Fixing Blight

‘We can’t do that for your neighborhood, because then every neighborhood would want it,’ a flustered City official told me.

‘Wait, you can’t come out and write tickets to negligent building owners every month so they finally fix up their neighborhoods?’  I asked.

‘Right.  If everyone asked for it, then we wouldn’t be able to do anything,’ said flustered City worker informed me.

This is one of the most basic functions of a City.  Enforcing the building code is a pretty straightforward undertaking, and it’s central to how Detroit should ultimately rebuild itself.   And while I don’t dispute that the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) is understaffed, there’s relatively straightforward ways that BSEED can make a bigger impact with the staff they have on hand.

  1. ‘Clerical is backed up.’  This is something that we hear a lot when I ask about how it’s coming with inspections in Indian Village.  What it means is that inspectors are still writing stuff up on paper in the field, and then handing it off to clerical staff who then enter it into computers.  Inspections should be done on tablets with a wireless connection in the field, thus eliminating the need for clerical workers (who could then possibly be retrained to be something else, say inspectors perhaps?), would make a lot of sense.
  2. ‘If everyone in the City asked for it, we wouldn’t be able to give them inspections.’  This is the refrain I’m the most tired of hearing.  The fact of the matter is that not every neighborhood in the City is asking for it.  Another fact of the matter is that the City, bless their hearts, do things in a sectional way sometimes.  Cases in point: Hardest Hit Funds, what the City uses for demolitions, are not applied citywide.  The targeted areas for the addition of City funded multi-unit housing developments is not being done citywide.  The nuisance abatement program from the Detroit Land Bank Authority is not being done citywide.  There are many programs the City starts that don’t apply everywhere.  Residential code enforcement can be one of them.
  3. ‘Well, we can’t do blight inspections on detached, single family homes, because folks can’t afford to make repairs.’  Not in Indian Village.  They sure as hell can.  And likely in the West Village as well.  And the great thing about starting building code inspections in areas that are already stable and doing better economically than the city as a whole, when you start in areas like Indian Village and the West Village, word spreads, and folks around them, such as in Islandview, the East Village and Pingree Park will probably begin correcting violations before inspectors even show up.  Word spreads fast.

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Detroiters shouldn’t have to look at cars parked on yards and broken windows.

At the end of the day, this actually isn’t even about enforcing on every single building code violation.  In each neighborhood, you select one major violation per block, and then you cite the homeowner on it.  Pick the severe stuff, nothing trifling like flaking paint.  I’m talking about collapsing porches, holes in roofs, broken windows, and the like.  Once you target one case, and the City demonstrates that they’re serious about improving the quality of the building stock, homeowners will comply.  You target a few of the most severe cases that everyone can agree on, and the vast majority of people will begin to comply without getting a correction notice.

In all of this, the criticism of this policy that rings the loudest is how you actually try to preserve residents in place.  The application of the building code should not be used as a pretext for displacement.  While cities are never static, there’s always people moving in and out, as is the hallmark of any healthy urban setting, water shutoffs and tax foreclosure have already decimated predominantly working class black communities.  The City should proceed with the recognition that while the application of the building code itself should not further displace residents.  I want to take a minute to applaud the Housing Revitalization Department for putting together lists of resources in the form of what homeowners can obtain as it relates to foreclosure prevention, lead abatement, grants, low interest loans, and assistance for seniors, veterans and families.

The path forward is clear.  The City does indeed have the ability to embrace residential code enforcement on detached, single family homes in the neighborhoods.  The City has even done some of the ground work on how to make sure that those resources are available to homeowners who may face challenges to staying in place.  And there are tactics the City can embrace to punch well above their weight with respect to the resources they have on hand.  Now, as with anything, it’s just a question of doing it.

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Rolling Slow on Bike Lanes

In a recent meeting with a City staffer about planning activities on the east side, I was informed that there were going to be more bike lanes on Kercheval Avenue.

“Can we talk about that some?  Because the way bike lanes are set up now, we have some issues,” I interjected, as this staffer tried to move along to the next topic.

“Well, maybe we can discuss it offline, because we have a lot to cover…” this well-intentioned and clearly overburdened planner started, before I launched in on my spiel.

“The City has serious problems with the way bike lanes are set up currently, and I’m afraid that someone’s going to get killed if you expand that network without addressing those issues.”  The conversation around the table stopped.  Well.  That got their attention.  Classic Mac.  Start ‘subtle’ then proceed onto dead cyclists.  Bam.  I then proceeded to outline my concerns:

1. Project completion.  For any of you that spend any time on the east side, I submit to you as Exhibit A the current configuration of East Jefferson Avenue.  Last fall, the City went ahead and began grinding off the street striping and began reconfiguring it.  The bike lanes were against the curb, the parking spaces were next to that, and then the traffic lanes were next to that (moving from the curb to the center of the street).  The problem was, they didn’t actually finish it.  They didn’t bolt in the bollards that would have formed protective bike lanes, like this picture.

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What’s more, the City began restriping the road when it was getting cool out in November, which means that the paint didn’t cure properly, and it’s now wearing off.  All in all, the East Jefferson Avenue project has simultaneously ended up reducing street parking, while somehow managing to make it less safe for cyclists.  It is quite literally the worst of both worlds.

2.  From all accounts, it appears that there’s no real enforcement underway for the Municipal Parking Department to begin ticketing and towing cars that are parking improperly (read: parking in the bike lanes themselves).  In order for cyclists to make these lanes successful, they have to be free of parked cars.

3.  In asking the local precinct commander from the Detroit Police Department on the east side if there was any directive to have any patrols to enforce traffic regulations as it relates to the bike lanes, I was informed that there was not.  It’s needed, as there’s a fair amount of traffic in both the bike lanes and the parking spaces on East Jefferson.

4.   Ahab had his white whale.  I have storm drains.  The storm drains along East Jefferson, in many locations, don’t work.  Which means, that every time it rains, water pools along the side of the road.  Which is where the bike lanes are.  As with parked cars, ponds in the middle of bike lanes make it less likely that they’ll actually work.

5.  Bike lanes need a bureaucratic home.  Meaning, from what I can tell, bike lanes were pushed for by one department, and the back end build out, implementation and execution on them were either missing entirely (as in the preceding four items), or the department where it should be housed, the Department of Public Works, wasn’t adequately consulted.  Word on the street has it that the City is going to be hiring a complete streets staffer, hopefully that point person that will begin to help knit all of these items together, but in the meantime, we need to push the City to make changes to the way that bike lanes in general, with an emphasis on East Jefferson Avenue in particular, are built out and supported.

I say all of this because I think bike lanes are great.  I want to see them succeed.  And I want to see more of them, but I want to see them done right.  And right now, expanding that network before we adequately address the underlying issues that are preventing them from being as successful as they could be is a bad idea.

I asked some other folks to help me out on this.  Todd Scott of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, and Wally Gilbert from Church of the Messiah agreed to help.  For those of you that are enjoy biking in Detroit and want to see bike lanes built better, drop me a line.  I’d welcome both your feedback, and support.  I hope that we can get the City to commit to making needed improvements over the next few weeks in order to making bike lanes better, not just on East Jefferson, but across Detroit.  Cyclists of Detroit, unite!

Environmental Injustice Stinks

This past July, an infrastructure conglomerate acquired Detroit Renewable Energy (DRE).  This is the entity that owns the incinerator.  Terms of the deal were not disclosed, and Atlas Holdings, LLC, a private equity firm based in Greenwich, Connecticut sold DRE to Basalt Infrastructure Partners, a multinational, privately held company that specializes in acquiring and running various forms of infrastructure assets across the globe.

For years, the incinerator has been a boondoggle.  In the early and mid 1980s, the country went through a bit of an municipal incinerator craze.  A total of four were built in Michigan: one in Jackson, one in Grand Rapids, one in Litchfield and one in Detroit.  The concern at the time was that landfills were rapidly reaching their capacity, and that we needed to do something about managing solid municipal waste.  This was during a time before the concept of residential recycling programs had really caught on, and right after various energy crises of the 1970s had driven up the costs of industrial production and jacked up the price of coal and oil.

The combination of these factors all made for a compelling case for the construction of a municipal incinerator, wherein the City of Detroit would issue debt, build and operate it and then instead of paying to dispose of garbage in landfills, they would burn it, and create both steam and electricity that could be sold.  The idea was that instead of having to pay to get rid of garbage, they could turn that garbage into a revenue stream and serve as a regional disposal syst.  The site was selected because of the confluence of interstates 75 and 94 making transport easy, and it was already an industrial park.

Instead, by the time the incinerator came online in  late 1980s, the conditions that had lead to it being built had all receded in importance.  The state of Michigan made it easier to create more landfills, energy prices had crashed and residential recycling programs were beginning to gain traction.  Even at the time of its construction, the incinerator was granted waivers by the Michigan Environmental Protection Agency at the time that allowed it to come into operation without scrubbers that cleansed the emissions of the most harmful contaminants, a state that continued for decades.

The City sold the incinerator in 1991 to Philip Morris and Aviation Services for cash purposes, but retained the public debt. Several transitions of ownership occurred but in 2009, Covanta, the publicly traded incineration company, purchased the facility. Covanta failed to earn a return and in less that a year, sold the complex to Atlas Holdings LLC in the fall of 2010. Atlas agreed to take it over, and be paid for the disposal of solid municipal waste. Other municipalities dispose of their waste here, and to this day, much of the waste that’s burned here comes from outside of Detroit.

Beginning in 2015, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center began scrutinizing the operations at the incinerator with more rigor, and found that very serious violations were the norm at the site.

The incinerator has various revenue streams which include: 1) ‘tipping fees,’ which consist of what municipalities pay to dispose of garbage there, 2) tax credits that are granted because this is considered a ‘renewable’ power source, which is a highly dubious point, 3) electricity is generated onsite and sold to DTE and 4) steam which is produced through the combustion of garbage is sold to the steam trunk line distribution system that operates on a loop throughout Midtown and Downtown.

The rate of return to Detroiters has been abysmal.  Downwind of the incinerator is Michigan’s largest concentration of asthma cases.  The unregulated combustion of garbage cannot be a coincidence.  The overlay between the weather patterns and where folks are getting asthma on the east side of Detroit is simply to great for there not to be a connection.

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And for people who don’t live downwind of the incinerator, while you may not be subject to pulmonary or public health concerns, if you’re around Wayne State University or Midtown in general, and it’s summer, and you smell one of the most vile, rotten smells of your life, guess what?  That’s the stench of piled up refuse that’s baking in the sun.  It’s garbage that the incinerator just can’t manage to dispose of quickly enough, and the rancid smell permeates for nearly a mile, with the incinerator as the epicenter of the radius of the stench.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department also has an incinerator in which they burn waste (read: dried poop) though there’s plans on the books to construct a facility that will turn it into organic fertilizer as many other municipalities have.  Jackson and Litchfield shut down their incinerators years ago, and Kent County invested heavily in upgrading theirs so as to mitigate the environmental concerns.

So what’s to be done in in this case?  If there’s a problem, there has to be a solution, correct?  Usually.  I believe that the City government has the ability to make it illegal to burn garbage within the City limits.  In fact, they already have.  For you and me, and for any other business or household, it is indeed illegal to burn solid waste.  But not in this case.  The incinerator has an approval from the City.

And that means that you can take that approval away.  If the City saw fit to break contracts with bondholders, retirees and other creditors, we can surely break a contract, that contract being the approval itself, with the incinerator operators.  They could instead burn natural gas, which probably wouldn’t make the far left enviros very happy, but it would still be a substantial improvement over burning garbage in the midst of a relatively unhealthy, relatively poor American city on the cusp of a great comeback.

And the great thing about burning natural gas onsite is that for long periods of time in the past, the incinerator actually ran on it already, so the costs of retooling and reengineering the facility wouldn’t be that great.  Though it would cut greatly into the operating profits, the way that the setup is currently constituted.

Don’t burn our garage in Detroit.  Don’t burn garbage from other places in Detroit.  Embrace a more robust residential and commercial recycling program to get this stuff out of our waste stream.  While the up front costs would be substantial, what we have now is just about the most expensive setup possible.  I don’t know how you go about putting a dollar amount on having the highest concentration of asthma in the state.  I don’t know how you price the indignity of experiencing the scent of decay while  driving down beautiful sections of Woodward near the Detroit Public Library, the Institute of Arts, or along adjoining neighborhoods, where folks are just trying to get by.

I don’t think you can put a dollar amount on either of those things.  But I know that it’s expensive.

Bumping v. Humping

“Well, the reason we can’t build in speed bumps is because speeding cars might hit them, go airborne, and kill children,” said the traffic engineer on the other end of the phone.  I stared at my phone, in absolute disbelief.

I was calling on behalf of my neighborhood after a high speed car chase erupted this past May, with some accompanying gunfire, and it all happened right down Seminole Avenue, from Charlevoix in the north to Lafayette in the south.  And so we in the neighborhood got all riled up, as we’re prone to, and we began looking at ways to reduce vehicular speeds in Indian Village.

“You can’t be serious, right?” I asked, still in shock that was the official reason that someone with a college degree was giving me this as an actual reason for why we would be precluded from actually installing speed bumps.

“Well, it’s also against the City Code as well, so they’re not legal,” the reply came.  Dejected, I thought it wasn’t worth looking into further, and so I just let it go.  Until it actually occurred to me to check the City Code to see the section that banned them.  And lo and behold, there was nothing.  Calling a friend in the City’s Law Department, I was getting excited.  We may actually be able to do something about it and maybe get the speed bumps installed!

In asking that contact, they weren’t able to find anything that banned them.  And neither were folks from the Legislative Policy Division.  And as I keep drilling into it,  I continue to be unable to anything against them for the state of Michigan, either.  The Michigan Uniform Traffic Code is silent on the issue.

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These do not kill people.  Not having them kills people.

We live in a city that doesn’t have enough police officers.  It’s simply not feasible to expect the DPD to singlehandedly be able to get everyone to stop speeding.  It’s just not realistic, particularly in our neighborhoods and on residential streets.  On Seminole in Detroit, we have no red lights.  There’s usually very little cars parked on the street, and we have a private plowing service, so in the winter, our street gets cleared before many of the other streets nearby.

Because it runs parallel to Van Dyke Avenue, a very busy, very narrow commercial corridor that has lots of cars parked on it at any given time, we get a ton of traffic that not just cuts through our neighborhood, but does so at speeds that should terrify anyone, particularly parents.  When we polled Indian Village about the possibility of putting in speed tables or humps, it was precisely the parents of young children that were most in favor of them.

Here’s my theory: we in Michigan have a cultural bias against anything that slows down cars, and various Departments of Public Works and county road commissions got so sick of fielding questions about this, they just said “They’re illegal,” and we, the pleasant, non-confrontational Midwesterners that we are, left it at that.  Except, and here’s the thing: I can’t find anything either in the City Code or state legislation that says they’re illegal.

If City officials want to raise legitimate questions about speed humps, which is the variety we should be looking at installing, as they’re less damaging to cars, here’s the questions we should be asking:

  1.    How does the installation of speed humps affect snow removal?
  2.  How does the installation of speed humps affect the deployment of first responders?

Those are the legitimate concerns.  Not the other drivel that’s been quoted back to Detroiters for decades when we ask for this, and we routinely get shut down.

Case in point: Chicago. They seem to have figured out how to install speed bumps without interfering with either of the above.  Because the last time that I was driving through residential and side streets in Chicago, what struck me was how I couldn’t really get above 25 miles an hour, due to their speed humps.  I was also unable to find any smoldering, demolished cars in the sides of buildings, and I couldn’t find any dead pedestrians littering the thoroughfares of the Windy City.

This tired, old excuse that emanates from the Traffic Engineering Division of the Detroit Department of Public Works is no longer sufficient.  If there actually is a tendency for either speed bumps or speed humps to send dozens of cars airborne, demolishing houses and crushing people willy nilly, show me.  Show Detroiters where speed humps are killing people, show us where it’s written that they’re illegal.

The outcome will be that they can’t.  And so they’re going to have to deliver a method to residents that slows down traffic on our residential streets.  And that method is going to be speed humps.

It’s Not a Drainage Charge. It’s a Paved Property Tax.

Lots of things in Detroit are changing.  Case in point: the drainage charges that residents are going to start seeing this coming fall from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).  The reasoning for it goes something like this: residents have things like roofs and driveways that don’t absorb stormwater that runs off into DWSD infrastructure, and they clean it up, and discharge it back into I’m assuming the Detroit River or Lake Huron.  Someone needs to pay for it, and since the 1970s, DWSD has had the legal authority to charge for this, but just opted not to, because, well, life is hard.

So now that we have a more functional water department, we have to cover more of our operating costs, we’ll begin seeing drainage fees on our bills.  And there’s a few problems with how it’s being rolled out.  The first is what DWSD thinks I’m using.  The picture below is from DWSD’s parcel viewer, which is actually really neat.  You can go there and see how much of your lot DWSD thinks is impervious, meaning, stormwater won’t just go into either dirt or plants and percolate back through the aquifer.

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This is my house.  In this, they count pretty much all of my roof (they missed some in the back, but made up for it by extending the front a bit) on both my house and my garage.  The problem with this is that any surface that’s pitched towards my back yard doesn’t drain into DWSD infrastructure.  The downspouts were disconnected from the below ground lines years ago, as I’ve seen throughout most of Detroit.  The backside of the garage roof, that drains entirely into the street.  The other side of the garage drains into the yard.  The backside of the roof on the house, also drains into the yard, and the front side of the house, only half drains onto the sidewalk that then washes down the sidewalk, and then into the berm.  So, actually very little of the impervious surface actually drains into DWSD infrastructure.  At best, probably only about 25% of it does.

But let’s leave that alone for a minute.  Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that all of it does, and we’ll pursue this to its bizarre, yet logical conclusion, and say all of my impervious surfaces are generating lots of stormwater runoff for DWSD, and that it’s going right into their infrastructure.  I took the picture below right in front of my house last week.

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The storm drains don’t, well, drain.  And they haven’t for some decades.  I’ve logged every single faulty storm drain in Indian Village many, many times, both on paper and on the City’s app, Improve Detroit, and the process goes something like this: a crew comes out from DWSD in a Vactor truck (one of those giant sucker trucks), and a crew goes through the motions of performing maintenance, and it drains a bit better for a while.  But whatever the underlying issue is reasserts itself, and it begins backing up.  I know that the City also just bought a fleet of street sweepers, and that will also help with maintenance.  But the thing is, in this instance, is that I don’t think that this is a maintenance issue.  Below is another picture of the same drain from the 1970s, found in a desk drawer of my house with the previous owners pretending that they were at the Model Boat Basin on Belle Isle.

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This would be quaint for the fact that it’s a City street, and not a park.

I don’t mind paying for what I use in terms of stormwater runoff, but the fact of the matter is this: until DWSD fixes both how they bill residents for what they’re using, and the infrastructure that they’re relying on, this isn’t a drainage charge, it’s a paved property tax.  Because I’m actually not paying for drainage, on the basis of a formula that DWSD came up with solely to cover their own financial needs, I’m paying per square foot of how much impervious surface regardless of if it drains into their drainage system.  It’s not a fee, it’s a tax.

I’ll close with this: if I have this wrong, please educate me.  I’m willing to post any follow up on this that illuminates the situation.  But between my own experiences and what I’m looking at on the parcel viewer, the situation isn’t right, and DWSD need to recalibrate their billing and fix their infrastructure.  Until then, I’m of the opinion that it’s a paved property tax.

Belle Isle: Do the Right Thing

When I first moved to Indian Village in the spring of 2015, one of the bonuses was that I was right by Belle Isle.  However, to my disappointment, I found that the southern third of the island was closed off due to the ‘Load in Period’ for the Belle Isle Grand Prix for months at a time.  The race organizers, affiliates of the Penske Organization, reserve the right to close off as much of the island as they need for seven weeks before the race (which takes place in early June), and four weeks after the race (the ‘Load Out Period’).

I was, to say the least, surprised.  The Penske Organizations would need a total of eleven weeks, nearly a quarter of the year, to set up and break down a racing event on Belle Isle?  There are three main elements that shock me about this.

The first is that the Penske Organizations knows racing.  They’re not new to it.  The Penske name is one of the most storied in racing.  They should be well acquainted with the the details and organization of how one goes about setting up a race track.  These folks, after all, have been around it for years, and, by all accounts, they seem to be good at it.

The second is that the Penske Organization knows logistics.  Case in point: Penske Logistics.  Taken directly from the front page of their website: ‘Whatever your business, whatever you’re building, packing and sending – Penske has you covered with state-of-the-art transportation and distribution solutions.’  If they can provide that for their clients, why not the same level of service to Detroiters so we can can bet back at our park?

And here’s the third: well before my time, the Grand Prix took place downtown.  While I have no relevant memory of this, I can’t imagine that the race organizers at the time were given nearly three months to set it up and break it down.

So, in a nutshell, you have an organization that knows racing, owns a logistics business and we have historical precedent that the race can be set up and taken down in a time frame that is substantially shorter than eleven weeks.

The reason that I bring this up is that the Belle Isle Grand Prix organizers, the Penske folks, are going to be entering contract renewals with the Department of Natural Resources.  The piece of the contract that needs changing is the load in period and the load out period.  We can talk about how we need an environmental impact study, or how we should stop building more and more race infrastructure on the island, but this piece, this is a no brainer.

So, to the Belle Isle Park Advisory Commission, Ron Olson at the DNR, Bud Denker at the Penske Organization, do the right thing: compress the load in and load out periods to one week from eleven.  We know you can do it because you’re good at racing, you guys own a logistics business and it’s been done before.

If you’d like to come to the meeting to voice your support for this position, join us on September 20th at 6:00 p.m. at the Nature Center on Belle Isle (176 Lakeside Drive, Detroit MI 48207), for a meeting wherein lease renewal discussions are going to be held.  The more folks that we mobilize to support this position, the more likely it is that we’re going to see real, positive change.

And if you’d like to see a copy of the lease from 2006 and its extension, email me at mac.farr@gmail.com, and I’ll get a copy over to you.