Columbia Heights, perhaps the most successful transit placemaking project in DC is the arch at the Chinatown/Gallery Place station – directly adjacent to the LED rotunda above the Metro escalators. This is one of the most-utilized and most-central Metro stations in the entire District, anchored by the Verizon Place arena.

 

Chinatown/Gallery Place is also one of a few of transfer stations, making it a natural fit as a TOD hub. Other less obvious TOD hubs have benefited from substantial WMATA and DC/VA/MD support, including 3 in Virginia, 6 in the District, and 13 in Maryland.

Farragut Square, near the heart of Downtown DC, is one of the most obvious examples of air rights development, with Class-A office space built above the Metro escalators. Of course, two of the Farragut Square stations have bikeshare stations, providing intermodal connectivity.

The station at U Street, one of the District’s most vibrant and active neighborhoods, models a different site plan prototype. In this development at 14th and U, an L-shaped development surrounds an open-air plaza with the Metro escalators, creating a dispersal point between pedestrians emerging from the escalators and queuing at the crosswalk. One of the city’s highest-traffic intersections, it makes sense within this context to shield the Metro station.

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There’s a Wal-Mart at the NOMA station.

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The DC Convention Center is also an interesting prototype, with the Metro station underneath the Convention Center, accessible by escalators inside the Convention Center itself. In this picture, notice that the street pavement is concrete, whereas most of DC’s streets are asphalt. This is because the exhibition hall is underneath the intersection, Convention Center, AND the affordable housing picture to the right (dwarfed but not displaced by the Convention Center).

 

Union Station, the city’s commuter rail and Amtrak hub, as well as a Metro station, is encapsulated by TOD inside and out. The interior of Union Station has been turned into a shopping galleria, with retailers such as H&M and Ann Taylor. Behind the station, to the east, is also infill housing separated by a cycle track.

On H Street in front of (but not connected to..) Union Station is the “beginning” of the DC Streetcar. That said, there are a lot of similarities to how Megabus often dumps you off under a bridge “adjacent” to a transit station, and how the DC Streetcar dumps you off on the H Street overpass above the tracks, but not at all connected to Union Station. This lack of direct connection to Union Station, and particularly the broader Metrorail system, is the only legitimate fault I can find with the DC Streetcar. The route, while short, manages to traverse three distinctly different neighborhoods.

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First is the historic commercial corridor of H Street, which is heavily revitalized, and almost entirely infilled since the streetcar project began. Second is the area around H Street and Benning Road, where the streetcar bends in front of a large outdoor transit plaza (for buses and bikeshare), surrounding by transitional urban fabric with some suburban-style shopping strips. Last is the stretch of Benning Road approaching Oklahoma Avenue, which is primarily suburban-style public housing.

As I rode it in its first week of operation, riding was fare-free, not to mention a relatively festive environment with several other curious riders taking their first ride. Some of them were taking selfies, others brought friends to check it out. In talking to a few residents, I noticed two unique POVs I never would have considered: 1, mothers with strollers were the biggest fans, because it is so much easier for them to board than a bus; 2, the eventual connection to Georgetown has area residents scared that they won’t be able to afford the fare.

The fear is that surely they won’t actually be given equitable access to the same infrastructure that Georgetown residents enjoy. By starting first with a largely disenfranchised neighborhood that was passed-up by the Metrorail, this project has an opportunity to renew these residents’ faith in local government.

DC: Trains the Old News, Bikes the New News

The Washington Metro, for all its problems including fires and crashes and more fires (just this morning), is the gold standard for transit in this nation. It is a showpiece metro system; a gleaming architectural accomplishment that makes other systems look like functional sewers (ahem, New York). Also count me as a big fan of its iconic waffle-grid station patterns, possible in part because it is one of North America’s deepest subways (due to the swampy terrain along the Potomac).

I will go into great detail on the station TOD programming, but needless to say that TOD is still one of the few things WMATA does flawlessly. Nearly all of their station-area TODs are air-rights construction, which is an amazing level of physical integration between the subway escalators and surrounding development. You often get the sense of emerging in the middle of an open-air shopping mall.

bike-lanes-1bike-lanes-2-e1401476005192All of this said, DC is the nation’s bicycle capital. It has truly become the District of Cycling – little could be more emblematic of this than the protected bike express lanes in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Beyond Downtown DC, the District has an incredibly extensive network of bona fide cycle tracks (marked in purple). Biking is actually the fastest means of getting around the District, plain and simple.

Washington is also perfectly set-up for biking. It’s extremely compact. Markedly flat, except up north. It may be one of the most pleasant climates on this side of the Mississippi – rarely too hot or too cold. Not to mention, the demographics are young, diverse, and fit. All of this makes a perfect storm for a city that can (and has) embraced biking as a legitimate mode of transport

As a city, the District will realistically never achieve the statehood it so badly wants. However, its real function is as a national role model for planning. Other cities big and small should look to DC for innovations in planning; as our nation’s capital, it has always done a fine job of implementing new ideas. As the 117-mile Washington Metro first opened in 1976, DC has since modeled how to do TOD, air rights construction, and intermodal connectivity. The new frontier DC is pioneering is bike infrastructure. Not just with some pilot infrastructure, but with comprehensive infrastructure: 72 miles of cycle tracks. In fact, no other city has seen as large an increase in bike community as DC.

Grabbing lunch with several different friends while I was in town, they all asked me, “So what do you think of our new bike lanes?” They are top of mind. And unlike nearly all change, people already don’t mind them one bit. Drivers even are surprisingly courteous toward bicyclists. Not to mention, the day that I hit the Hill to lobby for historic preservation, the bike lobby was in full force – passing out bike lapel pins. Many Congressman and even the Architect of Congress proudly display their bike lapel pins during the spring. Bikes aren’t just tolerated, an achievement for most cities, but they are cherished, for which DC stands nearly alone (perhaps amongst Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland).

Better yet, the bike lanes are flawlessly-executed. Curb cuts minimized. Left turn lanes are negotiated with bikes having right of way. Almost all lanes are protected. Bikeshare stations abound – in fact, one of the real strengths of the kiosk-based bikeshare model (as opposed to the cheaper displaced, decentralized Zagster model) is that all station kiosks have bike maps. Even if you aren’t bikesharing, the wayfinding signage at over 350 stations is still invaluable.

With the entire DC Metro system off line tomorrow, an unprecedented move in response to yesterday morning’s “arcing fire” that erupted in the tunnels, there will be more bicyclists than ever before in the District. More may decide to switch permanently. Many already have.

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Biking is making the District more pleasant, equitable, active, green, and attractive. Biking is the new news in town.

Touching down…

Always good to come back to Columbus in between all of these trips to Detroit, Cleveland, Cincy, and now DC/Philly/NYC. When the weather is nice (not freezing, or even just mildly snowing), it’s really great.

“Home” means different things to all of us, especially for us troubadours. For a guy like myself who almost specializes in challenged communities, coming home to this perfectly-average town is a nice way to “reset” my frame of mind.

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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.