Blight is one of Detroit’s most hideous and destructive enemies. The idea of having as precious a commodity as land sitting unused or under-utilized is one that torments city leaders, who want a productive as well as attractive landscape to sell to residents, potential buyers and investors.
That is why it is heartening to hear that one of the city’s biggest boosters – The Kresge Foundation – is stepping up and leaning hard into the issue of blight. Remember what The Kresge Foundation did for the “Grand Bargain,” investing millions into getting Detroit out of bankruptcy? Imagine what those dollars, that investment and that commitment will do to blight. (Foundations contributed $370 million to that effort, led by $125 million from the Ford Foundation and $100 million from Kresge.)
Last week, foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson spoke to this topic and more at the Mackinac Policy Conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. He told the audience of 1,600-plus participants that The Kresge Foundation will invest in large-scale Detroit projects that convert blighted land into “mixed-use, mixed-income, amenity-rich neighborhoods of opportunity.”
Rapson told the annual gathering of leaders from across the state that Kresge and the community are “poised to move past a time when blighted buildings were insidiously consuming our landscape.” He cited efforts such as the Orleans Landing Project in the city’s Riverfront area, the residential and commercial components of a new Red Wings arena and Rock Ventures’ investment in Brush Park as examples of such conversions being spearheaded by others.
Best of all…he hinted at more. “Perhaps even more ambitious and potentially transformative,” Rapson said.
In a behind-the-scenes interview, Rapson elaborated on that idea of what kinds of transformations he’d like to see in Detroit. They involve the large – let’s talk new neighborhoods – to the small, like a single project created by local artists that acts like a catalyst for wider change.
“I think we’re seeing extraordinary creativity – it helps us think about the possibilities (for blighted properties) in very different ways,” Rapson said. “When you see a blighted building, you tend to think Option 1 is to tear it down. Option 2 is to rehab it and get it back in the hands of home owners. Option 3 is to deconstruct it and use its materials constructively. Well, it turns out there are options 4, 5, 6 and 7. What artists in particular do is to reimagine the possible.”
For example, Rapson said, The Kresge Foundation is already knee deep in grants via its “Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit” program. These include innovative green architecture projects that will turn an abandoned home into a prototype greenhouse near the Detroit-Hamtramck border, rehabilitate a blighted two-family flat into an energy-efficient LEED Platinum multiuse facility on Detroit’s near westside and develop a green parking lot that’s also a multiuse public space in Grandmont Rosedale.
The question, Rapson added, is how do you take these individual projects and make them part of a larger, more systemic conversation?
“The small, innovative one-off projects are exciting beyond belief. They test every boundary we have. They can often be done with bubble gum and twine. They’re being done with small budgets,” Rapson said. “But at the same time we also need some larger-scale projects where you combine larger-scale resources — where you combine natural-resources reclamation, affordable housing, access to transit, viable healthy parks, where you locate a school. These are what I call ‘Neighborhoods of Opportunity.’ That’s a different form of land resuse.”
The best part? Rapson and his team believe in inclusivity.
“You have to combine what’s there and what’s already in place with what isn’t there and what’s not in place,” Rapson said. “It’s all about residents – they’re here already. They’re working already. They’re refreshing their neighborhoods already.”
Back to the public remarks. Rapson’s speech also outlined five other areas of future Kresge investments in Detroit:
• A growing critical mass of smaller, edgier, innovative uses of underutilized land, including using natural systems to manage storm-water runoff, reclaiming blighted housing for arts and cultural activities, and strengthening community and commercial urban farming.
• A seamless regional transit system catalyzed by M-1 Rail, which will connect the city’s downtown, Midtown, New Center and North End.
• An accountable, comprehensive and effective early childhood development system to ensure that kids enter kindergarten ready to learn – developmentally, emotionally, academically.
• Detroit’s small business and entrepreneurial community, while reinforcing and amplifying the burgeoning energies evident in the city, including artist enclaves in Corktown and pop-up retail at Livernois and McNichols.
• New financial tools to help accelerate the return of viable residential and commercial lending markets in the city, such as instruments that peel away the first layer of risk to enable commercial lenders to participate in development deals or help more people to get into homes and improve them once they’re there.
Background: The Kresge Foundation, a $3.5 billion private, national foundation dedicated to expanding opportunities for vulnerable people living in America’s cities. Since his appointment in 2006, Rapson has led the 91-year-old foundation to adopt an array of grantmaking and investing tools to improve the economic, social, cultural and environmental conditions of urban life through six defined programs: arts & culture, education, environment, health, human services, and community development in Kresge’s hometown of Detroit.
In 2014, the Board of Trustees approved 408 awards totaling $242.5 million. That included a $100 million award to the Foundation for Detroit’s Future, a fund created to soften the impact of the city’s bankruptcy on pensioners and safeguard cultural assets at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 2013, Kresge’s Board of Trustees approved grants and investment commitments totaling nearly $140 million.