Detroit Rising?

If someone asked you to come up with the least likely place for a major urban development project in the US, what might you come up with? I'll take a wild guess and say that, a few quips about East Saint Louis and Newark notwithstanding, most people would suggest good 'ole Detroit.

That assumption being made, here's some pretty interesting news: a consortium of developers is redeveloping a 1,200 acre (1.85 square mile) neighborhood on the east side of Detroit by building 3,000 new homes and rehabbing the 230 still left from the area's glory days. The developers will be using a number of smaller local builders to achieve this goal over the next decade, and what's even better: from the images released thus far, it looks like the neighborhood won't be an embarassing suburban bubble inside the city limits for the blatant purpose of increasing tax revenue. The architecture is modest, but respectable. Stately, almost.

Better yet, it would appear that the density for the new neighborhood could be relatively high. Some basic math: if you add the 230 existing homes to the 3,000 home total and divide the number of housing units (3230) by the number of acres (1200) you get 2.69 houses per acre. This is fairly low, but according to the New Far Eastside Detroit website, "[the neighborhood's] non-housing needs have been identified as schools, recreation, green space, parks, police, fire, retail, commercial, infrastructure etc. Discussions have begun to influence positive changes in these areas." The citywide average for Detroit is 4 housing units per acre (by compairison, Chicago's is 7.9). Being that the development area is bounded by four commercial streets, this sets aside a good deal of land for non-residential development. With the potential addition of parks and other public spaces, schools, and public facilities, the housing density is likely to increase.

The US Census Bureau puts the average American household at 2.59 people, so the population of the neighborhood -- which is larger than Detroit's CBD -- will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 8400 people. Even if only 20% of the total land in the overall development were non-residential, the density of residential land would be about 5675 people per square mile. But if you look at the first phase of development, dubbed "Fox Creek" -- which, with more than 650 new homes, will nearly quardruple the number of housing units in the entire 1200 acre neighborhood upon completion -- you'll find a housing density of around 4.7 units per acre. If all of the residential development in t he neighborhood is built at this density, the residential components of the New Far Eastside will hold about 7790 people per square mile. The citywide average from the 2000 Census is 6853.5 ppsm (which is, sadly, pretty good for an American city).

That's not too shabby for one of the nation's largest urban prairies (click the pic at right to see a Google Maps satellite view of the neighborhood in its current state).

Speaking with the friend who sent me the link to the Detroit Free Press article about this project -- he being the biggest Motown booster you'll ever meet -- I was told that "the only reason this is even happening is that the neighborhood borders Grosse Pointe," a wealthy suburb across Alter, which serves as the city's easternmost border. And isn't that a novel concept? While most American cities' revitalization efforts work from the center out, Detroit -- after decades of sluggish downtown renewal efforts that are just now starting to make headway -- is starting at the edges, using the affluence of neighboring suburbs as a promotional tool to push development inward. (A quote from the developer in the Free Press article: "You're going to still think you're in Grosse Pointe...This project is going to be what the city definitely needs.")

There's a saying in most cities that goes something like this: "Only in (insert city here)!" But in Detroit, probably one of the most fascinating (if downtrodden) cities in the world, that saying tends to be especially true. As my booster friend once said, half-jokingly, the Motor City has been ahead of the curve of every negative trend in American urban areas since the early 20th century. Hopefully, by working against the grain, Detroit will be able to break its streak.

At any rate, this project is a start.

New Far East Side Detroit Community Page

From Vacant to Vital (Detroit Free Press) (first photo credit)


Jacob said...

Nice project! Thanks for the links and the post - I had heard about this, but dind't know much before now.

John Commoner said...

Great post. I am a native of the Detroit area, and live in the Detroit burbs still. You and your booster friend nailed it. Detroit is a strange place with very strange politics, economics, social attitudes, and problems. Nothing we've done has been right, and nothing conventional is going to work for this city. But by all accounts Detroit is doing well compared to twenty-five years ago. And in spite of a terrible economy in Michigan and a disastrous real estate slump in the burbs the city proper is hanging on nicely. Property values there have held while they sink everywhere else. To me that's an incredibly good sign for a city that's had more than its fair share of struggles. We'll see.

lavardera said...

One thing this project has going in its favor is a good design for the network of streets. It was existing, I'm sure, but this is one of the basics that we just can't seem to get right any more.

Brendan Crain said...

The last time I was in Detroit (about a year and a half ago) I noticed that one of the most remarkable things about the city were its streets -- and I think this plays into john's comment about nothing the city's done having been right. While the physical layout of the streets is good in the sense that most of the city is a very workable grid (though some blocks are just too long) there is a big difference between Detroit's grid and those in other supergridded cities in the region like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis: the arterials.

Better known as the "spoke rodes" that radiate from downtown's Parisian-like layout (the spokes and downtown are the only parts of Woodward's plan that were carried out, if I'm not mistaken) these things are WIDE. They're like at-grade freeways that cut through the city...which was obviously built for cars. So I don't know if it's a question of scale, with those being what other streets were measured against, but many side streets seemed especially spacious to me. It'll be interesting to see if any of these new movements -- traffic calming, "complete streets," et al -- will have any impact on Detroit.

Anonymous said...

SOM masterplanned this development a couple of years ago. That gives me a lot of confidence that it will be a strong, urban neighborhood.

doug kelbaugh said...

this is a well written statement. i especially like "a note about where" at bottom-left. it's a succinct and wise comment on the role of the design and planning professions, as well as the role of the public.

doug kelbaugh said...

this is a well written statement. i especially like "a note about where" at bottom-left. it's a succinct and wise comment on the role of the design and planning professions, as well as the role of the public.