Letter from Detroit: urban renewal is on the horizon for 2018

Letter from Detroit: urban renewal is on the horizon for 2018

‘There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living,’ wrote the late American novelist Elmore Leonard, who spent most of his 87 years in and around Michigan’s Motor City.

It’s a clear-eyed assessment of a place that has boomed and burned, soared and slumped, only to emerge from a string of scandals and a record $18 billion municipal bankruptcy to fight – or at least work – another day.

Long the crumbling poster metropolis for Rust Belt ‘ruin porn’, Detroit is now in the global spotlight as an urban laboratory. Mayor Mike Duggan and deep-pocketed investors (led by hometown billionaire-cum-real estate mogul Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock and bolstered by JPMorgan Chase’s ‘Invested in Detroit’ campaign) are determined to revitalize not only the city’s built environment but also its middle class, and so skyline-transforming development is surging along with innovative small business funding schemes, neighborhood rebuilding initiatives, and job training programs.

For a city that has hemorrhaged some 60 per cent of its residents since World War II, promises of rebirth are nothing new (John Portman’s Renaissance Center, for example, a five-tower urban fortress completed in 1977, failed to live up to its name), but the present transformation appears poised to endure – and further accelerate.

A rendering of the planned 26-mile Joe Louis Greenway, which will pass through the cities of Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, and Dearborn

Locals tick off the milestones, including the construction of Ford Field to host the 2006 Superbowl; Gilbert’s bold decision, four years later, to move the headquarters of his Quicken Loans business from suburban Livonia into the city’s urban core (17,000 of the company’s employees now work downtown); and last fall’s announcement of Bedrock’s $2.1 billion investment in building projects.

For Gilbert, ‘Detroit is located at the intersection of muscle and brains.’ It’s also a city both grounded and elevated by great architecture, including the work of Daniel Burnham, Louis Kamper, Albert Kahn, Mies van der Rohe, and Minoru Yamasaki. Perhaps the next big name will be homegrown. Next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit kicks off the Hip Hop Architecture Camp. Created by Detroit native Michael Ford, the program is designed to introduce underrepresented youth to architecture, urban planning, and economic development through the lens of hip hop culture.

What will define the 21st century city? Detroit’s downtown corridor is a fertile testing ground for hypotheses ranging from epic (ShoP Architects’s multi-layered development of the 1,500,000 sq ft site formerly occupied by the iconic Hudson’s department store, a 26 mile greenway for hiking and biking) to more humble (street furniture, pop-up shops, food trucks). We’ve rounded up the most exciting recent additions to Detroit and key projects slated for completion in the coming years.

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