Ten years ago, in defiance of prevailing sentiments, development leaders coalesced around a unified vision
to transform Detroit's greater downtown area into a center of opportunity. While the 15x15 Initiative, as that vision would come to be known, did not achieve its goal of attracting 15,000 talented individuals to the area by 2015, it did prove that a diverse group of organizations working in various spaces could be brought together with the common purpose of transforming the city.
As the work that originated under the 15x15 banner continues to bear fruit in Detroit's greater downtown, the initiatives participants are continuing to ask themselves how they can continue to work together to develop Detroit in its entirety and improve the quality of life for both its current residents and talent from around the country seeking a new place to call home.
Several development leaders who have been working in Detroit's greater downtown for years believe the city has a unique opportunity to do things differently. By changing course and addressing failures, they believe the city can even become a leader in inclusive, human-centered, and intentionally focused urban and regional development.
For over 30 years, Diane Van Buren, president of Zachary & Associates
, has worked at the intersection of Detroit's history and future by sustainably redeveloping historic buildings. She has worked on housing developments in Cass Corridor, Brush Park and Midtown, where she led efforts to achieve historic designation for over 300 buildings. She also conceived of the idea of developing a bed and breakfast, later known as the Inn on Ferry Street
, as a way of attracting visitors and eventually residents to Midtown's Art Center area, and contributed to the creation of a new investment pool called Invest Detroit
. She's currently working with George Nnamdi
on revitalizing the Sugar Hill district, whose name pays homage to the enclave of African-American jazz clubs from the '20s and '30s in a section of Midtown adjacent to the Detroit Medical Center.
Diane Van Buren
"We kept saying, 'What's keeping this market from happening?' It was the perception of safety, cleanliness, and livability. People would live here if these conditions were met, so we had to push it to that next level and figure out what was needed to get developers here," says Van Buren.
Van Buren also developed 71 Garfield
, a green residential and commercial building that includes a solar roof, a geo thermal heating and cooling system, water recovery, and energy star appliances, elevators, and windows. It's an example of how using both historic and energy tax credits can actually make it economically feasible to sustainably renovate historic buildings in Detroit. Van Buren sees huge potential for Detroit to become a leader in new energy development with extensive job training opportunities for residents, which are desperately needed for the city to deal with a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent.
Opening up entrepreneurship to everyone
In addition to growing a jobs base for residents in development-related trades, Detroit also has an opportunity to help its residents define their own economic destiny through entrepreneurship. The New Economy Initiative
, a special project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, works to build a network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. By supporting both neighborhood small business development and high-tech, high-growth companies, NEI helps pave the path for job creation and economic opportunities.
In 2014, NEI launched NEIdeas
, a program focused on supporting neighborhood businesses through grants and technical services with an emphasis on minority and female entrepreneurs. The program not only helped NEI address gaps in the entrepreneurial support pipeline they had been funding, but it opened a world of possibilities for how NEI engaged with neighborhood entrepreneurs in a very visible way through storytelling. Touching so many small businesses has helped NEI understand the need for a focus on capital readiness, including helping entrepreneurs from communities historically cut off from capital build confidence in pursuing funding.
Chris Prater, co-owner of Thrift on the Avenue, a boutique in Midtown
The pillars of NEI's work continue to be collaboration and inclusion, focusing its financial support and program development on creating an entrepreneurial network for all stages and needs of business growth.
NEI's leadership thinks Detroit has a chance to do something unique if it can build relationships between neighborhood small businesses and tech entrepreneurs and startups that are clustering in the city's greater downtown.
"We're in the process of learning how to reinforce roots between small business and the high tech and innovation world...that work together and not in direct competition," says Pam Lewis, director of NEI. "They are not mutually exclusive. There can be a meaningful connection between those two worlds. Some of our work will focus on how do we articulate that connection so we and others in the ecosystem can understand it better."
Pam Lewis, director of the New Economy Initiative
NEI's work is not limited to the city of Detroit. They believe innovation and entrepreneurship is southeast Michigan's regional asset, and unless we eliminate the "us versus them" mindset that exists between some in the city and suburbs, we will continue to see barriers to access and economic growth for everyone.
Build things to last
Eric Larson, CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership
, believes a lot of development work in Detroit for years has been tied to basic survival, but we now have some breathing room to focus on design and infrastructure needs that will impact future generations – not just over the next 15 years, but for an entire century. By thinking in 100-year increments, there can be a greater exploration of quality of place than what we have seen, including a higher quality of design and architecture.
And we're making strides toward this way of thinking. Just last year, Detroit was named UNESCO's first U.S. "City of Design,"
which will no doubt help to keep the conversation about the quality of design at the fore when we discuss new development, as has been the case as the city evaluates development proposals for a 400-acre site along the east riverfront
"Anything we do in the public or private realm should go through a filter that asks, 'Is this ultimately the best we can achieve today and is it ultimately being built to withstand time?'" says Larson. "We're still needing to be judicious with our dollars, but that doesn't mean you can't have a wonderful new ground-up residential development that is…architecturally significant and timeless."
Not only does Larson emphasize higher design standards for new buildings, but also taking a look at the design of our public and natural spaces. What does a city and a region look like with expansive greenways, accessible bike share programs, rapid bus transit, protected bike lanes, and intentional activation of our natural resources and public spaces?
As executive director of Detroit Bike Share
, a program of Downtown Detroit Partnership expected to launch this year, Lisa Nuszkowski is hoping to enhance public places by connecting them. The first phase of her program will begin with 350 bikes and 35 stations located throughout greater downtown, as well as parts of southwest Detroit, Woodbridge, North End, and Lafayette Park, with the expectation to expand into more neighborhoods. Nuszkowski hopes Detroit Bike Share will address the needs of many communities, including residents who need more transportation options to get to work and run errands. Her team is currently researching how similar city programs maintain accessibility and inclusivity in order to develop a community engagement plan that builds resident ownership of the program.
"We are so disconnected when we're in our cars," says Nuszkowski. "We aren't forced to engage with anything or anyone. Connecting to your surroundings and the people that are there makes a world of difference. It really provides access to community building.
"Detroit has a real opportunity to be a leader around mobility for the rest of the country and who knows the rest of the world," she adds. "The question now should be, 'How do we build a better city for people that are here in ways that make us engage with each other?'"
Accommodating both long-term and new residents
via Capital Impact Partners
In October 2015, the Detroit Corridor Initiative
, developed by Capital Impact Partners, produced the "Inclusive Growth Report,"
which concludes that higher density and mixed-income neighborhoods are essential to creating higher opportunity places in Detroit over the long term. According to Bradford Frost, director of Capital Impact Partners' Detroit program, this analysis is based on Raj Chetty's
"Equality of Opportunity in America" study, which revealed that the "best predictor for economic mobility for those that start off in life with low income is to live in economically integrated places."
The report suggests that combining market rate development with a long-term strategy to keep neighborhoods inclusive to people across the income spectrum is key to guaranteeing that Detroit's greater downtown remains a place of opportunity for everyone, whether they are long-term residents or new arrivals. "If we're serious about nurturing development that increases opportunity for all," says Frost, "we have to get comfortable stressing market growth as well as equitable development practices for disadvantaged and historically underserved populations."
Frost emphasizes the need for development efforts across the city to not only focus on resident attraction, but retention and diversification as well.
"Diversity is central to Detroit's potential…The city has a unique chance to put equal opportunity front and center for how it nurtures the changes underway and those to come," he says. "Equal opportunity can be our shared goal in all of our community development activities, public investments, city services, educational systems, and Detroit's change strategy for a generation to come."
He adds that now is a critical time for making this happen. "In the next few years, we must codify at a neighborhood scale meaningful and effective approaches to equal access to Detroit's highest opportunity places across the income spectrum. We must think about inclusive growth as an economic diversification strategy and a process for securing equity for African American households, and a mobility strategy for all that choose to stay or come to the to build their lives in Detroit."
This special report is the latest in Model D's "10 Years of Change" series celebrating our decade of publishing in Detroit. Read other stories in the series here. Support for "10 Years of Change" is provided by the Hudson Webber Foundation.
Jessica Meyer is the director of engagement of Human Scale Studio where she works to make neighborhood development an inclusive and democratic process.