The Cost of Doing Nothing

Much of the time, when I talk about infrastructure, I get the sense that folks think I’m doing this for aesthetic reasons.  For things to be ‘nice.’  And while that’s true, I think it’s important also for financial reasons.  Infrastructure, be it storm drains, fire hydrants, sidewalks, alleys, utility assets and City trees are some of the most critical physical pieces of what makes neighborhoods feel inviting, safe and welcoming.  But, in some ways, even more critically, the lack of coordinated investment in infrastructure in a thoughtful, systematic and concentrated fashion costs the City opportunities, slows growth, and places unnecessary burdens on residents.

The first example has to do with an alley located between East Grand Boulevard and Field Avenue in Islandview.  For years, friends of mine were trying to have the City correct issues with a collapsing alley adjacent to their house.  The problem was never correctly acknowledged issue.  In fact, two departments, Public Works and Water and Sewerage, actively ignored it for a few years.  They both said that the other department was responsible for it, and let the problem get worse and worse.  The situation was a sink hole that was growing larger and larger due to a residential connection that was never properly sealed.  Eventually, the homeowners ended up taking the bull by the horns, and when they were making repairs to their own connection, just took care of it in the alley.  The additional cost to them was $30,000.  They had no choice but to pay, otherwise they were going to lose the use of their alley.  The picture below shows the alley afterwards.  0712181927

Doesn’t look like $30,000 worth of work, but it never does when you’re dealing with below grade connections. 

The second example has to do with a house located on Seminole in Indian Village.  It caught on fire this past February, and when the Detroit Fire Department arrived (who, we might add, did so in a very timely fashion), the first two fire hydrants that they tried to hook up to didn’t work.  Because of this, the fire continued to burn, in my view, unnecessarily, due to the fact that in Detroit, in Indian Village, in 2018, after emergency management and bankruptcy, we still don’t have working fire hydrants on every block in Detroit.  Now, this is not to say that the fire is the fault of the City, clearly it’s not.  But if they had their act together, the damage would not have been nearly as severe, as the fire would likely have been extinguished 15-20 minutes earlier.  I might also add that even through the depths of the mortgage crisis and bankruptcy in Detroit, we didn’t lose a house in Indian Village.  To have witnessed this level of damage to a structure in the neighborhood after experiencing both of those earlier catastrophes added insult to injury.


We didn’t have to lose the roof on this.  And, even today, if you go by this site, the roof is still open to the elements.  Totally unnecessary. 

The third example is a personal one.  About two months ago, I was driving on I-75 when I noticed that my transmission was doing something odd.  It was almost as if it was cutting in and out intermittently.  Now, for anyone who knows about cars, you don’t just ignore problems like that.  So I immediately took it into the shop.  Whereupon I was told to be glad that I didn’t have to replace the entire transmission, but just the switch.  The reason: it had gotten soaked.  Hm.  Where might that have happened?  Why, in front of my old house, on Seminole, of course.  Because we get street flooding every time there’s a heavy rain because the storm drains (that we all have the honor of paying for, mind you) don’t work, it becomes necessary to dive through giant puddles that look more like ponds than anything an urban motorist should reasonably have to deal with.  So, because the storm drains (again, that we pay for) didn’t work, I had the honor of paying an additional $370 for a drenched transmission switch.


This is Lake Seminole.  It appears any time there’s a moderate rain.  In addition to the $240 a year I paid for drainage, combined with the fact that DWSD wasn’t able to fix that in four years (2014-2018), I had to pay another $370 for automotive repairs.  

I was planning on writing this piece for some time.  And then, yesterday, a water main literally exploded on West Canfield Street in Midtown.  It flooded the street, and I’m assuming probably some of the basements.  It’s looking likely that some of the cars are going to be total losses (we’ve had storm drains take out cars on Seminole in the past before; insurance companies usually consider them total losses).  It wasn’t until this last episode yesterday appeared that I actually realized every single one of my gripes had a direct link to one department: Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

I do projects with the Department of Public Works, and they’re pretty responsive (except for item one in this posting).  I have a lot of asks of the General Services Department, and they’re fantastic.  Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department is kind of a mess, but I’m able to get them to do their jobs, at least on occasion.  And I have nothing but kind words for the Detroit Fire Department.  I know that I have the reputation of being overly critical, which I think isn’t actually true.  I just think I have higher expectations of how some of our departments operate.

In closing, my point is this: when we do not take care of our infrastructure, particularly our water infrastructure, there’s a real cost to it.  It’s not pretty.  It’s not cheap.  It really, only is noticed when it doesn’t work.  And I’m going to be meeting with DWSD leadership to hopefully get a green alley permitted in the West Village this coming week.  The more politic thing for me to do would be to remain silent, and get that permit, and proceed.  But, these issues need attention, and it’s not right that not only is the lack of a coherent infrastructure strategy holding back development, but it’s costing Detroiters money and opportunities.

In my next post, I’ll explore more about how it’ll be increasingly challenging for development to take place outside of the 7.2 square miles of downtown and midtown, and how it saps the resolve of long term, black Detroiters the most.


Infrastructure Drives Investment

The City planning projects that have taken place in the Villages, in Southwest and around Livernois and Six Mile have been a learning experience for everyone.  The City has reasserted control over the planning process, which has left many nonprofits chagrined, because that what community development organizations in Detroit historically have done, planned things.  Which, in my view, is fine.  The City should have been the lead planning agency all along, as they’re the ones that actually have the resources for implementation.  Planning without implementation behind it is just disappointing and frustrating for residents.

And I think that the results of the planning process, at least in the Villages, are pretty good.  The joint effort between Planning and Development along with the Housing Revitalization Department seems to be leading towards projects along Kercheval that will help drive development along with stabilizing housing markets in neighborhoods that traditionally haven’t gotten either the attention or the resources that they need.  And that is all very necessary, and proper and fitting and just.

But nowhere does the City’s plan, aside from certain elements contemplated on Kercheval, put forth an infrastructure element.  There’s nothing about sidewalks, or making sure fire hydrants work or that the storm drains work (for which we all now have the honor of paying).  There’s nothing about residential alleys, and there’s nothing about forestry or having DTE clear out the trees from their lines.  There’s nothing about board ups of vacant houses next to the proposed sites for housing investment, and there’s nothing about coming with an enhanced strategy for illegal dumping.

As of now, the plan appears to consist of pushing development, which is fantastic, which will bring in more people and traffic, but not do anything about the infrastructure that will serve that population, or, perhaps even more critically, the population that has been here all along.  And that’s a massive shortcoming on the part of the City.  While staffing moves have been made to at least contemplate some of these matters, to push development without addressing infrastructure isn’t a sustainable plan.  Case in point: this Crain’s article outlines some of the costs associated with failing infrastructure to local businesses and residents, in particular the water main that exploded on West Canfield Street last week, shutting down roads, businesses and costing God only knows how much in damages.


DWSD Director Gary Brown had a quote in this about how this didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t get fixed overnight.  And while that’s very true, the faith of residents would be best sustained if we were to see the City agencies responsible for infrastructure, along with DTE, actually come up with a coordinated plan to make it so that those very infrastructure issues don’t get in the way of the City’s recovery unnecessarily.

There’s a few points in this that I’d like to strike:

  1.  The following agencies need to coordinate better: Department of Public Works, DTE and Detroit Water and Sewerage.  Whenever DPW wants to repave any flatwork, there has got to be some working group amongst the three that can make it so that we see DTE and DWSD crews ripping stuff up right after DPW finishes.  It breaks my heart that we in Detroit accept that level of re-work.  With resources being finite, that means there are neighborhoods that won’t get what they need because we accept this lack of efficiency as a given.  I won’t assign all the blame to DPW in this instance, but I think the three can do a better job.  Recent examples of this was pointed out in the Crain’s article about how Second Avenue was just repaved, but it seems like maybe, just maybe, because of some of the infrastructure issues in the area, like mains exploding, we should be doing subgrade work before we repave anything.  And while all of that is daylighted, get DTE in there to upgrade their lines as well.  Hell, go for the moonshot and see if you can get more of their infrastructure sunk below the ground if you’re going to open it all up.
  2. Residents getting things that they need, like functional storm drains (again, I’ll note here we all pay for this, and a full third of the storm drains in the City don’t work).  In addition to this, there’s still fire hydrants that aren’t working in the City.  Both are critical to, well, just not being a third world country.  They have to work.
  3. Making it so agencies like DPW, DWDS, the buildings department (BSEED) and GSD coordinate between them to that they deliver their services in a geographically focussed area (centering on neighborhoods that can sustain and continue to deliver growth) while simultaneously compressing the delivery schedule. If you layer in other initiatives to make more housing resources available, along with enforcing code to clean up blight, you’re pairing the infrastructure piece (carrot) with the code enforcement (stick), while addressing some of the equity issues around this with the resource availability portion.

None of this is rocket science.  But it is new.  For years, there simply wasn’t a lot of this sort of capital project activity going on.  Now there is.  That’s due in part to growth taking place in Detroit.  It’s also due to the fact that bankruptcy cleared up the balance sheet and freed up a lot of cash that had historically been going to debt service for investments in improving city services and infrastructure.  So when these agencies were suddenly tasked with rebuilding century old infrastructure on a citywide basis, they hadn’t had that level of experience with managing projects that expansive.  Or coordinating with other agencies to make sure that the execution piece was being managed in a fashion so that you wouldn’t have to dig up what one agency just did a few weeks before because someone forgot to ask.

All of these are good problems to have.  They are problems of growth.  And there is a way around them.  But the fact of the matter is this: the development planning the City is contemplating, in and of itself, is insufficient.  In order to make permanent the gains from these developments, there needs to be a much more robust mechanism in place that addresses the underlying infrastructure deficiencies, both for Detroiters yet to come, and the Detroiters who never left, and who are already here.  It’s the moral policy, and it’s the right policy.