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 2: Regional Super Agency

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.