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Placemaking conference seeks to understand Detroit, its history and its deep potential

Capitol Park downtown Detroit vision image picture

“We’re really only innovative as a people when there is a crisis.” – Dan Gilmartin

My apologies for leading with a quote. But consider how apt that statement is when it comes to a challenging little city called Detroit.

1001 Woodward open streetfront plan downtown Detroit Dan GilbertGilmartin is the executive director and CEO of the Michigan Municipal League. He was one of the speakers Thursday at the Placemaking Leadership Council inaugural meeting at the Westin Book Cadillac. This three-day conference seeks not only to discuss the formation of said council, but to delve deeply and meaningfully into what it means to make a place special to its residents.

And, more importantly, the more than 300 participants from 10 countries and 25 states came to learn about Detroit.

We are a city in crisis. The Placemakers – these urban planners, architects, redevelopment and development experts – all came together to show support for not only Detroit, but for the idea that we can make changes that will reinvigorate neighborhoods, business districts and entertainment centers.

Not to bury the lead, but this slightly annoying buzz word – placemaking – is what has already turned parts of Detroit around. And it is what is going to connect Woodward Avenue to Hart Plaza to the water. And, now that The Kresge Foundation has stepped in as well, it will further transform the Riverfront and Belle Isle. (Rip Rapson, president of the Foundation, is extending that good will all the way down Jefferson.)

fred_kent_square_sm-180x180According to Fred Kent, president and founder of the Project for Public Spaces, “Detroit is embracing Placemaking as a strategy for civic revitalization with a vigor and dedication that few cities can match.”

You can thank General Motors Corp., the Downtown Detroit Partnership, the Michigan Municipal League, Rock Ventures and so many other entities for that placemaking hug. Rock’s big plans it announced two weeks ago to activate the city’s buildings, build squares or parks, add retail and do everything “quicker, lighter and cheaper?” That was placemaking, Kent and PPS.

Look, if Dan Gilbert ends up getting knighted for turning Detroit around, Kent better be right by his side receiving the same. General Motors first brought PPS into Michigan back when it was trying to figure out why its headquarters employees wouldn’t step foot outside Cadillac Place, said Bob Gregory, senior vice president for the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

Then, DDP brought Kent back in again for Campus Martius. Based on how green, busy and beautiful that space is – after all, it has won two national awards for awesomeness – I’m thinking Kent gets our vibe and knows how to make this city shiny again.

Dan Gilbert, head of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, genuinely seemed to defer to Kent when it came to his part of the presentation Thursday. Gilbert, who has millions of hours of public-speaking practice behind him, often turned to Kent to fill in the details on the upcoming renovations to Campus Martius, Cadillac Square, Capitol Park, Grand Circus Park and Paradise Valley.

By the way, Gilbert’s best quote came early on, as he acknowledged that he pretty much has scooped up every possible building he could thanks to a “skyscraper sale” in Detroit.

But I digress. Placemaking is a slippery little term. It basically means investing in a city in a way that turns public spaces into these little hubs, as it were. These places then highlight local assets, such as our Detroit River. They boost investment, like when Gilbert buys up pretty much every building in and around Campus Martius.

1500 block of Woodward M1 Rail renderingPlacemaking also serves a common need, as PPS puts it – a need to love where you live. Here is the crux of what I learned Thursday. That mantra of “Live, Work, Play” in Detroit naturally blends into what is about to hit Detroit like a whirlwind of construction this summer. Everyone’s need to if not love at least respect Detroit will be honored and validated.

So I may not live in Detroit (sorry) but I certainly work and play there. And I want to feel invested. I want to feel like Dan Gilbert’s plan is my plan. I want to kick in money via crowdfunding sites for dog parks, urban mini-golf ranges and Ping Pong places because I want to feel like the city is someplace worth driving to, not just through.

Rapson put it well – placemaking and other plans like it give us a map for civic life. It helps us create an emotional bond to a place, developing a “magnetic pull” that makes us want to commit and invest. Cities, he said, have a density of ideas that is magnificent. They offer the right conditions for innovation. They are resilient. We will never see 2 million residents again, he noted, but we could at least “capture that spirit again.”

Another great part of the Thursday event was the speakers and their interactions. Kent, who seems to have a true passion for his work (it is a nonprofit organization, after all), was giddy to introduce Gilbert and his fellow panelist, Jessica Goldman Srebnick. She is CEO of Goldman Properties, a more than 40-year-old company that strives to “restore urban neighborhoods, ignite street life and create thriving global destinations.”

I assumed Gilbert would set the tone for the meeting, and he did impress. But Goldman Srebnick electrified. The Detroit News asked her before her talk if she would move her family’s company and its money more into Detroit, and she said she’s considering it. I can only hope that we’re lucky enough to have this kind of investment.

“The momentum is getting bigger and bigger,” Gilbert said. “Downtown, there’s this feeling and passion you cannot describe.”

The key to his placemaking plan is to make people slow down. Walk a bit. Sit a spell. Try some new food at a new vendor. Maybe play a little in the sand. Listen to music. STAY. Not leave immediately after a hockey, baseball or football game. Stay after work. Maybe even move in (when we’ve got rooms to spare).

jessicaLiving by a spreadsheet alone doesn’t work in Detroit, Gilbert added. Sure, a building can make sense financially in terms of rent and number of tenants. Fixing up the outside, adding tables and chairs and great retailers doesn’t boost those numbers on the surface. That is why spreadsheets need to be forgotten for a time, he added.

Yet Gilbert showed a moment of vulnerability. He asked Goldman Srebnick a single question: How could he and others get people to believe Detroit really could change? What would be our secret bullet?

Her response was legendary. We need to find our essence and develop it, she told us. Detroit needs to focus on whatever made it Detroit – cars, music, art – and just push that to the extremes. (See the accompanying blog post to this one to read her full comments outlining her thoughts on Detroit.)

“Grit next to beauty makes beauty more beautiful,” she said, quoting her famous father (who passed away in 2012, although it is said Tony Goldman was interested in helping Detroit).

I could go on and on. Placemakers from around the globe talked about how little things – grilled-cheese food trucks, roving accordion players, simple lawn chairs – changing empty or isolated land into crowd-friendly places to socialize and have fun. And, damnit, Detroit needs more fun.

In the end, Gilmartin encouraged the audience of Placemaking gurus to “stay a long time. Spend a lot of money. … Flush the toilet twice. The city needs the money,” he advised, earning a decent laugh from the crowd.

He also added, “I applaud you for coming to Detroit.” Now, we’ve just got to figure out the magical placemaking glue that will keep this audience and so many more HERE.

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One comment on “Placemaking conference seeks to understand Detroit, its history and its deep potential

  1. In the stories of what has made Detroit great in the past lie the threads of the emerging narrative of a great city remaking itself!

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