Door of a roofless warehouse in North Corktown.
In the last couple weeks of my Fall/Winter sojourn to the City formerly known as "Motor," I began a conversation with an executive on the City side of the Detroit Works Project (DWP), the city's privately-funded strategic planning process underway since 2010. We talked about how to take the findings of the as-yet unreleased report--to their next stage of experimental implementation in support of resilient growth. The work of mainly outside consultants overseen by Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and the DWP Steering Committee, when released in January the report will suggest routes to growth informed by the City's assets and liabilities (as reported from a series of community "listening" forums, a comprehensive inventory of taxable lands, and the state of social institutions and infrastructure needed to stitch it all together). "What an exciting time in Detroit!" was my general response as I listened to and later read about what could come next.
The DEGC VP who shared all of this with me asked that I put together a plan for segueing from report findings to pilot implementation, as part of my application for a longer-term role in the new "skunkworks" -type office that would organize and lead these pilots. I gladly obliged, drawing on what knowledge I'd gained by closely studying, writing about, and helping formulate infrastructure pilot projects in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I distilled the lessons in a preamble on the nature of pilot projects, a reflection worth reproducing here:
"First, successful pilot projects put something good in the ground fast, rapidly disrupting a status quo that isn’t yielding good results. They are not business as usual. They shouldn’t be perfect or very expensive, or require extravagant administrative apparatuses to prop them up—they should be NOW. A private sector tool, they are born of contexts where product improvement is driven by a profit imperative, and where managers and staff are held accountable to demonstrate possible roads to [usually] single column, bottom line growth. Pilot projects do not often interact in the general market—either for procurement or sales. Good pilots know what outcomes they mean to spur and what they’re trying to test, but are also patient, holding aside deep evaluation and fine-tuning for a specified time, when adequate data has been gathered and analyzed.
"When centrally led in cities, the speed and boundary blurring required to accomplish them can grate against existing departments’ processes. But if you take up and defend them for what good they will accomplish for a city, the same grating is a major source of their magic. Still, some obvious adjustments are required for context suitability. For instance, rather than a single (financial) bottom line imperative, municipal pilot projects should be informed by social, environmental, and fiscal health indicators. Accordingly, when setting up pilot projects that would aim for “healthier” outcomes, we set goals from all three categories, and evaluate their progress along each. Secondly, in cities we have to grapple a little differently with what it means and costs to “disrupt the status quo,” because we’re usually carrying a lot of overhead to reproduce it (see union-protected job descriptions, long-term procurement contracts, complacency, etc.). And so, pilot projects in the public sector can be met with resistance by people who are afraid of losing something they value—their sense of place even—if change happens NOW. Sadly, resistance can form even when many agree that change is needed. In our case of abundant, verifiable evidence that the status quo isn’t working, attempts to forge bold new ways shouldn’t encounter protests they can’t quiet with the resonant and simple: “We’re trying to build a resilient Detroit, for the future,” moral high ground-type response. But in the demonstration period we also need to plot steps—chiefly in staffing, procurement, and constituency engagement—to protect experiments from such pitfalls. Sometimes this means finding meaningful roles for would-be resistors, bringing them into the heart of the process. Finally, and related, in the absence of profit-sharing as a motivator for innovation, project leadership should have a previously-demonstrated commitment to pioneering, demonstrating, and/or defending innovative city-fixing strategies. And accordingly, they should have acolytes/fans/a chorus of followers. Each project should have a likable personality, create buzz, be as closely watched as petri dishes in a 2nd grade science project. Seriously!"
I moved to Detroit in October, looking to add my efforts to generations' whose entrepreneurship has forged outbound-ways to private and public wealth. I've spent the last couple of weeks learning the lay of the land. And for me, that means connecting an increasingly wiggly line between where I've taken up temporarily with my aunt in Grosse Pointe Park, and points west--from Novi to Midtown and Corktown and Downtown. By bike, everything is far in gray drizzle, but it seems even farther because of the contrasting terrains I cross. From the heartbreaking hollows on either side of East Jefferson upon crossing Alter Road, to the cautiously-rooted estate homes of Indian Village and the newer waterfront-drawn lofts of Rivertown, I see plenty of signs of hope in the evidence of urban ecological succession. This time of year, fire vines have wound their siena tendrils around brick homes earlier burnt or capsized by the slash and burn of economic cycles. But the proximity of these ruins to a reviving core, my legs remind me, shortens the days until they too are pulled into what downtown tech firms, a thriving arts community, and forward-thinking citymakers see as worth making in Motown.
An article in this morning's Detroit News ran with the above photo and headline, framing a new, 30,000 square-foot parking structure with street level retail, as a vote of confidence in downtown's revitalization. It isn't hyperbolic to say that its Developer Dan Gilbert has an appetite for rustbelt transformation, and is currently setting the banquet table in downtown Detroit. As Detroit's second largest landowner, his family of companies, from Bedrock Real Estate Services to Quicken Loans and several other midwest US-based investment companies, is putting their money where their mouths are. Gilbert's companies employ thousands of Detroiters, and whether construction or tech, are re-making this old city. Needless to say, the city's public-private economic development corporation, has put their support squarely behind Gilbert.
But this particular plan lacks hindsight and as such, future-forward vision for the Detroit it will bring about. For instance: Where is the parking study that demonstrates need for a new parking structure?
The first rule in infrastructure construction is: If you build it they will come.
It would be nice to see Gilbert and Co coaxing a future Detroit made wiser by the past that hollowed it out, once people realized their cars preferred suburban, low density places. As empty as they appear now, if DEGC continues to support the construction of new car parking like this one, downtown streets will become choked and unpleasant--precisely the conditions that entrepreneurs and start-ups hate. Why? because inventive people like taking walks and breathing clean air. And because car windshields block the happy serendipity of safe, productive collisions with strangers, where new ideas hatch. And because dependency on cars makes us fatter, sicker, less creative and smart, and those traits can define a population. And, for Gilbert's and DEGC's retail desires, simply put, people spend more money when they don't have to park first.
I'm only a few weeks old here but I do have a great great great something or other named Dequindre. I suggest that Gilbert invest matching funds for a privately-managed city bike share, a privately-owned streetcar on Jefferson and Michigan, and that he team up with Matty Moroun and hire a top-notch bike/ped planner to replace a lane of car traffic on the Ambassador with world class, 2-way bike and ped lanes. After that, let's see where the feet and pedals are pushing and pulling downtown...Downtown definitely needs more destinations, but if people think they can come only in cars, these destinations will go the way of a quick past.
be the city you wish to see. ask me how!