I grew up in the Detroit area and deeply cherish its place in American iconography and history. Our city created the auto industry. Detroit's bravura design and manufacturing smarts altered the 20th century—and changed the world.
Today, many in the country dismiss Detroit. Easily forgotten now is the immense wealth this region generated, the torrents of tax dollars that poured into Washington, DC, for decades, to be redirected into rural electrical, water, and highway subsidies. On the back of Detroit—and yes, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles—rural America was civilized, and our military supplied and paid for. Even today, urban America subsidizes the countryside, and we haven't heard anything like a "thank-you" lately.
Globalization and a nearly hostile federal government undercut Detroit in the fourth quarter of the 20th century. Yet, in 1994, as a 32-year-old architect, I came back to Detroit, just as downtown was hitting bottom.
I stayed, and I am glad that I did.
Why? Detroit is a place where one can design, be active, and have an impact on the community. In my early career, I worked for architecture firms like Frank Gehry and Morphosis in Los Angeles, and Cesar Pelli New Haven. The experience was great, and the work was incredible. Much of it was situated overseas, which brought conflicting feelings of excitement of new worlds, yet disconnection with my present reality of Los Angeles mini-malls and freeways. The LA riots in 1993 affected me deeply, having lived through the '67 riots in Detroit. What was I doing working on projects around the globe while my city burned?
But back in Detroit, I found a place where a young architect could plant roots and work on a city many had abandoned. My business partner, the late Douglas McIntosh, and I saw Detroit like Berlin or Beirut after the wars, and were excited by the possibilities here. The potential was mixed with a palpable desire to preserve our architectural and neighborhood heritages. After all, I grew up here. I understood the context. I got the beat.
And there was something else—for decades, home-grown talent had left the area. There was a generation gap in Detroit architects, and some of the existing design icons like Gunnar Birkerts, William Kessler, Louis G. Redstone, and Minoru Yamasaki were in their twilight years. The local architecture schools turned out graduates who promptly, left the state. The relative vacuum translated into opportunity.
Doug came home first, and encouraged me to follow. We were childhood friends growing up in the Detroit suburbs and attending the University of Michigan together. He, like me, went to graduate architecture school elsewhere (he in New Haven, me in Los Angeles), worked in big firms, and then saw the potential of Detroit and felt the responsibility of a native son. Within a year of returning, we were active in downtown planning and preservation, helping to thwart the best efforts of the demolitionists to erase nearly the entirety of our architectural past.
There have been victories as well as losses. The 1998 flattening of the Hudson's Department Store Building was bad, but it could have been far worse had the 1995 plan in front of then-Mayor Archer to tear down the entire east side of Woodward—from the Kerns block to Grand Circus—for a park gone forward. Losing Gleaners' Temple on Woodward was bad, but losing all the buildings in the area now known as Tech Town would have been far worse, as was planned by then-Wayne State President David Adamany.
Going up against the DDA plan to demolish all the buildings on Park Avenue to make way for stadium parking in 1996 didn't make us many friends, but did create the Park Avenue Historic District that saved the Kales, Iodent, and Cliff Bell's buildings for later renovations. We saw the Book Cadillac and Fort Shelby renovated, but lost the Statler Hotel, Madison-Lenox Hotel, and Motown buildings on Woodward. Incredibly, 15 years later we are still facing threats from city council and the DDA of demolitions of the Lafayette Building and Michigan Central Depot.
Our daytime job of designing homes helped support our work for community development groups such as Greater Corktown Development Group, Mexican Town Community Development, Genesis Housing Corporation, Messiah Housing Corporation, Jefferson East Business Association, Southwest Detroit Business Association, and the Heidelberg Project, among others.
I say to anyone, and especially to Detroiters, that members of the creative classes can do more, on a larger scale, and with more meaning in Detroit than in any of the usual creative meccas, such as Portland or Los Angeles or New York. It is easier here to make a difference in your community. (Need I mention you can actually buy a nice house here too?)
This story of opportunity and a sense of meaning and history—this is what we need to highlight and preserve to attract and keep graduates in Michigan and in Detroit. We need to show the creative classes the Detroit alternative to professional and personal anonymity in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. Those cities are fun, great places to live and work, but they are done, cooked, baked, and out of the oven. We're still kneading the dough here.
As I mentioned in my last blog, I think a manufacturing and design renaissance is in Detroit's near future, especially if we reform government to seize the opportunities. Globalization and a dismissive federal government have been body blows, but a cheaper dollar, rising energy costs, soaring costs in the Far East, and lots of fresh water could be our salvation.
I hope to continue to play a role in this renaissance, and I invite all of you to join me.
Only yesterday, Detroit was arguably the tech and design center of the world. Here, Henry Ford brought the mass-production automobile into being, followed by Harley Earl and the aesthetic and engineering bravura of General Motors, including the large-finned Cadillacs and the racy Corvettes of the '50s. For the better part of a century, if it was powerful or stylish, then it was designed and made in Detroit, from cars, to locomotives, to refrigerators and planes. Detroit was the arsenal of democracy in World War II. Later, Motown music sprung from the African-American middle class of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, funded by well-paying jobs in the auto factories.
The heritage and the landmarks from our glory days are here. The good news is that we still have the local engineering, the design talent, and the culture to capture greatness again, and we have excellent schools of design and engineering. So why not greatness again? To a large extent, today we are flummoxed by ourselves.
Certainly, Michigan is no longer a high-cost state in which to do business. While regulations and taxes on businesses could and should be mitigated, factory rents and prices are but one-third to one-half that of a Los Angeles, and union wages have been in long retreat.
The price of doing business here is not what is holding us back. It is government holding us back.
We must present functioning, responsive government to business and the world. We must present safe streets, good schools, adequate city services, and a sense that the city and region embrace business as a positive, not a cow to be milked.
To some extent, the Detroit City Council, elected at-large, is part of the problem. Detroit's 800,000 remaining residents have no way to effectively vote their concerns—no council member is responsible to a particular neighborhood. Contrast this to Chicago's ward system, in which 50 wards serve a city of 2.8 million, or about 57,000 people per alderperson. It is possible for a Chicago resident to believe his alderperson knows his name, the block on which he lives, his employer's concerns, and whether the street lights work on his street.
In previous blogs, I advocated a move to regional government for development and infrastructural issues, to streamline the alphabet soup of agencies we have today. Now, I call for a city council elected by district as a solution for everyday city services. Police services, garbage pick-up, street lighting, snow plowing, rapid treatment of abandoned lots—all of these issues would be better handled if voters had an accountable councilmember or alderperson to approach, and for whom they could vote up or down come election time.
Small housing-oriented redevelopment agencies—such as the Greater Corktown Redevelopment Corp.—should work hand-in-hand with councilmembers or alders to salvage decent housing stock, and create better neighborhoods.
A cleaner, safer city with better schools is what is needed to slow the decline and attract the growth and entrepreneurial companies necessary for Detroit's revival.
Government is nearly always best when easy to understand—if residents know their first stop is the councilperson's or alderperson's office, and that's where decisions and solutions lie, then government will be better.
It is worth considering that when Ford started tinkering with the Model A, Detroit was already a manufacturing center, known for producing boat engines and stoves. Ford's incredible creativity, coupled with the existing industries, led to a century-long boom fueled by a new industry.
That scenario may never play out again. But is it too much to dream that smaller businesses started today could blossom into larger industries, in directions we today do not yet foresee?
While free traders may proselytize about the virtues of international trade, few can see the benefits in Detroit. Yet, at long last, the worst may be over. Many economists contend the dollar will weaken, given our chronic trade debts and federal deficits. Separate from that, manufacturing costs overseas will eventually rise—witness Japan and Europe, already pricier places to make goods than the United States. In a generation, perhaps less, China will follow in their footsteps, hastened by a cheap dollar and rising middle-class wages. Additionally, some expect rising energy costs to increase the bills for transportation. Local production may become favored, as a result.
The world will be running out of cheap and effective manufacturing platforms, at least of the scale that can produce for global markets. As a result, the "Made in America" label may become commercially viable again.
If we have a government working in sync with the knowledge, creative, and manufacturing industries, Detroit may indeed boom again. Indeed, I think in Detroit we may have a special advantage due to our manufacturing heritage.
Seemingly every U.S. city—a Portland or an Austin, for example—speaks about attracting high-tech and knowledge industries. Perhaps we sing a little off-key when we echo the siren call of so many other regions. Our heritage is design for real manufacturing.
Anyway, as a nation, we cannot all sit by our computers and trade information—the perfect knowledge economy envisioned by television shows and Wall Street.
In the real world, somebody actually has to make stuff, as well. People will still want cars, houses, refrigerators, widescreen TVs. We can make these goods, we can make them well, and we can make them in Detroit.
With five county governments in the greater Detroit region, many cities, innumerable special districts—and of course, the State of Michigan—the call for "regional government" might seem Quixotic. When was last met the public or private official or voting populace who offered to give up turf?
Yet, as Doug Rothwell, President of Detroit Renaissance, recently noted, there are some green shoots of regionalism, even amid the sectionalism. Rothwell recently cited a short roll call of successes through joint efforts:
• Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing inked a deal to keep General Motors in the Renaissance Center.
• Michigan's U.S. Congressional delegation, Governor Jennifer Granholm, Wayne County Executive Ficano, and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson worked to attract a new General Electric facility to the Aerotropolis and retain GM's Orion Township assembly plant.
• Nine local governments across Wayne and Washtenaw counties agree to form and fund an Aerotropolis Development Corporation to recruit new business around Metro and Willow Run airports.
• The Michigan legislature, Governor Granholm, Detroit Mayor Bing, and Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties reach agreement on renovating Cobo Hall (Center).
Given the area's historic quarrels, these are a great success, yet mere appetizers to a full banquet.
Admirable as these achievements are, they are dwarfed by the true regional needs of metropolitan Detroit, and the proper role of a "supercity" government for a region of our size.
It has long been known in metropolitan planning circles that local governments are often woefully antiquated in the context of modern cities. Unwieldy state, city, and county lines bifurcate and splinter metropolitan economies that desperately require regional solutions. Because of city-suburb tensions and the multiplicity of governments in our region, Detroit may be afflicted by "localism" even more than most other metropolises.
An obvious example is mass transit. Bus routes, light rail, and subway lines are needed to link together the greater Detroit region, yet the requisite cooperation and approval of myriad local governments or of city council members is an active impediment to planning and construction. Of course, no one wants to pay for a light rail they will not be first to use, or for tracks that cut through prized neighborhoods. As a result, we have no rail mass transit, even as such auto-centric cities as Los Angeles have managed to piece together regional rail systems.
Indeed, it is difficult to optimistically ponder regional economic development in Detroit without imagining a powerful regional development authority empowered to bring about both economic and infrastructural development.
This is not a novel idea. In Portland, the elected "Metro" regional government has been expanding its powers for years, as regionalism has become more accepted by Oregon voters in the relevant three counties and 25 cities. The "Metro" operates mass transit, waste management, several planning entities, and even a regional zoo, among many other activities. It is not by chance that Portland is considered one of the most attractive areas to live in the United States, and consistently attracting the creative class.
We should follow the Portland path. We've spent too many years infighting and saying we're different or that we can't afford to change. It is time to say we can't afford not to have a powerful regional authority. We need to move forward as one region with many centers.
How do we get there? First, it is time to reboot Detroit 3.0. Detroit residents have a primary coming up soon, on August 4th, to select 18 candidates for nine city council seats. The Free Press and Crain's Detroit endorsed some strong candidates this week. Residents of Detroit, please select a council that will carry the city and the region forward together. What if the new council looks to surrounding communities as allies, instead of as adversaries? It's an opportunity we haven't seen in a long time that could have immediate benefits to all.
Secondly, the city's alphabet soup of development agencies should be collapsed into one super-agency, with the ability to negotiate with local banks and financiers to create investment funds for local developers and projects. Detroit Renaissance comes to mind as the foundation for the new super-agency, given its regional focus and strong vision.
As a matter of democratic principle, government should be simple and transparent. The welter of development agencies in the City of Detroit, as well as the region, cannot be understood by the lay public. It confounds even development experts and gadflies! That opacity, coupled with agencies sometimes working in conflict with one another, breeds only self-destructive cynicism that contributes to another person leaving the state every 12 minutes.
Before we adopt the Portland "Metro" government model, perhaps we would make one change—where Portland has six elected council members and one president, it might be preferable for Detroit to have a single "czar" (for lack of a better term). Let us have maximum clarity and accountability. Let us have a czar with a desk plaque that reads "The Buck Stops Here." Let us set aside all biases and grudges and give that leader the tools necessary to create a place that attracts and retains talent and businesses.
We can quibble over a shrinking pie, or bake a new, bigger pie. Those who might defend the status quo are defending chronic failure.
Demolition is the not the way forward.
Indeed, one of the city's many virtues—its rich architectural heritage—needs to be preserved and enhanced, not just for sentimental or aesthetic reasons, but for hardcore regional development reasons. Why do growth companies locate where they do? A Microsoft, a Google, can locate nearly anywhere there is Internet access.
The answer is: Tech companies locate where they think they can attract talent—especially young, educated talent. And young, educated talent like to live in cities. So, we find today's growth companies massing in cities such as Austin, Boston, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. They locate where living is pleasant, quality of life is important, and people want to live. The best city business development plan is to make a city a great place to live. Ironically, liberal dogma—a belief in regional planning and public works—has become a good business retention and attraction model today.
Detroit can be a great place to live, especially to those who revel in architecture, music, cars, the abundance of solid affordable housing stock, and the Great Lakes. We have what a great city needs in other terms, such as museums, sports teams, universities, and restaurants.
What we do not have is traction by public agencies to make Detroit an attractive city. We need regional cooperation and coordination quickly. Maybe it is time for Detroit to reboot? And progress where we've failed, such as with a mass-transit system, which, for 40 years has stymied our county governments, leaving metro Detroit as the only city of the 20 largest in the country without one. The current alphabet soup of city and county agencies needs to start working effectively, and quickly.
As chronicled in The Detroit Free Press and blogs, the wonderful 1923-vintage downtown office tower, The Lafayette Building, is slated for demolition by the very entities that should be moving to help re-develop it and others like it.
It is precisely the type of historic structure that Detroit can flaunt, and that a Phoenix or an Orlando will always lack. It is not a replicable structure—once down, we will never see its like again.
As with 45 percent of the downtown buildings that have already been demolished since 1976, a flattened Lafayette will become one more empty site eternally waiting for a developer. How many more Tuller, Statler, Madison Lenox, Hudson, Monroe Block, or Woodward Motown buildings do we need to see demolished to realize this is not the answer?
The authenticity of Detroit and such buildings is incredibly attractive to young people, many of whom yearn for something more than sprawl and mini-malls found universally in suburbs. To suggest their destruction is to manifestly admit defeat, and continuation of a leadership vacuum. Moreover, to suggest their preservation is not a denunciation of the future, as they are ripe with possibilities of adaptive re-use. Such projects—turning an old office building into contemporary lofts—merge the high points of history and innovation.
Who has faith in the multiplicity of agencies charged with improving Detroit's economic future, or the at-large city council? Beyond that, is it fair to voters to expect them to understand such a confusing welter of local, city, and county entities, each made somewhat unaccountable by virtue of jumbled jurisdictions and limited authorities?
Better the region go "all in", and devise a new, powerful economic development authority, led not by committee but a "czar". It would be a wrenching change for local authorities, and no doubt sacred cows will get gored. But what have we left to lose?
Is it any less democratic to have a simple-to-understand regional economic development official, as opposed to myriad fiefdoms and endless delay?
In coming posts, I will undertake to explain the needs of the Detroit region, and offer some solutions, touching on such topics as regionalism, transportation, and the potential for Detroit's revival.
We have inexpensive housing, great history, and infrastructure. We have our built space, one of the greatest troves of architectural treasures in the country. We have our history of technological triumph and music. We can build on that, but we need bold leadership.