Building a new Detroit means tearing down the old

Art is placed on the front of the majority of the abandoned houses in the neighborhood of Brightmoor seen in Detroit
Salwan Georges | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Art is placed on the front of the majority of the abandoned houses in the neighborhood of Brightmoor seen in Detroit

To build Detroit's future, first you have to tear down a lot of its past.

That's the essence of a bold plan to revive the nation's 21st largest city after decades of shrinking population, economic decline and a crushing bankruptcy two years ago that forced painful choices on the city leaders, investors, public workers and residents.

With the city no longer facing financial catastrophe, investors have returned and Detroit's downtown is enjoying a boom in new construction, including a series of commercial, retail and residential projects. A new sports complex is the centerpiece of a plan to revamp 45 blocks with new housing, stores, restaurants and public spaces.

But beyond the glass and steel skyline, much of the effort to revive the 140-square-mile city is centered on a massive effort to rehab or demolish tens of thousands of abandoned and dilapidated houses. In just the last two years, more than 10,000 demolitions have cleared the way for a series of neighborhood transformations aimed at redefining urban life in Detroit.

Initially, much of the focus is on simply removing the "blight" that has left some Detroiters stranded in desolate blocks surrounded by abandoned homes. In other sectors, entire streets are devoid of houses, with trees and grasses reclaiming the lots, resembling a rural lane more than an urban thoroughfare.

But today "we've watched the property values in those areas increase significantly as a result of not having the visible blight encroaching on them," said Maurice Cox, Detroit's city planner, hired two years ago to lead the planning effort. "But all of this land is our greatest asset. It has to be repurposed."

A construction worker pulls down old wood molding at an abandoned house on Elmhurst Street in Detroit, Michigan
Bryan Mitchell | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A construction worker pulls down old wood molding at an abandoned house on Elmhurst Street in Detroit, Michigan

In some cases, that involves rebuilding "Main Streets" as the centerpiece of what city planners are referring to as "20-minute neighborhoods."

"Our goal is within 20 minutes of your door you should be able to walk to all of the neighborhood amenities that people enjoy in complete neighborhoods — transit, grocery stores with fresh produce, restaurants, retail and parks," said Cox.

But much of Detroit has become too hollowed out to achieve that kind of residential and commercial density. Neighborhoods that have lost more than half of their residents pose even tougher challenges.

Proposals for the vacant land left behind include new parks, biking trails, community gardens or a 10-acre solar array currently in the planning stages in the Plymouth neighborhood. Cox said planners are also considering connecting a 31-mile greenway loop that would traverse the city.

"We can't make people move," said Anika Goss-Foster, executive director of Detroit Future City, a think tank that has developed a comprehensive plan for the city's revival. "What we are proposing for those areas where there are large tract of lands and open space are alternative uses of that land but it can still provide a very high quality of life.

Delivering city services to those sparsely populated areas poses a major challenge for city government. Fewer homes and residents mean lower tax revenues. But the public safety agencies, local transit systems, road repair crews and utility companies still have to cover the same territory.

Maintaining those services is critical to the plan's success, said Cox.

"We know that people will expect quality of life and a level of service if they choose to stay in the less dense parts of the city," he said. "You can't really engage citizens in a conversation about the future unless their current needs are taken care of."

Restoring the 'Moor

Since the city emerged from bankruptcy, services have improved. A new LED street light system has been rolled out, and residents' calls to the city for issues like potholes and trash removal are down.

In Brightmoor, a neighborhood on the western edge of the city, resident Dawn Wilson-Clark said police and response times are good and the streets are reasonably well-maintained.

"I feel safe in my community," she said. "But I do not see the same investment in the residents as I do in the businesses. People have been making money in the city for a while. But it does not necessarily reach the community."

Brightmoor residents are working to address a gradual decline that has left almost half of the neighborhood's 600 acres vacant. With support from private foundations and community groups, some 1,200 Brightmoor residents are working to "Restore the 'Moor," a project that involved creating a land-use plan and working with the city to develop a mix of proposed land uses, from traditional residential streets to open space and for parks and walking trails.

Wilson-Clark, who has lived in Brightmoor since 2000, is hopeful the work will pay off.

But she said if the city hopes to begin attracting new residents, local leaders need to undertake major reforms with the city's school system. Getting her kids a quality education, she said, means coming up with tuition for private schools and shuttling them 160 miles a week across the city.

"If they don't get this education thing together, those new people are not going to stay here or they're not going to have their children here."

A new American city

While other older industrial cities have successfully revitalized waterfronts or large sections, the transformation Detroit is embarking on has never been undertaken on this scale. Cox and others say it means creating a new model that mixes conventional urban redevelopment with the creation of pockets of rural areas in the middle of a sprawling city.

"I think people understand that if you live in a rural area you don't have the same level of service as you do in the urban areas but that's OK. That's a part of what they understand the benefits are to being surrounded by more nature," he said.

"We can't promise it will be what it used to be in the '50s and '60s. But there's a new way to make these neighborhoods whole. It will be a new form of the American city."

It's a bold experiment, one that the city is only just beginning. Some residents, like Wilson-Clark, remain skeptical.

"Certain blocks over here, yeah shut them down and create safe place or arts spaces or sports areas for the community to enjoy," she said. "But to just wipe out entire neighborhoods where families have raised their families, I don't think that should happen."

Cox said the hope is to let the communities drive the process, many of which have already organized and begun drawing up proposals for alternative uses for vacant land.

In any case, the process isn't going to happen overnight. But after years of neglect, the city is finally addressing many of its long-forgotten neighborhoods, said Goss-Foster.

"What we want to do is move away from the fact that because you are poor and live in a neighborhood where there's a lot of blight and disinvestment that you and your house are expendable," she said. "I think we all have to be patient. It's a 50-year outlook. It's not all going to happen today."

Correction: Anika Goss-Foster is executive director of Detroit Future City. An earlier version misstated the organization's name.

Tune in to CNBC at 1 p.m. ET on Monday when "Power Lunch" heads to Detroit to get a read on Motown's revival, the auto industry and Michigan's economy in this election year. Quicken Loans founder and developer Dan Gilbert will be co-host.