Blog: Jeff Meyers

For the 100th issue, Metromode managing editor Jeff Meyers has stepped out from behind the virtual curtain, where he's monitored Metro Detroit's new economy, to share some of his ideas for making SE Michigan better still. Agree or disagree, he hopes you'll weigh in with a few suggestions of your own. Or at least wish him a happy 100th.

Jeff Meyers - Post 3: When Will Metro Detroit Go Metric

I was recently chatting with my neighbor Matt Toschlog and he was complaining about how conservative America is. He wasn't talking about politics but rather about our irrational reluctance to change. He used the metric system as his example. The metric system is considered, by almost universal accord, a better, more accurate standard of common measurement. Economists, engineers, researchers etc. have all weighed in (no pun intended) on its superiority to the antiquated English system of inches, pounds and pints. European countries came to the conclusion decades ago that their societies must adopt the metric system as the standard unit of measurement.

But not Americans.

We've made half-assed attempts but other than 2 liter soda bottles, have been unable to make the switch. Despite the fact that it's better for us in nearly every way.

Why? Because we don't like change. 

I don't know if it's because we're lazy, stupidly prideful or desperately afraid of anything new. I do know it's foolish. And the arguments against change just don't stand up. Yes, a generation will struggle with realigning their notions of how the world works but after that it'll become the standard. A better standard. That our political leaders have been unwilling (re: too cowardly) to make the change demonstrates how fearful our nation has become to change.

In many ways, the metric metaphor seems to describe Michigan's mindset.

Change is resisted because it is risky and uncomfortable and takes a lot of effort. Michiganders seem to believe that because we once had a system that worked for a long time we shouldn't change. Sure, we knew it couldn't last. Yes, the signs have been there for a very very long time. But we're going to stick with the old way of doing things no matter how many industries die, young people move away and jobs are lost. All because change is too scary. We'd rather make half gestures and cautiously ineffectual plans than actually take a chance, piss some people off and do what's needed and necessary.

How else to explain decades of discussion about mass transit and no tangible achievenment?

How else to rationalize the backlash against the state's ambitious film tax incentives before they've even been given a chance to work? (It's the first bold thing the state has done in many a moon and less than six months in legislators were threatening to pull it back.)

How else to justifiy the highly inefficient and economically foolish resistance to regionalism? As we
wrote in Metromode, the Woodward corridor alone has 10 separate local governments serving 192K people. Nine have separate planning commissions and city councils, eight maintain their own library systems. Warren, in contrast, governs 145K residents with two municipal entities. Having your own downtown shouldn't be the excuse for lack of cooperation.

The list of intractable issues goes on and on, whether it's allowing greater density in our downtowns, banning smoking in bars & restaurants, creating a functioning regional bus system, putting in sidewalks or truly investing in bike lanes, Metro Detroit is resistant to changing the way business is done and life is lived.

And we're suffering for it.

I spent nearly a decade living in Portland, Oregon and let me tell you, the state of Oregon has far less resources than Michigan. There are no major university systems (UofO is a decent school but it ain't no U-M), no giant corporate employers (Nike is typical with 5000 local employees) and a far smaller tax base. The 70s and 80s were dire years for both the city and state, with high unemployement, dwindling resources and a timber industry that had been seriously curtailed. When I moved to Portland in 1991 you could buy a 1400 sq ft home 3 miles from the center of downtown for roughly $60K. Today, that same home goes for approximately $275-300K. Why?

They had vision. They took chances. The city of Portland planned for the future instead of allowing itself to be paralyze by the present. They instituted a downtown parking cap that limited how many parking spaces were allowed in Portland. This forced smarter planning and better mass transit (the ban remained in place for nearly 25 years). Try that in, well, any city in Michigan and they'd string you up.

Portland also created 1% for Public Art intitatives along with planning and building codes that emphasized what was best for their downtown's development, not easiest.

They put in bike lanes, established an incredibly ambitious 
urban growth boundry and began a long range light rail plan. Amenities like offleash dog parks and skate parks were established, city-wide recycling was enforced, and ordinances that favored locally owned businesses were put into place. Today, Portland has one of the highest percentages of locally owned businesses in the country. It's population is booming and its downtown is a global model for planning and sustainability.

In the mid-90s the city poured money into one neighborhhod with the idea that its transformation would have a positive halo effect for the rest of the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The result was the Pearl Distric --a former warehouse district that had been overrun by junkies and rats-- which now boasts a vibrant restaurant & gallery culture, an authentic Chinese garden that takes up an entire city block and hip loft and condo spaces.

I'm not saying Portland is perfect. It has a long way to go before its schools are half as good as many Metro Detroit schools sytems. It's art museum can't touch the DIA. And I'm not saying Portland isn't suffering now. OHSU, the region's number one employer just announced massive layoffs. It's going to be lean times for the city and they'll inevitably have to tighten their belt. But if they take direction from past leaders, they'll use it as an opportunity to innovate and prepare for the future rather than simply respond to the present.

And more importanty, despite the hard times, people aren't moving away. Young people are still flocking to the city. Sure, they might not land the job of their dreams but they'll live in a place they love.

And there are clues that Portland is still learning from its past. The city has aimed to garner 100% of its energy needs from renewable resources by the end of 2010 (it's currently at 10%). Compare that with Michigan's goal of 25% by 2025. Does Detroit even have a goal of its own? The Metro region?
Heck, even Chicago is aiming for 20% by 2010 (it's currently at 2.5%).

I know this sounds like the typical gripe that Metro Detroit should be like somewhere else. It can't and it shouldn't. But it should learn from other places, take inspiration from other places and take some damn risks. It should realize that "but we're different" isn't a reason, it's an excuse. And a lame one at that. Every place has its challenges, its deficits and advantages. Only the best places know how to rise above the things that stand in their way and leverage their assets into success.

The election of Barack Obama was predicated on change. But change has to be more than swapping who sits in the oval office, or which party controls Congress. Change is something we should all be looking to embrace. Smart change. Bold change.

Where is the local leader who says we WILL have a light rail system up and working by 2012? Where is the politician who pushes through mandatory recycling in Detroit or bike lanes along Woodward? Where is the city council member that bans all surface parking lots in their downtown or requires 50% of on street parking spaces be for compact cars only, tickets for everyone else? When will Farmington and Farmington Hills get over themselves and merge into an efficient and vibrant commmunity with a great downtown?

Want improve neighborhhoods? Why not target transitional communities and offer teachers, cops and firemen reduced or, even better, no property taxes for living and working in those communities. Have empty properties? Lease them to non-profits and arts groups for $1 a year. Give 'em a five year lease. Want to turn your downtown into a 24-hour liveable destination? Offer incentives that make you uncomfortable because they seem too generous then sunset them 5 years from now. Got a small surface parking lot in your downtown? Sell it to a developer for $5 if they agree to make it the best property in the city with public art, mixed income housing and green features out the ying-yang.

Yes, some people will be pissed off. Yes, some of the ideas won't work. But cautious, toothless changes over a long time simply aren't enough to stem the exodus of opportunities, talent and smart people from our region. We can do better. We must do better. We're very near the bottom people. The time has come to think big.

When John F Kennedy said in 1961 that we'd walk on the moon there was no indication that we actually could. It was both a hope and a challenge. NASA met the challenge seven years later.

What bold challenge can we issue to Metro Detroit? I'd love to hear what project or change you think we should commit ourselves to.

Seven years is just around the corner. Will we reach for the moon or remain mired at the bottom?