37 Minutes in The Villages with Diane Van Buren

As we sit down to spend 37 minutes in the Villages talking about the work Diane Van Buren does, its exquisite detail and crucial impact on the present and future of Detroit, she blurts out: "Oh my God, how will we ever get through this? That's not enough time!"   

But it is, I say, plenty of time. Let's relax and enjoy the late summer in the city. So we do.

I'm offered a glass of wine, a dry red from Leelanau. Delicious. We're bathed in early evening sunlight in one of the most spectacular flower, vegetable and herb gardens I've ever seen. Birds (there are Northern Cardinals, Gold Finches, Chickadees and Ruby Throated Hummingbirds galore) dart across the large tree-covered lot next to the house she shares with her husband, economic/community/strategic planner Ernie Zachary. The two were married in July and spent nearly three weeks in Greece and Turkey to celebrate. "That's a scoop for you," says Van Buren -- formerly Van Buren Jones. "Not too many people know that yet."

Van Buren and Zachary have been two of Detroit's busiest and most respected strategists in the development scene for decades -- that's no secret. In over 20 years of consulting, the firm Zachary and Associates has secured more than $50 million in grants for projects totaling over $300 million. What projects? There are some dandies, including the Brush Park Facade Easement; adaptive re-use of four houses in Midtown's Cultural Center that became the Inn on Ferry Street; the Woodward Gateway that helped diversify the business district in New Center; the Mexicantown International Welcome Center and Mercado; and the firm gave direction to Hamtramck's Downtown Development Authority when it sought to upgrade the Jos. Campau commercial strip in the late 1990s.

Organizing the new economy

Van Buren splits time as a consultant with Zachary and as program director for the WARM Training Center, where she is working on a Rebuild Michigan grant to help businesses and non-profits transition to energy effacing systems and create alternative energy plans.

"Overall, my goal is to help implement sustainable community projects in Detroit that create new energy systems that reduce waste and create new wealth in the region," Van Buren says. "A large network of organizations working toward this common goal is the only way we will bring Detroit into the new economy. Each must be brought along through an education process. Happily, the process is going a lot faster with new federal and local incentives and awareness."

Happily, indeed. Van Buren says that two years ago few were talking about sustainability as a strategy for economic growth and development. Now, it's being embraced for its versatility -- among other things it encompasses green technologies and architecture, renewable energy and urban agriculture -- into a clearly-defined package that breaks down social and cultural boundaries that made "creative class" initiatives appear comparatively distant and elitist.

"Everyone can understand a garden," Van Buren says, looking over a patch of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and collard greens. "People intuitively get it. The most important thing to happen is that the funding sources see the economic benefits of alternative energy systems, how they can pay for themselves."

In her backyard stand three immense Cottonwood trees, which Van Buren says are 200 years old or older. "They grow so tall because their roots find an ancient water source," she says, "which means there could be an underground creek that flows down to the river." The house, on Seminole Street near the northern end of Indian Village, was built in 1922. Houses closer to Jefferson were built on smaller lots at the turn of the 20th century.

With all this lush flora and fauna as our backdrop, the conversation easily slides back and forth between natural and built environments, neighborhood life and community engagement, projects conceived and realized.

Detroit's future: leaner and greener

A Detroit native who grew up on the city's northwest side, Van Buren was the lead organizer for the American Institute of Architects' original Sustainable Design Assessment Team, helped with coordinating the conversion of the New Detroit Science Center to wind and solar power and, through seminars and workshops, is laying the foundation for what the AIA is calling a "Leaner, Greener Detroit." Wearing her Zachary and Associates hat she is working, with the help of a Kresge grant, to provide direct consulting for even more alternative energy systems and green projects in the city. The areas of focus are Corktown, Eastern Market, Midtown, New Center, Southwest Detroit and the Villages.

Van Buren and Zachary are also involved in the Sugerhill District project, a redevelopment of a large block east of Woodward Avenue to John R, including Garfield and Forest. The work includes the rehab of a building at 71 Garfield into residential loft apartments and artist studio spaces, new construction of office, parking and residential units and renovation of N'Namdi Galleries. The district also includes the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and the Garfield Building, another project that Zachary and Associates had a hand in -- and won an historic preservation award in 2000, by the way.

"One of the most exciting elements to the project is that it will include public spaces as walkways connecting the district," she says, linking the Detroit Medical Center to Woodward. "Incredibly, this just wasn't thought possible before. Plus the greening of this building will reduce energy consumption and waste stream to near net-zero." The alternative systems used will replace traditional gas and electric sources. That includes geothermal, solar and wind and water retention systems. How cool, how efficient, is that?

Work at 71 Garfield and N'Namdi Gallery is underway with others to begin in 2010.

On top of her work with WARM and Zachary, Van Buren finds time to serve on the Wayne State University's Honors College Board of Visitors, is a coach for Friends of Detroit Rowing, is part of the garden program at Detroit Agriculture Network, a member of the Great Lakes Leadership Academy through Michigan State University and was on the American Institute of Architects National Board in 2007-2008. She's run in the Detroit Free Press half-marathon to raise money for Gilda's Club and throws backyard parties as fundraisers for various non-profits.

Seemingly, Van Buren never stops running. Or serving the interests of Detroit and the region. This is how she rolls. Fast but folksy, ever engaging, ready for the next wave of challenges.

"Listen, are the 37 minutes up?" Van Buren says, "This has been great, but I have to be on the West Side half an hour ago."

Our last 37 Minutes was in Southwest Detroit. Want us to spend 37 Minutes with you in your neighborhood? E-mail us here.

Walter Wasacz is FilterD editor and spends most of his minutes in Hamtramck. Send feedback here.


Diane Van Buren at her home in Indian Village

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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