Deciding what to bulldoze in Detroit

The $1.5 million Motor City Mapping survey is designed to help city residents do just that

DETROIT — The homes sit side by side and worlds apart on Greenview Avenue. The one on the left has a hole in its roof, no windows or doors, with piles of charred debris strewn across the exposed living room under a film of recent snow. The one on the right has pretty, clean blue siding, a recently installed front awning and a working satellite dish, its walkway freshly shoveled and the driveway occupied by a boat and some recently dug-out cars.

Two houses on Greenview Avenue in northwestern Detroit illustrate the hopscotch quality of blight in the city.
Steve Friess

The occupants, who have lived there only since last summer, don’t know how the place next door fell into such disrepair. By the time Jannelle Davis and her boyfriend rented this 900-square-foot one-bedroom in northwestern Detroit, it was already so decrepit that even the scavengers seeking to strip it of copper were long ago done and gone.

“It’s disgusting,” Davis said, balancing her hair-grabbing 3-year-old on her hip. “This is what we could afford, and we’re doing our best with it. But I worry about my son crawling through there when I’m not watching.”

This block of Greenview, say Detroit civic leaders, is precisely why they are undergoing an ambitious, high-tech eight-week process of looking over all 380,217 parcels in this 139-square-mile municipality to identify what is worth keeping and what should be recommended for the bulldozer.

The legwork for the $1.5 million Motor City Mapping survey, which deploys more than 60 three-person teams fanned out daily across the city to provide assessments and photos via tablet computers, is due to be completed by the first week of February.

The contingents do “windshield” inspections, answering a checklist of questions from the curb on their tablets about the physical condition of a place and whether anyone lives in or uses it. Their responses, along with photos they snap, are beamed immediately to the headquarters on the third floor of a former Corvette-factory-turned-technology-startup-incubator downtown, where quality control reviews the input.

“Sometimes they get out of the car if something is blocking their view, but they are not walking into someone’s yard or into someone’s house,” said Sean Jackson, the project’s primary supervisor. “This is merely triage. We’re getting a base of what’s out there.”

Mapping the Motor City

Jackson is also an executive associate of Rock Ventures — the umbrella corporation for a family of companies, including Quicken Loans — which is owned by billionaire and Detroit Blight Removal Task Force co-chair Dan Gilbert, who has made the city’s recovery a personal as well as civic mandate.

Legwork for the mapping survey includes taking photographs from the street.
Rock Ventures 2013

It is necessary, as it is on streets like Greenview, not to assume entire neighborhoods are unsalvageable when “it might just be one house on a given block,” said another task force co-chair, Glenda Price.

“Where are the neighborhoods that are really strong and in good condition?” she asked rhetorically. “Where are the tipping-point neighborhoods, where we really need to do some work to stop blight from continuing? Where are the neighborhoods where there really is only one house on a block? Once we know that kind of information, we’ll be able to put together some recommendations that are going to be quite helpful in decision-making.”

For years, estimates of Detroit’s blight — however that’s defined — have remained guesses, Price said. Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to oversee the city’s bankruptcy, has claimed there are 78,000 abandoned buildings within the city limits, but the source of that figure is unclear, and it doesn’t guide leaders to know where to best use money available for revitalization efforts.

Price said the city estimates it could cost $1 billion to remove all the structures deemed blight, and the city has more than $300 million in federal, state, local and private contributions to get started. While she insisted the panel has no authority, she explained that its “charge is to put together a plan that will be an ongoing plan.”

“It’ll take about three years to really remove all blight in the city, if the funds are available to do so,” she said. “We want to make sure the plan we put together is a systematic approach. It’s not going to be a plan where this structure gets torn down just because the people in this neighborhood are screaming ‘Blight!’”

What do we mean by blight?

Taking a blight inventory — Detroit’s is among the most ambitious and tech-savvy — isn’t new, but it raises thorny questions, said urban sociologist Rosemary Wakeman, director of the urban studies master’s program at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y.

“The scale of the deterioration of Detroit makes it very unusual, but everything still depends on what you mean by ‘blight,’” she said. “Everyone wants Detroit to resuscitate itself and succeed, and bringing together these kinds of surveys to determine what is worth saving is valuable. Those are very exciting, but there is an undertow here of a long-standing process, especially in the United States, to do vast surveys to deem what is blight. Then they get cleared away and given over to developers.”

Survey headquarters in downtown Detroit.
Steve Friess

Wakeman pointed to a similar effort in the South Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s, after riots and an explosion in drug crime. The city removed hundreds of structures and turned properties over to developers that built substandard housing that quickly turned into blight as well. Many of the demolished properties remain empty and overgrown decades later, and residents are once again abandoned by the developers who feasted on government money available at the time.

That’s precisely what alarms Maggie DeSantis, founder of a community development corporation whose work has focused on reviving a portion of Detroit’s East Side. DeSantis, who confronted Gilbert at a public forum recently to raise concerns about the blight-removal efforts, said she has yet to hear what would happen after all these structures are dismantled and hauled off. At the conference, according to the Detroit Free Press, Gilbert asserted that simply removing the decayed buildings would improve things. DeSantis told Al Jazeera last week she worries that the three-year timetable cited by Price shows that haste may be more important to city leaders than thoughtful planning.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard somebody say they thought it would be done in three years,” DeSantis said. “It’s very clear we have to be a lot more thoughtful than just focusing on taking down blighted structures and clearing unsightly debris. What that tells me is that somebody believes that just offering clean, clear land is going to generate development demand.”

Price insisted that nothing will be demolished and nobody will be moved without a process that involves neighbors and other stakeholders.

The survey is an assessment and one that deliberately encompasses every parcel — from million-dollar waterfront apartment buildings to the many pieces of property that make up the Ambassador Bridge to Canada — instead of focusing on specific neighborhoods.

“Are we going to move people out of a home? The answer is no. We’re not going to do that,” she said. “Help might mean moving. Help might mean renovating their homes. Help could mean a variety of things. We recognize that it’s not our role to say, ‘OK, you’ve got to move. Get out.’ We’re going to say, ‘This is a blighted home, it is unfortunate that someone needs to live here — really unfortunate — but that individual needs assistance in making a decision as to what they can do.’”

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