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Cities Government

Next Step To a Techonomic Detroit? The Wrecking Ball

"City Re-Vision: Towards a Techonomic Detroit" panel with Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans and Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, and moderated by Edward Luce. Photo via Asa Mathat.

“City Re-Vision: Towards a Techonomic Detroit” panel with Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans and Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, and moderated by Edward Luce. (Photo by Asa Mathat.)

Demolition isn’t exactly a techonomic concept, but clearing Detroit of tens of thousands of burned-out houses and crumbling factories is a crucial next-step in urban renewal here, according to Dan Gilbert. In fact, he’d like to see a digital billboard count down the progress to the last razed building.

For his investments that have sparked a revitalization of midtown and downtown with new business, jobs, and residences, the 51-year-old Quicken Loans founder was greeted by a round of applause from the Techonomy Detroit audience at Wayne State University this morning. Gilbert joined Bruce Katz, founding Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and co-author of “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy,” on stage for a conversation with Financial Times commentator Edward Luce about bringing Detroit back from the brink.

As Katz explained in a Techonomy exclusive yesterday, the turnaround of Detroit’s 4.3 square mile core has been remarkable. But that accounts for just 3 percent of the city’s landmass. Asked what gives him confidence that the next 97 percent could also be saved, Gilbert said that any great city starts with a strong center. “A thriving downtown with activity, action, and growth,” he said, will provide jobs for the people in the neighborhoods.

But Gilbert also said a key will be to demolish the “78,000 or so structures that need to be taken down.” He was referring to the seemingly endless blocks of burnt-out houses and abandoned, crumbling factories that dominate the city’s sprawling landscape.

Efforts to improve education, support entrepreneurship, and boost Detroit’s cultural hub won’t mean much to locals until the blight is cleared, Gilbert argued. “Think about a 10-year-old kid walking to school in a neighborhood past three burnt-out houses, and one with a crack dealer inside,” he said. “We’ve got to get these structures down. We’re going to have kids and families feeling safer.”

That cleared land will also open new routes to revival, Gilbert said. “You’re going to have developers saying, ‘What an opportunity, the old decrepit buildings are gone.’”

It’s not a lack of funding, but dysfunctional management that has stood in the way of such a massive undertaking, according to Gilbert. On a recent trip to Washington, DC, he learned of an “enormous amount of money set aside over the last several years for Detroit” that has yet to be accessed. Why? “They haven’t figured it out. It’s about having the talent and infrastructure to execute on programs that are there. … It’s just a matter of getting in position to make it happen,” he said.

Katz, who is based in Washington, agreed that federal support will be important to Detroit’s renaissance. Indeed, Washington is already the single biggest investor in the metropolis when food stamps and other entitlements, research and development funding, and abandoned property is taken into account. Trouble is, Katz said, “They don’t know what they invest in.” Detroit’s leaders need to provide guidance. “Let’s unveil where they spend money and how to spend it in service of the vision of the city,” he said.

Katz commended another Techonomy speaker, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, for supporting Detroit, but encouraged him to resist spreading his budget “like peanut butter across the state,” and to get behind Detroit as the quickest path to growing the state.

At the same time, Katz said, “there has to be a strategy for shrinking the city,” whose geographic limits could comprise San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan.

Luce wondered whether neighborhood blocks cleared of wreckage could be repurposed as urban farms. But Gilbert said he has a different vision for the razed properties.

“If we get these structures down, all of them, we’ll be amazed at how quickly this land gets redeveloped,” he said. “When that blight is gone, and the land is close to free with utilities already there, it becomes very cheap for developers to develop, and we won’t have to worry about raising peas or corn or whatever you do.”

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