Lessons from Beals Street

Throughout the past few posts, I’ve been using lots of words to describe changes to how the City of Detroit should operate and what the impact of that would be.  This post is going to depart from that in that I’m going to use pictures to demonstrate some of the proposed changes that residents are increasingly advocating for.  By this point, most of you understand my shtick.  Fix the infrastructure, make resources available, eliminate blight, and you have a neighborhood where growth is much more likely to take place.

What I want to show you today are images of that approach in the context of a specific block: Beals Street between East Vernor Highway and Charlevoix Avenue.  It’s fairly representative of a block on the east side.  Lots of vacant lots, no pun intended.  When I drove down it on my bike last year, I stopped and asked residents what neighborhood they considered it to be: Islandview or the North Village.  They laughed and just said ‘the hood.’  I laughed too and we chatted some.

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One of these is not like the others.

Since then, Detroit Village Iniative, LLC* have purchased and begun renovations on this block.  They’re doing a good job, and are working relatively quickly.  The improvements in the housing stock on this block are both occurring rapidly and creating a much different feel on the block, all for the better.  But there’s a piece that’s missing: infrastructure.  The picture above is of a house that is nearly complete.  The picture below is of a house that was just started and seems to be progressing nicely.

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Not everything is growing.  Like this tree.  

We need to do more to help bolster investment in areas like this for a few reasons.  First, the gains made by these developments aren’t complete if we just leave things like this.  Second, we owe it not just to developers, but, most importantly, to residents who have stayed and waited things out over the course of decades in Detroit.  Lastly, these investments are not as durable as they could be, compared to if they built new sidewalks, functioning storm drains, working fire hydrants, and new trees.  I fear that if people come to Detroit on a lark, and stay for a bit, people will begin to leave again unless we substantially elevate the quality of life in the neighborhoods.

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This has curb appeal, but next to the curb needs work.

Another concern I have is that we are going to be welcoming all of this new development into the Villages area, in particular, and we’re not going to have the necessary accompanying investments in infrastructure.  What I’d love to see is for the City to make those investments in their infrastructure.  Let developers develop.  Let the City take care of their infrastructure.  And then we’ll see real growth that’s inclusive, and sustainable.  But if we neglect the infrastructure piece, along with code enforcement, new development, in and of itself, isn’t going to be all that great.  It’s not that we don’t want to see development.  We do.  We want to see it done right.

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*The principals in this entity are Alex DeCamp and Reimer Priester.  Alex is on my board of directors.  I rent an apartment from Reimer.  Full disclosure, blah blah blah.

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The State of the Alleys: Part II

In part one, I spent a lot of time talking about what alleys are for, what they’re like, and the immediate steps that can be taken to begin making improvements in the near future. Basically, clear them out, send DTE back through to trim up the branches and have DWSD come in and fix the storm drains and sink holes.  It’s straightforward enough so that you can begin those measures anytime, they’re all projects that are already funded (except for the clearance piece) and they can be deployed simultaneously in order to make more of an impact in areas where such levels of density exist that justify making these expenditures.

But what beyond that?  Getting them open, clean and safe is a good first start, but in addition to all of the basics, there’s a lot that we can do to our alleys in Detroit.  It would require a lot of collaboration between DWSD and DPW, along with fostering a degree of consensus amongst the utilities (Comcast, AT&T, Rocketfiber, DTE).

  1. Excavate the alleys to replace the below ground infrastructure.  Now, I’m not an expert, but I would imagine that everything below ground in an alley is going to be at least a century old.  The gas lines (DTE), storm drains and and sewer lines (DWSD) are all old, likely well past the end of their useful lives, and should probably be replaced.
  2. Drop the above-ground utilities below ground as well.  This one, honestly, I’m not sure about.  This would probably be very expensive, but if we have the alleys all demolished for the period while they’re doing the below grade infrastructure work, at least assess the viability of doing this.  It may be that doing it in this context, while you’re completely renovating an entire alley and all of the utilities in it may be the only way that it would work.
  3. Use that opportunity after excavating all of the infrastructure to drop stormwater management technologies in all of the alleys to reduce  runoff.  This one is somewhat out of the box.  I’m currently in a bit of a holding pattern with DWSD on this one.  They don’t want to do any more green alleys, which I think is the wrong call, but we’ll get them there eventually.

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This is a green alley in Detroit, which is a commercial alley, but we could use the same concept in a residential setting just as easily.  

Any one of these matters is going to be a massive project, and trying to line all of these up would be like hitting a hole in one.  But, from time to time, miracles happen, and there’s three ways that I can see this actually coming to fruition.

  1. The City could find a way to use the stormwater credits to pay for the project buildout.  If you put enough stormwater management technology in the alleys, you could possibly use those savings from diverting rain water into the sewer system to pay for some of the added expense of building out this project.
  2. There’s legislation already in the City Code that provides for special assessment districts in order to pay for infrastructure, specifically what is called ‘Green Belts.’  If the City closed the alleys, paid a portion of the project outlay, and had homeowners pay another portion of it, you could possibly allocate the stormwater credits to the homeowners to offset that added property tax assessment.
  3. See if the utilities wanted to pitch in to fund elements of the plan.  I can easily see DTE, AT&T, Comcast and Rocketfiber wanting to pay in order to help out to make it easier for them to access their assets, and possibly put them underground so as to reduce outages (and their maintenance costs).

I think that if the City tried to do just one of these elements of a potential phase II, it would be easier to do all of them than just one.  We have a massive need for alley repairs, and by combining the ideas of special assessment districts, collateralizing the stormwater runoff credits and asking utilities to put some skin in the game, you might just have enough money to pull off the whole thing.  And, the beauty of the project is that you could scale considerably, which would ultimately bend your cost curve downwards.

So, what say you Detroit?  You think this is something the City would be up for?

The State of the Alleys: Part I

Much of Detroit has alleys.  Most of them are in a state of total disrepair.  With the City attracting more residents and investment, it’s going to become necessary for the City government to come up with a coherent and comprehensive strategy for alleys.

Alleys were originally laid out as part of the fabric of the City for a few reasons.  The first was to provide access to detached garages in the form of a secondary right of way.  Not only do/did they provide resident access, but garbage was picked up in them as well through the early 1990s, when the City switched over to curbside. The second reason was to provide space in which to run through various utility assets, such as sewer lines, water lines, gas lines, and above ground utilities, such as power, telephone and now internet and cable.

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The commercial alley running south of Mack, between Baldwin and Seyburn.  Not pretty, but it gets the job done.  

As of now, the City of Detroit does not have a strategy for how they plan to address the network of alleys that they have largely abandoned, from utilities maintenance to surfacing issues.  There appears to be vague glimmers of recognition in some development circles that we’re going to have to come up with a solution as to how to ‘fix’ them, what exactly that ‘fix’ entails and how we can go about organizing and financing that.  And I will specifically give props to Chelsea Neblett in the Department of Neighborhoods for beginning to lay the groundwork on this very important topic.  Not only is she a hard worker, but she’s an absolute sweetheart, and she’ll get her hands dirty  clearing out alleys with you, as demonstrated by her coordination of an alley cleanup this past Saturday.

With more residents coming back into neighborhoods outside of the downtown core, theres a few phenomena that will actually make alleys important again:

  1. We’ve gotten used to abundant and free street parking in residential neighborhoods.  With new residents, increased investment and just generally more people and traffic, there will be a need for homeowners to rebuild their garages in which to park their cars.  While families may be willing to make that investment, without a clear right of way with which to access that garage, they would not actually go so far as to rebuild garages that have since fallen either into disrepair or been demolished entirely.  This is an issue of access.
  2. The physical conditions in most of the alleys are dilapidated.  From plant overgrowth to illegal dumping, from broken pavement to other issues, they’re both not passable, unsightly and a blight.  This is an issue of appearance.
  3. The overall state of the infrastructure is deplorable.  From the state of the surface pavement to utility lines being overgrown with tree branches to the myriad of issues with Detroit Water and Sewerage Department sinkholes and storm drains not  being repaired, despite resident complaints, in some cases, for years, these alleys are crying out for massive investments.  This is an issue of accountability.

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The residential alley going south, between Baldwin and Seyburn, south of Mack.  Neither pretty nor functional.  

Thus far, in Detroit, work on alleys has been largely framed in terms of commercial alleys either downtown or in midtown.  The crux of this series will be on the alleys that everyday people, Detroiters, use and rely on in the neighborhoods outside of downtown and midtown.  In the next two posts, I’m going to write about what I think we can do about them, and how we can begin making that happen.  This project will take years, but it is doable, and it should be residentially driven and focussed.