Life at the intersection of public-private partnerships, neighborhood regeneration and real estate development.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I decided to write this blog post after spending a week in Detroit helping Mayor Dave Bing and his planning team explore solutions for a land use challenge on Livernois Avenue in Northwest Detroit. Our team of experts, sponsored and led by the Urban Land Institute’s Daniel Rose Center, traveled through a number of neighborhoods in the Northwest parts of the City.    

I saw beautiful neighborhoods with well-kept majestic homes.
I met smart, native Detroiters, black and white, whose passion for Detroit was contagious. 
I met entrepreneurs, young and old, who were investing, today, in urban Detroit.
I felt the energy, I saw the beauty, and I saw the possibilities.

At some point, I looked around and thought to myself: “This…is also Detroit”

You’ve probably seen the headlines, read the articles and viewed the pictures.  Detroit, without a doubt, is a challenged city.  But if your only experience with Detroit is what you hear on the news, see on the Web, and read in the magazines, you’d think urban Detroit was solely a place of maladies.  But there is another part of Detroit, hidden from view and drowned out by the chorus of “woe-is-Detroit” stories.   So I write this post to talk a little bit about what I saw and heard as I experienced Detroit first hand.



The story of Detroit’s neighborhoods also includes well-manicured homes in stable, long-time neighborhoods, not just long vacant homes on blighted blocks. These are pictures I took while we toured neighborhoods like Sherwood Forest, Green Acres and the University District.  Neighborhoods where black and white people live on blocks not overwhelmed by vacant houses, but bolstered by long-time Detroiters who live, work and play, yes, in Detroit.


The current story of Detroit includes historic Class-A skyscrapers not just vacant buildings.  I encountered towering office buildings, bustling with corporate activity, like the Guardian Building pictured above, a Class-A office building in downtown Detroit.  We met with the City’s planning team as well as the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation in this gorgeous building which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.   The second picture is an interior picture I took as I walked in. I fell in love with the incredible Mosaic (Couldn’t help it!) of art deco tiles that make up the jaw-dropping inside of the building.  


The story of Detroit is not just disinvestment and crime but personal investment and pride.  I met and talked to young entrepreneurs like Don Studvent (top picture) whose new restaurant on Livernois Avenue called 1917 American Bistro is all the rage of old time Detroiters and new comers alike.  I also had a great conversation with Glenn Wash of Livernois Plaza, who has been investing in urban Detroit for decades.  Mr. Wash was the developer of the CVS Pharmacy anchored strip center and is an example of the type of development and investment that can be brought to the corridor.  We may have quibbled on some urban design principles, but his passion during our public Q&A was contagious- a new chamber of commerce was created on the spot!   Don and Mr. Wash both represent the Detroit of today- and its future.

The story of Detroit is not just disinvestment and crime but personal investment and pride.  Let’s not forget the ladies!  Long-time female Detroiters are also taking the lead in the revitalization of Detroit.  I took this picture of the marvelous threesome (from left to right) of Karla Henderson (Group Executive of Planning and Facilities) and Marja Winters (Interim Director of Planning and Development) who are arguably the two most important people in Mayor Bing’s city government cabinet.  Third in the picture is Kim Tandy, whose University Commons Organization has been moving forward the Livernois corridor in Northwest Detroit for years.    In the second picture is another one of my Detroit faves – Nancy Varner.  I probably don’t have to admit (it’s a little obvious) that I lifted Nancy’s picture from the web, but it’s mainly because the picture I took of her didn’t do her beauty justice!  Nancy sat at my charette table, participated in our public forum, and has been an advocate for the beautification of the Livernois corridor for years.  Also, if you look a little closer at Kim Tandy, who is the third person in the picture on top, Kim’s resemblance to Nancy becomes clear- Nancy’s her mom!

The current story of Detroit is not a solely African-American story, it’s a Detroiter story.  Urban Detroit is also Mexicantown.  The picture to the left is of a mural painted on the entire side of a large building in the Mexicantown neighborhood in Detroit, where Mexican-Americans have invested their time, energy and resources in revitalizing a neighborhood.  Mexicantown is also home to fully-leased shopping centers with anchor corporate tenants, a new coffee shop and a feeling of pride.  Urban Detroit is not all black folks.   

This picture to the left is of Olga Stella, Vice President of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and a native Detroiter.  Olga, along with Karla and Marja above, is one of our Detroit ULI Daniel Rose Center fellows.  She is passionate about the revitalization of her native Detroit, is young, and didn’t just move to Detroit. 

There is one part of Detroit’s current story that the media has gotten exactly right.  It is the story of Detroit’s unflappable Mayor Dave Bing, who moved to Detroit in 1966 and never looked back.  Mayor Bing is our lead Detroit ULI Daniel Rose fellow, and *news flash* grew up in Washington, D.C.  Mayor Bing’s story of sports, business and now political success has gotten plenty of coverage.  His commitment to Detroit’s excellence and push for change is also well-documented.  He is passionate about Detroit, smart as a whip, and gracious enough to take a picture with yours truly at dinner.  

Mayor Bing is also not satisfied with the idea that the new Detroit can only emerge 20 years from now.  He fully acknowledges the heavy lift facing Detroit, but isn’t going to settle only for glacial change.  He believes that Detroit can move into its future…now. 

At one point at our dinner table, someone asked Mayor Bing what he would like to see from our Livernois Avenue study.  He smiled and quickly said “Thanks for your work.  But don’t study long. Give us something we can get done now.”