Talk to enough people in the Motor City, and you start to believe the buzz about a comeback. There’s a renewed sense of purpose in Detroit, ushered in by the return of beloved Mayor Dave Bing and a new City Council. To be sure, there is also gloom in Wayne County, Detroit’s home, which has led the nation in out-migration every year since 2006. By some estimates, the vacant land in Detroit equals the size of San Francisco. And unemployment remains high, hovering around 15 percent (at press time, the national rate was 9.7 percent). Despite the challenges, though, residents believe they can turn this baby around. Developers are using tax credits—for preservation, green renovations, workforce housing, and more—to leverage Detroit’s incredible stock of architecture. And over the past 10 years, more than $15 billion has been invested in the city.
Young people, drawn by a thriving arts scene and low cost of living, are infusing Detroit with new energy. “There’s a great momentum among the post–baby boomers, who really do want to make things happen,” says native Michael Poris of McIntosh Poris Associates. The younger set is jump-starting the small business sector. And the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan is driving growth in the aerospace and alternative energy industries.
In March, the Kresge Foundation announced it would pay the undisclosed salary of urban planning expert Toni Griffin. Griffin, who directed Newark, N.J.’s revitalization effort, will spearhead the shrinking of Detroit’s urban footprint. “The solutions—urban agriculture, intensifying certain areas, allotting resources for others—aren’t from left field,” says Archive Design Studio principal Mark Nickita. “It’s not a new idea, but this time it feels more formal.”
Alan Cobb, senior vice president at Albert Kahn Associates, expects the city to leverage its past as it plans its future. “Detroit has been a place for significant innovation in the last century,” he says. “It’s going to be a difficult decade. However, I’m still optimistic.”
Population: 912,062; January 2010 unemployment: 15.4%.
The 9.2 million s.f. of Class A space in the central business district is 80.5% occupied; average asking rate: $23.27/s.f.
Median home sale price, October 2009: $55,000.
• New city government
• Engaged citizenry
• Vibrant city center
• Lingering bad reputation
• Local and state economy among nation’s worst
• High unemployment
“Getting [Mayor] Dave Bing back into place is a huge win,” says Archive Design Studio principal Mark Nickita. “The young politically and culturally minded people want to make the city more accountable. I’m very encouraged by that. We have our problems, but we have a lot to build on. We’re not going away.”
Correction, May 24, 2010: The write-up for the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education (see the slide show) provided an incorrect number for the building's size, which is actually 760,000 square feet. We regret the error.