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Designing a Better Detroit

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Detroit is beautiful.

And you know who backs me up? The architects who live and work here. They are the ones who will create or renovate the homes, apartments, buildings and skyscrapers that will restructure this city – literally and figuratively.

Architects know cities. They know how to build them. They know much more than any politician (or armchair politicians) ever could. Quite frequently, they're well versed in urban planning, and you typically don't study one without the other. Frankly, they are visionaries. And we need them to care about what happens to Detroit.

Thankfully, many of them do.

“We see the opportunities where other people see decades of problems,” said Glen S. LeRoy, dean of the Lawrence Tech College of Architecture and Design, which is based in Southfield but does many projects in the city. “Detroit is ideally positioned if we just seize the moment to be one of the great cities of the 21st Century.”

Our conversation took place during one of the Detroit-based American Institute of Architects “fireside chats.” This series was implemented by AIA Detroit President Raymond Cekauskas of Harley Ellis Devereaux to provide members with the opportunity to “engage community and other influential leaders on their thoughts on revitalizing the city.”

LeRoy and other AIA members agree: the city has an abundance of attributes (if only we and the rest of the nation could see them):

• The state has immense access to water for both business and pleasure.
• It is a relatively temperate climate.
• Detroit has the infrastructure to double its size quickly and easily.
• Many of the area's most spectacular buildings were never torn down; rather, some have been preserved in hopes of renovating them when the time right.

“I think architects need to take a leadership role” in making those attributes work for us,” said Alan H. Cobb, senior vice president/director of Design, Architecture & Sustainability for the Albert Kahn family of companies.

Because Detroit is less developed than Chicago, New York or other large metropolitan city, it presents architects with great opportunities. There are endless areas of potential. The whole city practically is a project in the making. And there is a community that wants to be more connected than ever before.

“We have treasures here that are envied elsewhere,” said Cobb, who also is the current AIA-MI president.

LeRoy wants the region to grab onto something significant – perhaps declare ourselves as the country's most sustainable city – and then the architecture could grow up around that. Then, ideas like urban agriculture could thrive. A land-holding strategy could gain traction. We would have something substantial to hold onto going forward.

“With Detroit, you can't take a short view. It's going to take decades of development,” LeRoy said.

There are small heroes across the region willing to make it happen, noted Joongsub Kim, an associate professor for Lawrence Tech and coordinator of The Detroit Studio project in the city. Neighborhood groups are taking over land. They are mobilizing their limited resources in the right direction. And they want the so-called experts, intelligentsia or whoever will listen to help them envision the Detroit of their dreams.

These smaller projects – rather than former Detroit Mayor Colman Young's big visions like the Renaissance Center – is what will make Detroit's growth more real, said Mark Nickita, president of Archive DS, Detroit-based architects and urbanists. Small businesses are the heart of it all, especially in the much promoted Midtown area.

One benefit is that Detroit draws some talented young architects, AIA members agreed. In fact, many seek out Detroit-based firms mainly because they want to be downtown or near the city center, Mark said. They are the anti-suburbs generation – the ones who want to be a part of Detroit's future. This is part of the hoped for “creative class” that some believe will bring Detroit back.

“(Detroit) is an attractive place because you can make a difference. You can see the opportunities to have an impact,” added Tracy Petrella, an up-and-coming architect at Fanning Howey, an architecture and engineering firm in Novi. “There's such a concentration of creative energy in Detroit.”

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