Blog: George Lenko

Community involvement is in George Lenko's blood. He is in his second term as City Commissioner for Pleasant Ridge, previously held positions on the Pleasant Ridge Historic Commission and as a trustee of the Pleasant Ridge Foundation. George was also instrumental in the campaign to fund and build the city’s new pool & fitness center, drawing the hightest voter turnout in Oakland County for that election cycle. 

George became involved in regional development and transit issues through his involvement in the Woodward Avenue Action Association Board, and helped facilitate August's NextCruise, a feature event during the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise.

Professionally, George has worked in health insurance for over 25 years, mostly at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and now Wellpoint, the nation’s largest health insurer, where he is Director of National Network Initiatives.  (Wellpoint does business as Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield.)  

He and his wife, Loretta, have lived in Pleasant Ridge for 26 years where they raised their two sons.  Like many Ridgers, they lived in and renovated several homes within the community. George's interest in local history lead him to restore his 1929 Mediterranean Revival, keeping its original tile, plaster, woodwork, ironwork and fixtures intact. So obsessed did he become with the project that he tracked down the original occupants (now in their 80s in California) and got them to share old photos in order to accurately restore the house's exterior.

George will be writing about regional development, mass transit, and the aerotropolis. He'd love to read your thoughts as well!


Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

George Lenko - Most Recent Posts:

Post 4: Regional Transit in Detroit

I collect old maps. One of my favorites is the 1925 Pocket Map of Detroit, published by National Lithograph Company.  

One inset on this map trumpets that "Detroit Leads the World in Many Activities" and goes on to call out nearly 40 bragging points including: 

  • Detroit is the leading manufacturing city in the world. Value of its products is estimated at $6,000,000 per day or $2,500,000,000 annually
  • Detroit is the fourth city in population in the U.S.
  • Detroit is the second wealthiest city in the United States based on income taxes paid to the government.
  • Detroit is the first large city in America to own and operate its Street Railways – 380 miles of track

That last point was the reason I bought this map. The map clearly shows all the streetcar lines in contrasting color and it helps show why our city grew in the way it did.   

The Woodward line, of course, is prominent on the map. It surprised me, however, that it departed from Woodward between 10 Mile and 11 Mile Roads to go through downtown Royal Oak. It was more surprising to see a second Royal Oak streetcar line in the Fourth Street boulevard median, heading east toward what would later become I-75. The path of this railway explains why there is a Nine Mile curve on the freeway. The route proceeds to Oakland Ave, and approaches the back of the Ford’s Highland Park plant. Apparently, this was an effective back route to bring workers to the plant. It’s intriguing that many of our boulevard roads had rail in their median, and these paths tied our residential areas and workplaces together.  

We’re hearing some of this same sentiment today. In recent months, there has been news of reinstituting rail service from Detroit and Ann Arbor, perhaps tying to the airport. There have been several proposals for light rail on Woodward, including a private effort from the riverfront to the New Center, and a Detroit Department of Transportation proposal extending from riverfront to Eight Mile Road. I’m anxious to hear the outcome of John Hertel’s effort to arrive at a regional consensus on mass transit (Metromode 11/15/07).   

The big questions for regional transit, of course, are "Where will it be?", "What will it be?" "What will it cost?" and "Who will use it?" 

While transit advocates are quick to say that cities as small as Kenosha WI have light rail, their light rail has low utility and low ridership. We certainly don’t want that.   

The Woodward Corridor shows great promise for successful mass transit; however, I have concerns about the DDOT proposal. That proposal would place the rail in the center of the road and eliminate street parking on most of Woodward, and it would count on suburban commuters catching the rail at the State Fair.    

I favor the private proposal for a shorter route, with one twist. Think about running the rail parallel to Woodward in a circle route, running down John R one block away to the east and up Cass to the west. With a turnaround in Grand Circus Park (an intermodal connection to the People Mover) and another at the New Center (an intermodal connection to Amtrak), it would have full connectivity to our other transit assets and its ridership would be workers, students, and also visitors to our cultural and entertainment venues. 

This configuration would not disrupt Woodward or its businesses, it would allow safe and convenient curb access, it would allow the streetcars to control the traffic lights without disrupting the flow on Woodward, and it would help extend development to blocks adjacent to Woodward including the Detroit Medical Center, College of Creative Studies, Masonic Temple, and Wayne State University.   

A system like this would be do-able, and it could be fed by broad network (and less-expensive) ‘rapid busses’ from the surrounding areas.   

Post 3: Aerotropolis (and more)

My commute is much different now. After 25 years of working mostly in downtown Detroit, I now work for a company based out-of-state. When I’m not traveling, I work from my home. The company I work for has major offices in fourteen states, so they’re accustomed to working with staff in other locations. To them, I just work in another 'other location'.   

When I started working this way, I thought it was a fairly unique arrangement. It didn’t take long to learn that it was not at all uncommon, that on every block a number of my neighbors were working from home. Similarly, I found on my flights that there is lots of Michigan-based talent that regularly travels to cities afar to work in many different fields. I learned that all one needs is a phone, a high-speed internet line, and a great airport to work nationally, from home.    

I’ve flown a lot, and would say without hesitation that Detroit Metro Airport is among the best, and it will be better still with the opening of its new North Terminal. I’ve often discussed this with fellow business travelers, and they all see the advantages of being based here. Whether one considers flight choices, on-time performance, weather issues, or ticket prices, we really have it awfully good. In fact, I have an easier time traveling to meetings from Michigan than if I were based in one of my company’s main offices! 

Readers of Metromode are likely familiar with Aerotropolis; that is, the concept that a region can build supporting infrastructure for its airport to the point where the airport itself becomes an economic draw. Amsterdam has done this successfully, and so too can this region.   

We’ve heard many benefits of Aerotropolis, but perhaps not how it might tie into health care. Two years ago, our newspapers reported that Phil Lesh, from the Grateful Dead, had to choose where to get a needed surgical procedure. He had the means to go anywhere in the country, but chose to come to Detroit where Henry Ford Hospital was doing ground-breaking work in robotic prostatectomy.  This kind of travel is sometimes called domestic medical tourism. 

While a number other cities have medical centers which can claim similar levels of specialized care, there are few that also have a stellar airport. In health care, we usually think of the main variables as cost of care, quality of care, and access to care. We can replace the latter with transit to care.   

Michigan’s health care system is top quality because this region historically has had rich medical coverage, as well as a number of first-rate teaching hospitals. If this were coupled with our vision for Aerotropolis, marketed appropriately, and coordinated among our competing hospital systems, southeast Michigan could become a preferred destination for quality medical care.

Post No 2: Walkable Communities

You know from my prior post that I like cars and I love how the automotive industry shaped our region. Yet, my wife and I moved to Pleasant Ridge 25 years ago because of the bus coverage, the feel of the neighborhoods, and the proximity to most anywhere we needed to go. These characteristics have a new relevance now, given the price of fuel and concerns about the environment, but they are common to many of the older communities around Detroit. What before was considered densely developed, is considered walkable now. 

I worked many years downtown and, in my early adult years (broke, no kids) often took the bus. Of course, as life got busier and my kids entered the picture, driving became a necessity. Nonetheless, it’s been convenient to have four supermarkets, a couple dozen restaurants, and shops & galleries within a mile or two of home. Plus, the restaurants, shops, and galleries make a nice walk whenever we’re in the mood. That might be why Forbes magazine recently named the Woodward Corridor in the Top 10 of America’s Most Fuel Efficient Neighborhoods.     

Earlier this year, I took "walkability" one step further (pun intended). I often travel to Chicago, mostly by plane and sometimes by car. This time, I took Amtrak from Royal Oak. I dragged my roller bag behind me as I walked to the station and grabbed a sandwich at Pronto for the train ride. During the trip, I was fortunate to sit next to a guy from The Blackberry Store who lent me a cord and showed me how to log onto my work computer wirelessly during the trip. I was so inspired with the possibility of going entirely car-less that I walked from Union Station to my hotel on Michigan Ave. So, I made it to Chicago in business class for $38 and a little shoe leather…That’s just about what cab fare from O’Hare costs!     

One final thought about living in an inner suburb. One of the recent bloggers here raised the question whether one can own an SUV and still be "green". I've consistently owned SUVs (I now own a big yet fuel-efficient Saturn Outlook) and have marveled at some people’s strong opinions against SUVs. I simply could not renovate my historic homes without an SUV…After all, "the greenest house is one that is already built." Plus, even in a behemoth, a 10 mile commute will always use less fuel than a 40 mile commute.

As energy prices increase and as people seek more physical activity, I believe the inner suburbs will become more desirable in the future. 

Post No 1: Dream Cruise

You’d might easily miss Pleasant Ridge. The "ridge" in Pleasant Ridge is the old Native American Saginaw Trail and, here, it converges with historic Woodward Avenue. Nowadays, Pleasant Ridge is more recognizable as the crossroads where Michigan’s busiest freeway (I-696) intersects with Woodward, Michigan’s M-1.  

Last month, Pleasant Ridge also found itself at the crossroads of our Automotive past and future. Among the Woodward Dream Cruise activities, on August 15/16 we hosted our inaugural NextCruise, which attracted national and even international attention.  

For several years, I’ve wanted to put our space along Woodward to better use during the Dream Cruise. We have landscaped parkland bordering Woodward.  We’re conveniently situated between Royal Oak and Ferndale, within easy walking distance of both. Most of the city is a designated historic district, and we were recently recognized by This Old House magazine as one of "The Best Eight Places to Buy an Old House". 

In all, a very fine place.

Yet, despite the ambience, the Woodward Dream Cruise largely passes us by. I think this is mostly because the classic cars generally take the chute under I-696 and miss half the city by the time they emerge. Also, bars and parking lots may have more draw to cruisers than trees and parks. 

This year, I floated a new concept past Paul Eisenstein, a national automotive journalist who just happens to live in the neighborhood. "What if", I asked Paul, "What if we pulled together a display of new automotive technologies to show people what they’ll be cruising in for years to come?"

The idea clicked and, by the end of our lunch, Paul had commitments from several manufacturers. On top of that, he insisted that we give the public a chance to drive these new technologies….hybrids, fuel cells, advanced diesels…so we’d have "butts in cars". It would be Lean, Mean, and Green.  

The timing was so right that talented industry insiders, like Events Solutions International and G-2 Communications volunteered instantly. The vision was so compelling that nine manufacturers signed up for our inaugural event.

How’d it turn out? Our inaugural event was a huge success. The cars were amazing. The ride & drive worked flawlessly. Over 85% of participants were delighted or very delighted in power of the cars they experienced. Almost 90% said they would consider purchasing a green vehicle, and nearly half would do so within two years.  

Some might think that it’s incongruous to showcase new technologies with the classic cruisers. Not so. Any of us around in the '60s or '70s know that cruisers were showing off the latest technologies. Many residents of this region, built in the glory days of the autos, are intimately involved in its newest innovations.

Around here, the past is the future. Nothing incongruous.