Designing with Detroiters: DCDC turns 20

A few weeks ago, I found myself shuffling through another single digit morning towards Loranger Hall, the stately, red tile-roofed Italianate pile housing the School of Architecture at University of Detroit Mercy's Livernois Campus. Just up the steps, inside and to the right, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center workspace was a warm, welcome relief. I was invited to sit at the large, square conference table that defines DCDC's common area.

There were a few folks already sitting, working on various projects or engaged in conversation. After a few minutes, the entire table filled out. One interview, ten people. But I wasn't really surprised. Dan Pitera, DCDC's Executive Director, had warned me about it beforehand. In fact, I wouldn't want it any other way. As its name suggests, DCDC was designed to be a collaborative place.

Two decades of collaborative design

It's hard to believe that DCDC is 20 years old. I remember being in college in New York in the mid 1990s and thinking how cool it was to launch a community-based design center in Detroit. I was aware of earlier initiatives like New York City's Storefront for Art and Architecture, and the now half-century-old Pratt Center for Community Development in Brooklyn. Detroit was actually fairly late to the game.

"At the time, Detroit was the only major city that didn't have a community design center," explains Pitera, who's been with DCDC for 15 years. 

"The idea first came from our previous dean, Stephen Vogel," says Associate Director, Christina Heximer, who has a background in architecture and social work in places like Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. "When he was interviewing for the job, the university's president asked him, 'If you become dean, what do you want to do?' Vogel said he wanted to create a place that connected the School of Architecture and the surrounding community, and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center was born."

Vogel enlisted Associate Professor, Father Terrence Curry, S.J., who himself had attended Pratt Institute in the 1980s, as the DCDC's founding director. Besides growing the young center, one of Fr. Curry's first tasks was to support Mayor Dennis Archer's Community Reinvestment Strategy, an ambitious citywide initiative that was something of a precursor to Detroit Future City. The CRS had the DCDC fully ensconced in community engagement from the very beginning.

Other early DCDC projects included the colorful St. Vincent DePaul Center on Gratiot, and the People United as One Plaza on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. just west of Woodward, which helps the working poor through counseling, community activism, and economic development.

When Fr. Curry left DCDC in 2001, Pitera was serving as co-director, having been hired a few years prior. 

Pitera points to his mother as inspiration for his passion for continuing the mission of the DCDC. 

"My mother was an activist and taught me how important it is to be an advocate for people. The DCDC combines my love of drawing with my desire to push for social change to improve people's lives," he says.

The desire to positively affect people's lives was a common sentiment among those sitting at the DCDC conference table. 

Josh Budiongan, a young designer who attended the School of Architecture like several others prior to joining DCDC, says the work has inspired him and has provided a "crash course" in design. Carlos Ibarra, an intern, enjoyed working with Brightmoor residents on a community design workshop. Miranda Dufresne, a co-op student from Ontario, appreciates having "real clients," as does fellow co-op Kamila Momot, an exchange student from Poland, who says the experience is like "falling in love" with a neighborhood and its people.

Krista Wilson, a project manager who has been at the DCDC for four years, cites working on the St. Joseph's ReBuild Center in New Orleans as a transformative experience.

"They just couldn't believe that a place like that was for them," Krista relates, speaking of Hurricane Katrina displaced New Orleanians for whom the center was designed. "So often the people who we work with don't have an opportunity to experience a great place and good design. DCDC offers a way to help bridge that gap by offering innovative design for people who otherwise wouldn't have access to it."

But why is "community design" (also known as "participatory design") so important, especially now, in Detroit? 

Rebecca "Bucky" Willis, a DCDC consultant and founder of Bleeding Heart Design, sums it up eloquently:

"My parents encouraged me to be involved in my community growing up. And I was creative. Instead of drawing houses, I made them out of paper. I thought I really wanted to be an architect, because they were the ones built the community, right? You know, the houses, the neighborhoods, and the places where people come together. So I also figured architects must be 'really involved' in their community. But that just isn't the case, especially in Detroit. That's how I got interested in community design."

Detroit Works Project and Detroit Future City

Probably DCDC's highest profile project of late was its leadership restarting the community engagement process for the Detroit Works Project, the ambitious multiyear planning process resulting in the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, a planning document that is helping guide city priorities and development in Detroit. Prior to DCDC's involvement, the first round of meetings had been critiqued as unwieldy and disconnected.

"We immediately went to some of the people who were the loudest critics to engage them, get them involved, and ask them to partner with us in designing the process," says Pitera. "History is written by those who win. Perhaps we need to think about more people winning. Obviously we couldn't change the past, but we could listen and work to be more inclusive."

"We had to step back from where Detroit Works had been, and acknowledge that engagement doesn't just equal a meeting. It's about building a relationship," says Charles Cross, a five year veteran of DCDC and a landscape and urban designer extensively involved in the Detroit Works Project.

"The process was messy, but that is the nature of it. We had to develop different tactics to meet people in different ways and regain a certain level of trust with the community. One of those pieces was Home Base, a physical location that was always open to the public in Eastern Market. Over time, people looked to it as a vital resource."

"There is no such thing as a perfect community engagement process," reminds Christina Heximer. "You have to be very nimble. It is always changing, and there are always going to be different theories of planning and design. But at our core, what we try to do is facilitate conversations with the community. We try to be the 'pencil' for ideas to help shape a community's vision for itself, so that decisions are less 'top down.' And in the end, it's way more exciting."

A bright future

As part of its renewed vision and commitment to rejuvenating its surroundings, the University of Detroit-Mercy as a whole is looking to reinvest and better connect with its neighborhood and the adjacent Livernois commercial corridor. Known by many as the "Avenue of Fashion," Livernois has a special place as the home of the Livernois Community Storefront, a new co-working space that DCDC hopes will serve as the community's "front door."

"We are part of the community," sums up Ceara O'Leary, a transplant from California, who came to Detroit in 2012 as an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow to help manage the Detroit Works Project and more recently shifted focus to projects like the Livernois Community Storefront and Impact Detroit, a new resource hub for community development projects.

"From access to services, processes and visioning sessions to actual construction, DCDC builds capacity in community by valuing its partnership with community," says O'Leary. "Participating in the journey has been a real treat, and I feel like we're in such a unique position to be the leader of the citywide conversation in community design."

20 years ago, Dean Stephen Vogel inspired collaboration throughout the University of Detroit's professional schools and pushed the School of Architecture to engage Detroiters in conversations about a better tomorrow. Today Detroit is reaping the fruits of those conversations.

Francis Grunow is a fallen urban planner who loves good architecture and design. He wishes to thank all the good folks at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture who work tirelessly everyday to make Detroit a better place, including Virginia Stanard and Sheila Anderson of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center. He also wishes to thank Graig Donnelly, who he interviewed for this article.

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