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Detroit Revitalization Fellow: John Corcoran


Like many folks who grew up in smaller towns, John Corcoran appreciates the benefits that a city’s density makes possible.

A native of rural Bedminster, New Jersey (pop. 8100), Corcoran, admits that he once considered New York City to be the world’s center of gravity. But family vacations to Scandinavia and Turkey and a study abroad in Sydney revealed the many varieties in which cities come.

After graduating from Georgetown University, he took a job in sales force consulting for Fortune 500 companies like American Express, Electrolux, and Reliant Energy. Living in the Washington D.C. neighborhood of Mount Pleasant heightened Corcoran’s appreciation for good urban design.  

"It is a small community of brick townhouses, narrow streets, and mature trees, but it also is a quick walk or transit ride to anywhere in the city," he said.

After four years in consulting, he decided to apply his business skills to improve the quality of life in American cities and enrolled in University of California Berkeley for a Master of City and Regional Planning. After working for the regional transit authority and an affordable housing developer in Oakland, he headed for Detroit to join the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program -- a Wayne State University project funded by Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State. 

He now serves as manager of real estate projects for TechTown Detroit, a nonprofit business growth center working to create and advance companies both large and small through its incubation and acceleration services. The organization believes in a holistic approach to economic development, supporting not only technology-based businesses, but also retail and neighborhood enterprises through its Labs, Blocks and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) City programs.

"John’s expertise perfectly complements our work to drive economic growth and urban revitalization," said Leslie Smith, president and CEO of TechTown. "He brings not only a fresh perspective to our projects, but his passion for urban progress is contagious."  

With the goal of "planning and realizing a more vibrant environment for entrepreneurs to grow," Corcoran manages a number of projects, the biggest being a $1.4 million renovation of TechTown’s first floor. Upon completion, the open, collaborative space will act as a hotbed of innovation and a catalyst for the redevelopment of the TechTown district -- attracting entrepreneurs, creatives, technologists, academics, influencers, innovators and beyond to its membership-based co-working pace, and central event and conference center. 

Beyond TechTown's walls, he is an enthusiastic supporter of the TechTown district plan, especially the idea of transforming an adjacent parking lot into "a park-like, collaborative space where entrepreneurs can continue their conversations" after they exit the building. The concept evolved from his observations of the crucial role that public spaces play in enlivening communities, including Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit.

"It's an essential function of cities -- the diverse encounters and the social connections with people you would not otherwise meet," he said. 

Though most people are surprised that he chose to move from the Bay Area to Detroit, Corcoran is quite happy living in Midtown, just a short walk or bike ride from work, the gym, and many restaurants and bars. He plays for a local soccer team, tends to a plot in a local community garden, and spends weekends exploring the city, from Eastern Market galleries to ethnic restaurants in Hamtramck and Mexicantown. Even after living here a while, he still has a list of places he wants to try.

Detroit also is an exciting place to work. 

"In California, it is much harder for an individual to have an impact," he said. "Here there are many opportunities to think creatively and make a difference."

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.
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