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Editorial> Motoring Toward Destruction?
Alan Brake questions the wisdom of Detroit's blight removal plan.
Michigan Central Station.
Juan N Only / Flickr

When news of Detroit’s new blight removal plan broke, I couldn’t stop thinking about Philadelphia’s Divine Lorraine Hotel. A massive Victorian oddity with a checkered history, this hotel had been abandoned for more than 20 years, heavily tagged with graffiti, and stripped down to its masonry shell. In that time it had become emblematic of Philadelphia’s gritty, down on its heels side. It was recently announced that it is being redeveloped into apartments, a hotel, and retail space.

Philadelphia and Detroit are vastly different cities in physical form, demographics, and financial and institutional resources. And yet twenty years ago many would have suggested Philadelphia was headed in the direction of the Motor City—financial collapse and large-scale depopulation.

Philadelphia has slowly fought its way back from the brink. There have been high profile projects and a couple of new corporate headquarters, but Philadelphia’s revival has largely been incremental, building by building, street by street. Local government, universities, developers and businesses, numerous civic and community groups have all fought for the city and their work is paying off. Urban problems persist, including a struggling school system and a tremendous amount of blight in some neighborhoods. Much work remains to be done.

The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force’s plan is breathtaking in its speed, scale, and cost. Using the most detailed inventory of the city’s building stock ever created, they recommend demolishing 40,000 buildings at a cost of more than $850 million. According to the study more than 30 percent of the city’s buildings, or almost 80,000 structures, are severely dilapidated or decaying. In their view, blight spreads like cancer. In order to save this city, you must level large swaths of it. The goal is to wipe the urban slate clean within five years.

The plan goes further to recommend possible clearance and remediation of 559 industrial sites at a possible cost of $1 billion. The Task Force acknowledges that this process will take longer, due largely to environmental conditions at these massive former factories.

In its panic to save itself, Detroit runs the risk of demolishing its identity and the foundation of its revival (whatever that may be). It is almost hackneyed to repeat the Jacobsian idea that new ideas need old buildings, but evidence suggests time and again that it’s true. (One of Philadelphia’s growing companies, Urban Outfitters, pedals a teen-friendly mash-up of street style/industrial chic/suburban slouch, all designed in their lavishly redone headquarters in the city’s navy yard). Detroit’s sprawling Packard Plant was recently purchased and plans for development on the site, likely to include both reuse and demolition of its buildings, are being explored. In New York, we’re so short on industrial space that many businesses cannot expand, and former warehouses turned lofts command rents beyond the reach of most start-ups.

The Task Force’s argument for swiftness is easily countered by the question of what to do with even more vacant land, something of which Detroit has no shortage. Significant amounts of demolition, particularly in heavily residential areas filled with unsafe, structurally unsound single-family homes, will likely be necessary. But the Task Force’s inventory could also be used as an open call for ideas and development proposals, not just a map of destruction. Thousands of these properties are city owned. Let’s hope the city has the nerve to seek answers other than the wrecking ball.

Alan G. Brake