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Lay of the Land, Part 2: Turning Around Detroit's Neighborhoods

This marks the second half of a conversation I had over the weekend with Deborah L. Younger, the executive director of Detroit LISC and the newly appointed treasurer of the fledgling city-run land bank. Yesterday, she explained how Detroit's land problems have accelerated. Here, she outlines some of the strategies she believes will help the city better manage its 138.77 square miles and revitalize its communities.

Please check it out -- as well as the first half of the interview -- and offer your own thoughts about the issue and her ideas…

OK, so you've laid out some of the big problems we're confronting in terms of managing the land here in Detroit. What're some solutions?

DEBORAH L. YOUNGER: You do have to have a master plan that's data-driven. So you really need to look at neighborhood indicators of stability. We've often operated from a need-based assessment. We need to flip that and work from an asset-based assessment: Where are the strongest neighborhoods in Detroit, and what do we want to preserve there? Let's start there first.

Some of the other neighborhoods, we have gone too far (into decline to save). We have to accept that. That doesn't mean that you massively relocate people. But you don't encourage investment in those neighborhoods that are declining. We need to marshal our resources and target in a way that brings leverage. And the mistake that's often happened in Detroit is that we want to help everybody in every neighborhood. And we don't have enough resources. It's not that those people should be neglected; it's that you have to really understand that you don't have enough resources.

If you are going to have impact, we're suggesting a couple of neighborhoods that you start with. We're looking at the data. Like the Boston-Edison District. If you don't save Boston-Edison, then you can't save anything else around there. Boston-Edison is at a 20 percent vacancy rate right now. A neighborhood in crisis is at about 10 percent.

So when you say, ‘save' these neighborhoods, what does that look like? What does that really mean?

DLY: It means making the investments you need; using the land bank to get control of the available housing stock. Buy it. Get control of it. Set the market yourself, rather than letting speculators and others come in. And not all investors are bad, but right now, you can buy houses in Detroit for kids' allowances. You really have to (set the market).

And then you really have to think about what we want to be. So you stablize neighborhoods, but then what do you do with that other land? We could recreate Central Park if we wanted to. We could become the greenest city in America, not just from green space but also from green technology...What do we want to look like? Should residential neighborhoods be surrounded by green necklaces? Those could connect us neighborhood to neighborhood. You have a neighborhood here, and then there's green around that neighborhood. And then you have on there that's surrounded by green. In essence, what you get are little urban villages. There are parts where we could grow wildflowers or have urban farms.

We have to use demolition resources better. We (currently) tear down houses that don't have to be torn down. For instance, in Brightmoor, there need to be 35 demolitions of houses that would really improve and stabilize the parts of Brightmoor that can be (stabilized). So why go over here where it's not stable and spend your demolition resources? Unless it's a health and safety hazard, don't spend your demolition resources over here. Let ‘em blow away. Let ‘em fall down. Because if you would do 35 key demolitions, maybe we could do infill back on those 35 plots and relocate people who want to stay in Brightmoor but maybe can't stay on their street. Maybe you're not moving people from Brightmoor to the eastside, but maybe you can stabilize parts of the neighborhood, do key strategic investments.

I'm seeing demolition go into some parts, and I'm like, ‘No. I'm giving you the plan. You asked me to give it to you, city. Don't do demolition over here. We need you to put the resources here and stabilize what we have.' So you start to then align strategy and resources. Here's the strategy; this is the stable part of Brightmoor, and we're going to enhance that. This is the destabilized part, we're not going to invest our resources there.

Haven't past officials barricaded off an area or two of the city before? And haven't some of these places become magnets for litter, dumping and crime?

DLY: Yeah, I don't think that's effective. You can't do it in the context of one neighborhood. Even me, although the city asked us to do it, it was hard to do a plan for Brightmoor without a context of the rest of the city. Because you can't make real strategic recommendations. Like maybe the North End is re-populated with residents from Brightmoor. But I couldn't do that because my task is to figure out a plan for Brightmoor. So we have to have a master plan that takes all of this into consideration. Otherwise, we end up doing stuff piecemeal and it becomes not an agreement of strategy.

This is going to require a huge education and advocacy piece, because people are wedded to where they grew up, where they are living.

What do you think about eminent domain as a tool?

DLY: I've been on the side that's used it. I worked in government for a while. And it's certainly very emotional. But sometimes, I think it's an effective tool to move a city forward. And from a utilitarian standpoint, sometimes it is about the greatest good for the greatest number, and those are the tough decisions that leadership has to make. And I think that until you have leadership that's willing to make those tough decisions, we're going to continue to flounder. It's tough. And it's often not career-building for mayors to take that on.

The first peole who've done this were Eastern bloc countries when the walls came down. The notion of downsizing really was a European notion. So they are the leaders. America has been slow to adopt that philosophy because, again, we plan for growth. We always think more people are coming so this notion of planning to right-size your city has not been embraced until recently.

Have you identified neighborhoods whose size needs to be reduced? If so, what are they?

DLY: (Chuckles) I won't go on the record on that one.

But wait, you said we need leadership that's willing to make those hard choices.

DLY: The only reason I say that is because (Detroit mayor Dave Bing) has his staff working on (land management issues), and I don't want to get out ahead of him. But I'll be ready soon.

Well, residences aren't our only concern when it comes to abandonment. We also have large commercial structures that have been neglected and are monuments to blight, including buildings like the old Packard Plant and the Michigan Central Depot. What do you do with places like these?

DLY: There have been (primarily European) cities that have taken those (kind of) structures and made them part of open space, green space. They've made them climbing walls. They've made ‘em public gardens. They've creatively de-constructed them in way that they are still there, but are now part of the new city. They are still there, but they've made them party of the public space in a way that still allows the community to connect with those places, but they aren't seen as blight anymore.

How have they just sat there all this time before this?

DLY: Because no political will. And I know I've beat that to death, but in cities that work, there's a vision. And from the vision strategies develop and you resource them. That's why cities that work work.

No city is 100 percent together. But I give the example of this: In NY, they too had 100,000 vacant properties. LISC, Enterprise, HUD, the state of NY and the city of NY got together and said, ‘OK, here is our strategy for dealing with these 100,000 houses. We're going to devote – and everybody – most of our resources into the elimination of 100,000 vacant properties. It's part of what led to the rebirth of Harlem.

And for 10 years, they worked that strategy. Everybody knew the rules. It was transparent. Developers knew if you did these 10 things, you got money. Everybody knew. And everybody committed their resources faithfully to this strategy. You didn't say, ‘OK, yeah, I'll add that to my list of strategies, but I'm only going to put 5 percent of my budget there.'

You were here during the last gasps of the Kilpatrick administration. Did you work with them at all? And what were some of your thoughts about how they approached right-sizing?

DLY: I don't think they were there yet. I think the past administration's notion of the Next Detroit neighborhood initiative (was) the articulation that neighborhoods should be revitalized, not just downtown. Up until then, you didn't hear City Hall espousing a vision around neighborhood strategies. But they weren't there on land management, not really.

Why not?

DLY: Because I think they just went on another path. The mayor had his vision that he was going to work in these six neighborhoods: two which were really, really bad, two which were middle-of-the-road and two which were stable. (Right-sizing) just wasn't their notion, their master strategy.

Part of the reason LISC created the Detroit vacant property campaign is to get people to start talking about this as a macro issue rather than neighborhood by neighborhood. It's why we continue to work around the vacant property issue and bring people to the table. I just don't think there was a vision yet (with the past mayor) – I'm not saying it wouldn't have come.

If we adopted the strategies you discuss, how long do you think it will take to get our land issues under control?

DLY: Where's my crystal ball? (Laughs) I don't know the answer to that. But it didn't get this way overnight. I think we can make in-roads. If we begin to develop the infrastructure and system that looks like we're moving in that direction we will begin to (draw attention). Right now nobody's coming to Detroit.

I'm not saying we need outsiders to save us. But let's face it, we have a lot of resources that, in the 21st Century, are going to be important. The next wars aren't going to be fought over oil. They're going to be over water. We have it all here. We've got a skilled workforce that's trained. We've got physical plants, land that can be an asset. So if we would just position ourselves to look like there's a plan, there's a system and infrastructure, I think you would start to attract the intellectual capacity and talent that you need…

Now, we look like we don't know who we want to be. We're kind of wandering in the wilderness.

A friend of mine argues that, in shrinking the operational size of the city, we also create a land scarcity that boosts value. Would you agree?

DLY: I agree. And the flip part of this, the part I'm very concerned about, is that we ought to create some land trusts as a tool for a couple of things: A) To create scarcity B) to make sure we retain affordability, so that the current residents of Detroit can remain residents of Detroit. I think that's important. Typically, when economic opportunity has come – and I think it will come to Detroit – we want to make sure that the people that are here aren't left behind, as is what has happened in the past.

I think we're beginning to write our business plan. And I have to say this: It'll be a couple of years before the land bank really knows who it wants to be.

Michigan, by the way, has the most progressive land bank legislation in the county. It affords so many tools to the land bank that allows it to not just be a land disposition group, but a redevelopment agency as well: There's the "brownfields" tax credits you can use. Also, 50 percent of the taxes of whatever you take into the land bank accrue to the land bank. So if taxes are collected on any of those parcels, the land bank gets 50 percent of them. And land banks have the ability to seek bond financing. (We) don't issue them, but you utilize tax collections as repayment strength.

Any more tools that we need in Detroit to help get us back on track?

DLY: I didn't realize that we don't really have a housing court here. We need one. Progressive cities have housing courts. And they deal with absentee landlords and all that. What you can do is take one judge and make them the housing court. I just discovered that and said I have to get people on top of that. That's one more thing for me to take on: The creation of housing court.

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