Change Agents, City Transformation, Development, New Economy

We need to take a look back to see Detroit’s progress … and it’s pretty impressive

1_Campus Martius_Brian Wilson

I came to Detroit more than 30 years ago and have worked downtown most of my career. Back then you shoot a cannon down Woodward on a weekend and pretty much after 5:00 any weekday … unless there was a big event at Cobo. The streets and sidewalks were often dirty. Buildings were boarded up as their occupants headed for the suburbs. All the elm trees where taken down on Washington Blvd. for a trolley that never left the station. Hudson’s was still here but many downtown businesses were on their way to the suburbs, as were many residents.

Woodward Ave. has retail, foot traffic and lights

Woodward Ave. has retail, foot traffic and lights

While there is still a humongous amount of work to do downtown, what’s changed in the last five years or so is certainly something to write home about. Terrific headway has been made in all areas … live, work and play. To get a true feel of the progress let’s take a look at what Detroit looked like 10-20 years ago compared to today.

You’ll see lots of numbers … and those numbers show progress and transformation.

The end of J.L. Hudson's

The end of J.L. Hudson’s

In 1998 we watched as the Hudson’s building imploded. That explosion was symbolic of the end of retail Downtown. The store closed in 1983 taking with it memories of a Detroit with 5 million square feet of retail. Today we have 250,000 square feet of retail downtown.

In 2000 we had 20 Downtown blocks with 80 percent retail vacancy … some of those stores were vacant for 30-40 years. While there is still so much more to do, today you can look down Woodward and see a streetscape with bright lights beckoning new retail to join those who have already ventured Downtown. By 2016 it will be “the big bang” with 400,000 square feet of retail in districts along Woodward. Achieving that goal will require advocating policy and infrastructure changes that create a high quality environment and promoting Downtown retail.

There is a chicken and egg issue here. We must have the proper demographics to attract the right retail. It’s essential. We must have diverse retail options so people can make a trip of it downtown as well as residents can get what they need such as furniture stores, book stores, more clothing stores and places where people can buy the basics. So there is still much work to do.

In 2003 there were no new residential units Downtown. Today there are 556 with demand for 1,400-plus units per year. There are 900 new residents living Downtown. Part of that is due to the Live Downtown program, which offers incentives to employees of six companies … Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Compuware, DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, Marketing Associates and Strategic Staffing Solutions … live downtown. Live Downtown is coordinated by the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP), a private/public partnership of corporate and civic leaders working together to help make Detroit clean, safe, beautiful, inviting, vibrant and economically viable.

Rivard Plaza on the riverfront before and after

Rivard Plaza on the riverfront before and after

By 2016 DDP expects 1,200 more units to come online and there are 715 units currently in the pipeline.  By 2022 it says the population will to double to 6,000 new residents.

Accomplishing that goal will take work. The Live Downtown incentives need to continue and expand to other companies. Parking issues must be addressed. Gap and permanent financing must be found for projects.

Two years from now Detroit will also be more walkable. In 2010, 10 percent of the downtown residents walked to work. By 2022 that should hit 44 percent.

Let’s take a look back at what the city looked like in 1996. Total employment Downtown was 65,000, commercial occupancy rates were falling and our natural assets, like the riverfront, were underutilized to put it mildly. Then along came GM. It bought the Renaissance Center, moved its headquarters from New Center to the RenCen and started to transform the riverfront. Just look at it today.

Other major companies followed. In 2003 Compuware came downtown and helped revitalize the area around Campus Martius Park. In 2004 Campus Martius Park opened. Today more than 2 million people visit the park to share in the more than 200 free events.

There are plans to revitalize other downtown parks and even more added to Campus Martius. By 2016 expanded programming will be a normal course of business in Capitol Park, Grand Circus Park and Paradise Valley and there will be a new year-round pavilion at Cadillac Square and a new esplanade connecting Campus Martius Park to the riverfront.

Bedrock plan for downtown

Bedrock plan for downtown

Quicken Loans moved from Livonia downtown in 2010 and before long, its real estate arm, Rock Ventures, began a buying spree. Today it has acquired more than 8 million square feet of downtown real estate and turned much of it into thriving business opportunities for big and small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Employment downtown continues to grow. Today there are 13,000 new employees downtown bringing the total to 85,000. By 2016 that will grow to 100,000. That year Meridian Health’s new headquarters will bring another 400 people into the city for a total of 1,000 Downtown employees and the M-1 RAIL will be up and running. When it launches the Woodward core will be truly walkable.

There is still much work to be done. More retail must come downtown. More streetscaping is needed and there must be a common plan to market and promote Detroit as a vibrant downtown.

Besides the progress downtown think of all the other transformation going on in the city from Midtown to Belle Isle to the Milliken State Park on the riverfront and so much more. Much of it is due to the collaboration and cooperation of the business community and the commitment of so many Detroiters who have given of their personal time and treasure to rebuild the city.

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