Planning For Detroit's Next Hundred Years

Cities across the country are facing serious affordability challenges: places like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York are well known for their exorbitant rents, but high housing costs (and the single-family preservation that helps cause them) affect communities of all types and sizes — even the small but booming town of Williston, North Dakota (population 18,532), where two bedroom apartments are renting for over $2,000 a month due to an influx of oil workers. The attraction of lucrative jobs and less car-dependent lifestyles are exerting similar pressures on big cities around the country, though the effects are usually spread over a much larger population. In theory, any growing city is at risk of exploding rents if its growth isn't managed properly, regardless of its population or location.

But what about cities that aren't growing? Or even cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland, that have actually been shrinking for decades? Many regions around the country are booming, and struggling to keep their housing affordable to lower- and middle-income residents, but shrinking cities face an entirely different type of problem: an epidemic of vacant homes, which they're dealing with by razing entire neighborhoods. While places like Seattle and Boston fight tooth-and-nail to preserve the single-family neighborhoods that make up the vast majority of their cities' geographical area, many Midwestern and formerly-industrial cities are tearing these same neighborhoods down to cut back on maintenance costs.

Though these cities currently lack the desirability of the Los Angeles' and New Yorks of the world, some will be able to turn things around in coming generations, and while they address their current challenges they should keep an eye to the future. They can start by eliminating the vast majority of zoning standards in these largely-vacant neighborhoods — standards such as those that limit the density of construction and require an arbitrary separation of residential and commercial buildings.

Such an approach wouldn't bear fruit in the near-term, but as a long-term strategy there are a lot of potential benefits and few obvious drawbacks. A major obstacle in the effort to increase housing supply and stabilize rents is the opposition of neighborhood groups — groups whose communities were often zoned for a given (low) level of development generations ago, with residents who don't want to see the character of their community changed. Cities with emptied-out neighborhoods, like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and St. Louis have the opportunity to start over, to say "this is the current level of development, but our aspirations have no limit." And if that new development never materializes, no harm done. The point is to allow for increased density if and when the city needs it, and to indicate to residents and investors a commitment to future growth, not to build empty skyscraper cities that no one wants to live in.

Detroit presents an excellent example. We can start by looking at a map from Data Driven Detroit illustrating vacancy rates throughout the city. Census blocks with vacancy rates greater than 50% are shaded in yellow. Downtown is marked by the red star:

As you can see, many of the vacancies are very near downtown. This is promising, because despite the city's recent bankruptcy downtown Detroit is doing much better than the rest of the city. And it continues to improve: since 2007, office vacancy rates have decreased from 33% to 26.5%. Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha himself, recommends investing in the city. I myself have considered moving there after I finish my Masters program, attracted by the inexpensive housing and entrepreneurial attitude that seems to permeate the inner city. With headlines like "Is Detroit the new Brooklyn?" it may not be long before the vibrancy and prosperity of downtown spreads to adjacent neighborhoods.

When and if that occurs, neighborhoods like Core CityBriggs, and Poletown Eastall less than three miles from downtown—won't be adequately prepared without a major shift in the kind of development that they'll allow. Zoning maps of city zones 44 and 13 highlight the problem: despite their proximity to downtown, they're currently zoned almost exclusively for R2 development, where "the only principal uses permitted by right are single- and two-family dwellings." The Google Maps image below illustrates the type of housing common to these neighborhoods and the extent of the vacancy problem (notice the many empty parcels):

Google Maps image of part of the Core City neighborhood in Detroit, MI.

This may all come across as putting the cart before the horse. But if the city waits too long, all that land's eventually going to get picked up and re-established as single-family home neighborhoods, and that's the ballgame. Many such neighborhoods across the U.S. view their communities as end-state, where change amounts to degradation. The key is to be clear that certain city neighborhoods should have no end-state, that consistent, incremental growth is the order of the day. By committing to a "sky's the limit" development approach in specific neighborhoods, Detroit (and other cities like it) can convey an expectation of flux, evolution, and constant growth to potential new residents, rather than a false promise that nothing in their lives will never change.

Whether that change comes in five years or fifty will depend on broader economic and demographic changes, as well as initiatives undertaken by local representatives, advocates, businesses, and residents. It's likely to be a long process, and as Kurt Metzger of Data Driven Detroit said early last year, Detroit is still "a long way from gentrification." While places like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco are struggling to shoehorn in affordable housing units wherever they can — at great expense of financial and political capital — Detroit and cities like it have a unique opportunity to prepare themselves for the stresses of growth painlessly, with a more optimistic vision for their futures.