Enforcing by Increments

When I joined the Indian Village Association board in 2014, one of the first things I did was to start working with the City on eliminating blight. It was very clear that was a herculean task, and one on which there was very little agreement. One of the reasons is that when residents try to direct the process, it focusses on owner occupied structures. If you’re a Detroiter, you know the drill: usually some dingbat who’s been in the neighborhood for a very, very long time, has allowed their house to go to pot. And for pretty much the entirety of that time, there wasn’t the administrative or enforcement follow through for the City to effectively help homeowners direct code enforcement on a sustained basis. Meaning, the best you as a committed do-gooder was that you would go to a meeting downtown with folks from the buildings department (Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, also known as BSEED), they’d tell you they’d begin working on it, and there would be initial tickets written, but that’s about where it would stop, with little to no enforcement to correct the underlying conditions.

The time I got a ticket and it was addressed to Mel Farr.

In the past few years, there’s been a very incremental evolution towards a more coherent strategy of making building code enforcement a reality for the first time in a very long while. And the reason for that is that Mayor Mike Duggan has opted to go after targets that are not owner occupied structures. It’s not the natural impulse, but from an administrative and political standpoint, it’s the way to go. By gradually going after ever more categories of derelict buildings, Duggan is very gradually trying to make blight something that isn’t normal in Detroit, and I feel like we are on the cusp of seeing real results on this front.

Nuisance abatement began in 2014. Conducted through the Detroit Land Bank Authority, this program focussed on suing the owners of vacant but salvageable houses. The owner could either turn the structure over to the DLBA, fight the charges, or just fix it up. Usually, the owners would be put on a consent agreement approved by then Judge Robert Colombo from Wayne County Third Circuit Court. Judge Colombo has since retired, but those cases have probably migrated over to someone else’s docket. Nuisance abatement program was commonly referred to by its acronym, NAP, and it was probably one of the first iterations of code enforcement that began making a real difference in the neighborhoods on a scale that was noticeable.

Rental inspections began again last year. The rollout was rocky. About half of the population in Detroit are renters, so this is going to to encompass a very broad section of the housing stock of the city. The program is being staggered by ZIP codes. The process consists of an initial registration, inspection (and reinspection should sufficient violations be found) and final certificate of approval issuance. Because the City doesn’t have enough inspectors on hand to staff this, they have contracted with inspection firms to handle this monumental task. Another facet of this is that the lead testing component of this is pretty onerous for owners. Pretty much any structure built in Detroit before 1978 is going to have some level of lead in it. You can choose two strategies, either get rid of it (astronomically expensive) or to just contain it (usually with paint).

The inspection and lead certification process is expensive. It’s burdensome. And it will probably end up putting some crappy landlords out of business and maybe even a few landlords with good intentions but limited means. My only critique with this program was that there was never an off ramp, so to speak, for some of the results of this program. Meaning, if an inspection takes place, and there’s $20,000 worth of work that needs to be done, which I don’t think is uncommon, the landlord has two options: fix it to comply (and pass the costs off to the tenant, which is normal rental economics) or don’t, and that path, I feel like is far more unknown. So, in many instances, you have cases where the costs of improving the property will put it out of reach to the people that were there, noncompliance is a very fraught scenario. At the end of the day, the rental inspection program was necessary, as renters deserve quality housing, and far too few of them get it. But the initial rollout was always going to be very, very difficult.

Vacant property registrations. Not sure what the back story on this is, but they are suddenly being enforced. In Detroit, it has to meet a minimum threshold of maintenance, and this is just another avenue of continuing enforcement. This seems to have happened relatively recently, and I’ve been on the receiving end of it. The organization for which I work, the Villages Community Development Corporation, owns houses on Seyburn that are, works in progress, charitably speaking. I feel badly about it, and we should get our act together, and renovate and sell them.

Automobile uses tire shops, auto storage lots. This is more of a zoning ordinance enforcement measure, but the overall impact it’ll have is to make it so that it’ll clean up the look and feel of various commercial streets (Mack, Grand River, Fenkell, etc.) where there’s a lot of unlicensed auto uses (storage, tire sales, repairs, used car sales) that don’t currently meet code. I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.

And lastly, there’s been some reforms put in place in BSEED that underpin some basic common sense initiatives. The first is that they’ve hired an attorney, Jessica Parker, to be the Chief Enforcement Officer (CEO). The City sure loves their chief titles, and some of them are pretty silly, but this isn’t on that I’ll begrudge them. They’ve also gotten rid of a number of inspectors in the recent past. These are guys that had been there for decades and were not going to play well with new reforms or changes. And there’s also a group in the department that are busy coming up with new metrics and actually trying to follow up with how enforcement is tracked, measured and analyzed to see if what BSEED is doing makes any sense or is having an effect.

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Complete Streets for Neighborhoods, Part III

In the previous two pieces, I talked about the pedestrian experience, the configuration of how we arrange parked cars and how that can impact maintenance. Now, we’re going to talk about one way streets and speed humps, which I’ve previously written about here. It was in 2017, before the City actually piloted their speed hump program, but I’m just glad to see them getting built out.

The City undertook a study of how to build these out. From what I can tell, they tested them on a few blocks throughout Detroit, and the resident response was overwhelmingly positive. They went live with an online site through which you can put in a request and are in the midst of fielding requests and building them out throughout Detroit. I’m a fan, and this is something that I think the City and DPW, while having taken their sweet time, finally did and appears to be doing well.

One way street conversions are another issue. Throughout much of Detroit, many streets were converted to one way. These fall into two categories: arterial thoroughfares and residential streets. Islandview is one such example of where there’s a lot of different residential streets that are currently directed as one way. I think that this was likely done as folks subdivided houses, had garages and driveways fall apart and there was additional demand for street parking. In order to accommodate parking on either side of the street, the only possible other alternative was to reduce the number of traveling lanes down to one, and I think at that time, that was the most expedient route.

Now, with neighborhoods filling back in, I don’t really see the point of this. I think the streets should be converted back to two ways, and done so in conjunction with some of the other practices mentioned in the preceding article, such as alternate site parking and street sweeping upgrades in order to accommodate all of the goals that we’re trying to drive at here.

Lastly, there’s four major east west arterials or thoroughfares on the east side that were converted to one way streets. From the north heading south, they are East Warren, Forest and Charlevoix Avenues, and East Vernor Highway.

From what I can tell, Charlevoix Avenue was converted to a one way street in the same time frame that the street car line was removed from the street. This was in 1949. In order to make one way streets work, they are typically. paired with another one in the immediate vicinity that is directed in the opposite direction, this one being paired with East Vernor Highway. It was also before the FCA Jefferson North Assembly Plant was constructed, so it functioned as a method to get larger quantities of commuters from Grosse Pointe to downtown, relieving some pressure off of East Jefferson before I-94 had been built. I’m assuming that the same practice was at play when the street car lines were removed from East Forest and Warren were simultaneously redirected as a one ways.

In the ensuing years, the FCA Jefferson North Assembly Plant was built, bisecting Vernor and Charlevoix from more of Detroit and Grosse Pointe, meaning that it wasn’t as important as a commuter route, as well as being supplanted by I-94. East Forest and Warren don’t really need to be one way streets either, as the areas abutting them on either side have sustained substantial population loss, eliminating the need for extra traffic flows.

So what’s the need to redirect them as one way streets? They’re so, so fast. The volume of really serious accidents that take place on these east-west one ways are staggering. Without adequate police patrols, motorists routinely go 50 miles per hour, or higher, on these streets. I am not so naive so as to believe that redirection to two ways will eliminate speeding, but it will substantially reduce it. Particularly along East Vernor and Charlevoix, where there are higher concentrations of residents, this move is very, very necessary.

So, in a nutshell, there’s things that we can do to make our streets in the residential parts of Detroit better. They’ll be safer, more pleasant, quieter and better for health. It’s essentially an extension of the same practices that other commercial districts in town have worked for, and I’m of the opinion that our residential districts would benefit from similar treatment.

Complete Streets for Neighborhoods: Part Two (The Municipal Parking Department Episode)

In my last installment, I wrote about some of the pedestrian elements of having a tree cover and usable sidewalks. Today we’re going to talk some about parking, various City street maintenance functions, and how to knit all of it together into a functional policy.

One of the services that the City has brought back in the past few years is street sweeping. At some point in the 2000-2010 time frame, the City just didn’t have the resources to clear out the gutters. Technically, the property owners have the responsibility to keep them clear. During that time that street sweeping wasn’t a thing, Detroiters would hear from the City that it was our responsibility to clear out the gutters, and, legally, they were right. What they were neglecting to mention, however, was that they, the City, as the biggest property owner in Detroit (92,000 parcels), they should have just done it. I digress.

But street, sweeping is back, and that’s a good thing. In speaking with the Street Maintenance Division in the Department of Public Works, I’ve learned that the total amount of waste removed has leveled off. Like many initial deployments of added services, there was a lot of learning in that process. And that initial deployment had wins and setbacks. In any maintenance practice, if you don’t do it for years, just trying to do it like you’ve been doing it all along does not work.

In this instance, the City should have gone through each block of the City and scooped it out with a skid steer to begin with. After years of not doing street sweeping, lots of debris accumulated. So much, in fact, that it was an amount that you can’t just run a sweeper through, and pick it up. It needs to be scraped down to the pavement. Because, right now, DPW’s street maintenance division is going over years of matted dirt, decayed organic materials. So, to recap, street sweeping is good, it just needs a hard reset.

Believe it or not, there’s a curb under there. And no amount of sweeping is going to clean that up. It needs to be scooped.

One of the other challenges with street maintenance is how we park. Street parking is going to be increasingly challenged in the coming years in Detroit. When you have neighborhoods that have had demolition, depopulation and blight, you lose residents. Parking wasn’t an issue in that time frame. Now it is. With neighborhoods gaining in development and population, competition for street parking is becoming more intense. More people, more cars, more demand, same amount of space. Supply and demand. You get the drill.

There is a way to combat this. It’s called residentially zoned parking. And it’s being considered in Detroit. Other cities have it, and it goes something like this. If you live on a certain block, you get a permit to park there. You can get permits for guests for street parking. It’s essentially rationing parking on a preferential basis for residents.

This is becoming more and more typical in areas of Detroit. Standard sized streets that are being used entirely for street parking. We’re f$%^d!

In the past, I’ve written about alleys here and here. In order to give residents another venue for parking, alley restoration gives motorists access back to their detached garages in the back, in many instances accessible only by alleys. There’s a lot of neighborhoods in Detroit that were so densely constructed that there’s no actual driveways. Restoring alley access is like release valve on the increasing parking pressure.

One intervention that we’ll probably begin to need to make in order to effect residential street cleaning and garbage pick up is to embrace alternate side parking on certain days. Meaning, look at the picture above. How would you conceivably run a street sweeper through that block? Or how could you pick up garbage cans? Or how could you get an ambulance or fire truck or police car over to a 911 call? The fact of the matter is that you can’t. And that in order to relieve some of these pressures, for many of the residential streets in Detroit, you are going to have to come up with plan to restrict parking to one side of the street, and alternate which side it is depending on the needs of trash pickup, street sweeping and first responder routes. That’s going to be very unpopular, but it’s going to be very, very necessary.

We have a Municipal Parking Department. The director was Norm White. I never met him, wasn’t able to ever get a return phone call or email from him. He left for New Orleans a while back, and I can’t find out who the new director is. This is an opportunity for the City to put together a plan to begin integrating some of these residential parking and transportation concerns. As of now, there may be work going on with respect to this. I’m not aware of it, but perchance to dream. Next up: traffic flows, traffic calming and getting rid of one way streets.

Complete Streets for the Neighborhoods: Part One

If you’re driving through neighborhoods in Detroit, there are lots of encouraging signs. Less blight, houses getting boarded up, lots of dumpsters around for construction crews that are renovating houses. And while in years past, one would see this in just a few neighborhoods in Detroit, it’s becoming much more evenly distributed so that it’s not just in Indian Village that you see it, but Pingree Park. It’s not just the University District, it’s Bagley. And that is fantastic.

When you’re talking about neighborhood development, we usually end up on the topic of small businesses. The idea about ‘complete streets’ usually crops up in the context of commercial corridors. We talk about renovating old buildings and putting yoga studios or coffee shops in them along with trying to make the outside, public spaces more inviting. The City, community development financial institutions, other community development corporations and small businesses have put in lots of time, money and effort in order to build public spaces around them in order to make them pleasant space that customers want to be in. This takes the form of benches, new sidewalks, plantings, public art, fancy lighting and a host of other amenities to lend those commercial corridors are more welcoming feel.

So if we do this for businesses in order to make the right of way more appealing, why wouldn’t we do that for residential blocks? We should, and there’s ways to do that. This first part will deal with the look and feel of the right of way and the spaces within it, and the second will deal with the function and flow of traffic.

Trees are great. They provide shade, look good, are good for the environment, provide a buffer against sound and also provide stormwater runoff reductions. The City is responsible for trees in the berm, in that strip between the sidewalk and the curb. Over the course of the past few years, Detroit’s General Services Department, Forestry Division has gotten much better at managing the city tree cover, and it shows. Not only does the forestry group take down dead and dying trees, they’re also grinding out stumps, something they didn’t use to do. There’s still a significant backlog of dead and dying trees that GSD is trying to catch up with, and in a few years, I hope that they’re more caught up.

In the picture above, you can almost tell the outline of more stable neighborhoods such as Indian Village and the West Village based on the density and health of the tree cover. Areas such as the East Village are nearly entirely devoid of trees, despite John Hantz’s stated intentions.

One issue in Detroit is that the single most common tree, the Norway maple, is an invasive species, and, for lack of a better term, just generally sucks. It takes root easily, but fails to thrive. If you live in Detroit, you’ve doubtless seen the maple leafs with the black spots on them, which is a clear indication that they’re blighted.

And this is what it looks like when the branches begin dying. What’s really unfortunate is that, according to GSD, there’s 30,000 of these throughout Detroit, more than any kind. I’ve asked them if they’re in a position to begin taking them down, but apparently that’s not the case, as they’re still trying to get all of the dead ash trees down, though as the emerald ash borer was discovered here in 2002, you’d think they’d be pretty close to having them down by now, 17 years later.

The best news about trees in Detroit is that the City is now doing free plantings. This is fantastic, because it’s not just about managing existing tree cover or taking down dead and dying trees, it’s also about adding trees. The goal is to add 10,000 trees a year. That’s a lot, and hopefully the City can sustain that figure permanently until everywhere looks good. If you want a free tree, click on the link, and follow the instructions. We’re also going to be working with several neighborhood groups over the coming months to coordinate tree plantings with the City.

So that’s trees. What else lends a complete feel to neighborhoods? Sidewalks! Beginning in 2016 or so, we began work in Indian Village to have the sidewalks upgraded. For a while, Detroit’s Department of Public Works was making all necessary repairs, not just the portions for which they’re responsible. What does this mean?

Well, sidewalks are on City land, but abutting building owners are supposed to maintain their own sidewalks. The only way that the City historically pays for sidewalk replacements is if a tree in the berm causes the sidewalk pad to heave, buckle or crack. The reason being is that the berm is owned by the City (usually for easements for gas, water and sewer lines) and, as an extension of that, they’re responsible for the trees.

When Mike Duggan took office a few years back, he made a few changes with regards to sidewalks, both of which were good, unfortunately only one of which stuck. No longer would the City try to repair the sidewalks everywhere, just where there was density sufficient to justify the investment. So, think about it, say you have a block with ten houses and another with two houses. If you have limited funds, you should probably prioritize the block with more houses over the one with fewer, right? That kind of thinking made sense, and that policy as stayed with us.

The other part of the policy is that the City began to make repairs to all of the sidewalk pads in a neighborhood, so that they would be usable, regardless of if the pad was covered by the City tree guarantee or not. This was due to the fact that if you just had DPW taking care of their portion of the sidewalks, but not the other ones for which residents were responsible, you’d have alternating gaps.

In years past, what DPW would do would be to inspect all of the sidewalks in a neighborhood, determine which were covered by the City tree guarantee, and notify residents which ones they were responsible for fixing. If, by the time that DPW came back through with the contractors, the homeowner had not made the repairs on their own, DPW would do it for them and just put the charge on their property taxes as a line item to be paid back over a few years through the special assessment district process. When the City got really bad at collecting property taxes, DPW no longer had sufficient cash on hand to do the repairs on their own, as homeowners weren’t paying their taxes at all, let along an item for a new sidewalk out front. So DPW just stopped the assessment process and did only the ones for which they’re responsible.

One of the reasons that the City did all of the repairs for a while was because of two reasons. The first was that it just made sense. The conditions of sidewalks was terrible. And the City, and its agencies, are the largest landowners, either through the City itself or the Detroit Land Bank Authority. The second was that state revenue sharing from gas taxes (Act 51 funds), which pays for sidewalk repairs, hasn’t grown as much as it did in the couple of years after the revenue sharing and gas tax hike took place.

So, the City went back to only doing the ones for which they’re responsible under the tree guarantee. To my knowledge, they’re not making building owners or homeowners make repairs in tandem with DPW sidewalk upgrades, which also doesn’t make sense. I would propose that they attempt to do fewer neighborhoods a year, and that they level set the conditions in each neighborhood and do them all at once, just that first time, so as to give everyone the same treatment. Or go back to doing the special assessment district process.

Ope!

So, that’s my thoughts on sidewalks and trees. The next posting is going to be about alleys, street sweeping, alternate side parking and residentially zoned parking.

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.

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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.

rain

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.

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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.

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.