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Sizing Up a Smaller Detroit
Mayor Bing announces progress on plan to shrink city.
Detroit's Mayor Bing at a community event.
Courtesy Voice of Detroit

Following several months of negative press and setbacks for the Detroit Works Project—Mayor Dave Bing’s urban design initiative to reshape the city—Bing held a press conference on July 27 to announce a series of short-term interventions. The city will launch initiatives in three demonstration areas—neighborhoods ranging from 1,400 to 3,000 acres—and will release a new analysis on the progress in six months.

Since it launched last September, the Detroit Works Project (DWP) seemed to stall several times. In December, it was unclear whether the project would re-sign noted planner Toni Griffin to head the initiative, and the confusion over who was running the project dragged on for several months. In July, the Wall Street Journal reported on tension between DWP and its funder, The Kresge Foundation. Kresge is a $3.1 billion national philanthropic foundation headquartered in Troy, a suburb of Detroit. The article dramatized the situation as a  “tug of war” between the Bing administration and Kresge over disagreements concerning outside consultants (While Griffin serves as an outside consultant, her contract was renewed in April.)

Bing’s announcement is the first sign that the project is back on track, which includes goals of neighborhood stabilization, improved public transit, and economic development.

The mayor defined each of the three demonstration areas as a mix of transitional, distressed, and steady neighborhoods that the city had studied in order to realign resources. The city reached the definitions of the three so-called “market-types” by asking local and national experts to review conditions of housing stock, vacant land and homes, median sale price of homes, subsidized rental stock, dangerous structures, and foreclosures.

Detroit’s 139-square-mile size means that many pockets of low-density development, exacerbated by abandonments and vacant lots, are costly for the city to service. The project aims to strengthen the best areas within each demonstration zone with increased services for blight elimination, infrastructure improvements, land use, beautification and economic development. According to the Detroit Free Press, “the city will carefully track changes that occur in those areas, for example how many houses are demolished or how many trees are trimmed.” The implication is that, should the program succeed in the three test areas, Bing will apply it citywide.

Several residents of blighted areas expressed anxiety over what would happen to their neighborhoods to the Detroit Free Press, while the mayor continued to stress, as he had in previous news conferences on DWP, that this program would not force residents to move. “We want people to move into the areas that are going to grow; where we have the amenities, the density,” he explained.

Detroit has a $155 million budget deficit and brought in low census figures in 2010. The resident count was 713,000, a 200,000-person drop from the last census. Mayor Bing, a former NBA superstar and businessman, took office in a special election in May 2009 and was awarded a full-term mayoral term by re-election November 2009, so he has a fair amount of political capital to tackle the Motor City’s considerable challenges.

Sarah F. Cox