Blog: Michael Poris

From a master plan for North Corktown to designing public spaces for the Michigan Opera, Michael Poris, has his hand all over downtown Detroit. A principal of architectural firm McIntosh Poris Associates, Michael continues to offer up solutions for the city's revival. Key points: Down with demolition and a call for an economic development czar.

Michael Poris: Post 1 - Detroit 3.0: Reboot

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.

The Lafayette

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.

The Czar

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.