The Detroit Future City Strategic Framework Plan: New Ideas for the Reuse of Vacant Land

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FTDetroitFCDetroit has long been seen as an iconic American city, its name synonymous with industrial might and with the automobile industry, which built it into a city of nearly two million people. More recently, Detroit has seen its population decline to barely 700,000 and become instead an icon of urban decline. Yet with the release in January of Detroit Future City, designed to be a strategic framework for the city’s next 50 years, Detroit may have come up with some exciting new ways of looking at rebuilding a city. These ideas may not only help Detroit, but also the many other American cities facing the same challenges, find a way to a better, stronger future.

The result of over two years of work involving extensive community engagement and a consultant team led by architect Toni Griffin, a team in which Community Progress played a major role, Detroit Future City envisions a reinvented, green and economically vibrant Detroit. The document acknowledges the reality of population loss, proposing “green” uses for large expanses of the city’s vacant land, while offering strategies by which the city can build on its considerable existing assets for economic growth, and create new forms of residential neighborhoods that reflect the demographic trends and preferences of the 21st century. It offers a varied menu for the use of the city’s vacant lands, from cooling the city’s air to managing its storm water overflows to growing food.

While Detroit Future City offers creative ideas and strategies to address many of the challenges our older cities face, of particular importance and immediate value to those working for urban change is that part of the strategic framework that focuses on the assets represented by the city’s vacant land and buildings. As its title suggests, the Land and Buildings Assets element starts with the central proposition that vacant land and buildings are not simply a blight on the landscape, or a maintenance burden for local government, but an asset — one that can be put to use to further the community’s goals for job growth, greening or neighborhood rebuilding. Developed by Community Progress’ Alan Mallach, with the assistance of Michael Brady, it offers an approach to managing a city’s vacant and problem properties that can be useful to any other city facing similar vacant land challenges.

Detroit faces unique challenges when it comes to vacant properties. We estimate that there are 150,000 separate vacant properties in the city today – over 100,000 vacant lots, and between 40,000 and 50,000 vacant buildings. Of these properties, less than 70,000 are in public hands, with the rest owned by private parties. Furthermore, instead of being held by one central entity, the public land properties are held by eight different agencies at the state, county and local levels. On top of that, thousands of properties, while still occupied are at risk; these properties, owned by absentee investors, many of whom are speculators looking for a quick killing in Detroit’s dysfunctional housing market, are destabilizing many of the city’s remaining intact neighborhoods. All in all, this is a huge challenge.

Starting with the premise that vacant properties are an asset, the next step is to treat them as an asset for something specific; every decision about acquiring, holding, maintaining and disposing  of properties needs to be based on a clearly defined set of criteria which take into account the characteristics of the property, the features of the surrounding area, the market demand — or lack of market demand — in the area, and the plans and strategies for the area where the property is located. A vacant lot in an area that’s already heavily disinvested and rapidly losing population may be held to be assembled into a larger site for reforestation or storm water management, while a similar lot in a viable but at risk neighborhood might be sold to a homeowner or a community development corporation to be used in ways  that will help stabilize that neighborhood; similarly, parcels in one of the city’s economic growth zones need to be treated in ways that will most enhance the city’s opportunities to draw new businesses and create more jobs.

To help organize this process and facilitate collaboration, Community Progress staff developed a series of decision matrices to guide decision-makers through the steps of evaluating site conditions, location and other factors in order to make choices about whether to hold or sell, whether to acquire other properties around it and if the decision is to sell — to what type of user, and for what purpose.

The illustration below, for example, is a decision-making matrix that provides guidance on what to do with a vacant house. The first question, or filter, asks which “framework zone” the vacant house is located: “low vacancy” or “other.”  Framework zones are used throughout Detroit Future City to characterize the different parts of the city on the basis of vacancy and other key indicators.

This particular decision matrix incorporates a preference for leveraging market strength to achieve greater impact on the ground. For example, a vacant property in good condition in one of Detroit’s strongest market areas should be sold right away and put back onto the tax rolls. At the same time, a vacant property in poor condition in a higher vacancy or weaker market area should be demolished. There are, of course, many cases along the spectrum between those extremes. The decision matrix both illustrates and helps navigate this spectrum. The matrix also acknowledges, and reflects the importance of trying to preserve historic and other important buildings.