The University Record, November 19, 2001

Panel offers insights into redeveloping Detroit

By Martin May

“We would not be a great University today if it weren’t for the economic and cultural power of Detroit,” Dean Kelbaugh of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning said. Dean Kelbaugh began a Detroit 300 Series panel discussion on problems and opportunities for development in Detroit by discussing the interwoven history between the U-M and Detroit that dates back to the University’s founding in the city.

A major problem that has plagued the city has been its large population decline. Margaret Dewar, professor and academic program chair of urban planning, said Detroit has lost nearly half its population since its peak in 1953. A city that once had nearly two million residents has shrunk to about one million. This decline has caused a huge loss in the property tax base, and empty lots and abandoned buildings are scattered throughout the city. In spite of such difficult challenges facing Detroit, many opportunities for redevelopment present themselves.

Still, Dewar sees bright spots of redevelopment including growth in the medical and legal services and advertising sectors of Detroit’s economy. Dean Kelbaugh said that Detroit is full of cultural wealth as evidenced by its library, architecture, music history and museums, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts. Progress has been made in terms of speeding up the demolition of abandoned houses. However, approximately 38,000 empty land parcels remain that are in city ownership. Empty lots are one of the many challenges the city faces in redevelopment.

“Any city that’s on a river or a lake has a geographic and geometric challenge,” said Kelbaugh. Since downtown Detroit lies in the historical center at the Detroit River, Kelbaugh said this poses some unique issues. “As it grows, the center of gravity moves away from the river and the historical center tends to be removed over time from the population center. This means the downtown has to be even better, even stronger and more vibrant to maintain its central position.”

New developments in the past few years have started the city on the path of revitalization. The casinos, Comerica Park, and new housing and retail developments have taken root. The new housing developments, however, are generally low-density and spread out.

“It’s very easy to redevelop Detroit in a low-density suburban paradigm,” said Kelbaugh. “Although that may be what the market wants immediately, it may not be in the long-term interest of the city because you neither get the vibrancy of a city nor much connection to nature.”

Kelbaugh showcased design proposals for Detroit developed by U-M architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture and art students in a design competition. Many of the student designs incorporated mixed-use development—such as combining residential and commercial uses into the development. One proposal called for turning empty land into contoured urban forests in which the trees later can be transplanted into other areas when new development replaces the forests.

Kelbaugh ended by noting that redeveloping Detroit poses many challenges, but there are also great opportunities to create a more vibrant, efficient and ecologically-friendly city. “I can’t think of a more exciting project than rebuilding Detroit and rebuilding all the cities of America that have been so beleaguered and so troubled over the last 50 years,” he said.

Other speakers included Paul Bernard, director of the Detroit Planning and Development Department, and Herb Strather, chief principal of Strather and Associates.