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Q&A: Alan Ackerman on Shrinking Detroit

Fascinating read from The New York Times this week about Detroit's reaction to downsizing the city. (Previously posted here.) It has me thinking about how credible this idea is, and I'm gunning for Mayor Bing to make this a reality.

So is eminent domain expert Alan Ackerman. The Bloomfield Hills attorney has dealt with just such economic development and issues of public use for more than 30 years. Ackerman believes Detroit and Mayor Bing have a strong argument for shrinking the city – it is a matter of safety, cost savings and more.

Detroit is shrinking itself in a manner of speaking – The Detroit News reported Tuesday that Census experts say “Detroit's real population may be closer to 800,000 than 900,000 as thousands continue to move out to the suburbs. Detroit remains the nation's 11th largest city, behind San Jose.”

According to the NYT (and pretty much everyone else):

No official (downsizing) strategy exists, beyond a nascent planning process. City officials said it was likely to take 18 to 24 months to develop a framework for moving forward, perhaps incorporating ideas from existing proposals. So far, members of the so-called land use summit have met once, in early May. Public-participation sessions are scheduled next month.

So what's next, Mr. Ackerman? Let's find out…

Q: How will this affect the city?
A: I suspect in the short run it will be a negative cost – it will cost the city money to cover this process. But the cost will be immediate and a one-time cost. It will be for closing down and buying the houses in the area. In the long run, it is a positive implication for the community as a whole. Police, fire and utilities will be much less than it is now.

Q: What is the far-reaching effect of this kind of move?
A: There are areas of the city where 60 to 80 percent of the area is vacant. There are areas with three houses instead of the 150 they used to have. In those areas, the same costs exist to put the water and sewer in the neighborhood. The police still have to drive there. This mayor needs to find out if he can buy these homes at fair market value and move them to areas that are still viable and have a higher density of homes. If there is a higher density, then it is a lot easier for the utility companies to go there. What you need to do is figure out how to treat people fairly and do it constitutionally. The state constitution will allow the city to acquire individual homes by eminent domain. However, the state statute is more restrictive than the constitution. You have to allow the city to remove homes that are shown to be blighted or worthy of condemnation.

Q: How will this affect homeowners?
A: For businesses, the city would have to pay fair-market value. Homeowners have a different rule; people would receive 125 percent of the value of their home. It can be done fairly. … Sure, the city could find appraisers to make low-ball offers. I hope they wouldn't go there. It's going to e a very complicated process. I don't think we'll see a lot of homeowners blackmailing the city (because) this process could work. It's up to the mayor doing it with the city council so it's a unified force going to Lansing. I have full confidence that the legislature wants to do this – it's in their own self-interest of everyone in the state to help Detroit when we can. It will save everyone money.

Q: Do you think the mayor and the council could get along long enough to make this happen? Will residents get along with the mayor enough to make it happen?
A: It's up to mayor and city council to work together to get this done. If there's not unity in doing this, it will be a disaster. It's one of those tender issues where there's tremendous emotion around. That's probably why they give that 125 percent to homeowners. … How (the mayor and residents) start the relationship will make the process work or go on forever. If it starts out hostile, it will stay that way. People need to be involved. Then, appraisals need to happen, and you've got to find those appraisers who are really good at it. .

Q: Do you think this will ever happen? For real?
A: I have a feeling that this community has a clear sense that we have to do something and I think we all feel that way. All of us feel like we're going to get it done. We just have to get it started and do it carefully and clearly Mayor Bing is a careful person. He can establish the footprint to do this right. … This is still an active city. And we need to rebuild. We need to get mass transit here; that's mandatory for us to be world-class again. Otherwise, the alternative is an Oakland pod, Macomb pod, Detroit pod and Ann Arbor pod. That's crazy. We've got to do something here.

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