Detroit Offers Builders, Developers and Dreamers a Unique Opportunity

Posted on June 11, 2014

A century ago, as a revolution was taking root that would transform America from a largely agrarian country into a muscular, industrial one, one city in particular found itself playing catch-up with all that progress. Detroit, which seemingly overnight had emerged as the epicenter of the auto manufacturing industry, found itself a city faced with a deepening housing crisis as tens of thousands of workers, many of them from the rural South, started migrating there on the promise of landing one of its many well-paying factory jobs.

As a result, Detroit’s leaders did something few other towns along the southern rim of the Great Lakes were doing at the time. They began erecting the vast majority of new homes for workers not of stone and brick, like other factory towns like Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo and Chicago, but of wood. Wood was not only cheaper and more plentiful than stone or brick, but a wood home could be constructed in a fraction of the time.

That’s the reason why a half a century later, as the riots of the 1960s engulfed many inner cities in the country, Detroit with all its wooden buildings did something else few other cities were doing at the time.

It burned.

And soon thereafter, as Detroit’s white flight to the suburbs found an even higher gear, followed closely by a seismic cratering of the fortunes of the U.S. auto industry, the city’s neighborhoods with all their wooden structures began to suffer a fate sure to befall almost any abandoned and unattended thing constructed predominantly of wood; they began to rot. And at that point it was only a matter of time before the buildings would begin to crumble themselves, or would be bulldozed into rubble, leaving only empty spaces where dozens of communities had once thrived. And that’s exactly what happened.

But that is also exactly the point at which things started to get interesting for Detroit, and why, as I realized when we were in Detroit a couple of weeks ago for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Mid-Year Meeting (aka Family Reunion), the city now finds itself in a unique position and with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Because now, for the first time since it was founded in 1701, the City of Detroit is a virtual blank canvas. The one-time Motor City finds itself with thousands of available building lots, miles upon miles of open space, and scores of reforested areas, all within its city limits. It is in many ways an urban planner’s utopia: a city craving retribution and redefinition, and one armed with thousands of hungry, skilled workers, available space and as many natural resources as any city in the country.

What’s more, as the bloated, belching and resource-intensive manufacturing industry of the last century that once fueled Detroit’s ecomony gives way to the lean, efficient and clean one of today, Detroit finds itself once again a city brimming with hope and opportunity. All across the manufacturing landscape — in this country and beyond — the sprawling, massive factories of yesterday are quickly being replaced by thousands of smaller, more nimble facilities and plants.

And the opportunity to marry that tidal wave of new-age industrial thinking and that irreversible trend toward lean, clean manufacturing with what Detroit has to offer as a destination is exactly why, for the first time in nearly 50 years, the city’s fortunes are actually trending upwards.

There’s a long way to go, to be sure. But just look what’s already happening. Look at how Dennis Gilbert of Quicken Loans has moved his company from the suburbs back to the city, how he’s established a Detroit-centric private equity firm to fund Motor City-based high tech start-ups and how he’s re-developed countless blighted blocks in the heart of the city and transformed them into a small but growing version of Silicon Valley.

Look at the success of a Shinola, a Detroit-based manufacturer of — of all things — some of the finest quality bicycles, watches and leather goods made in the world, a company with a fervent, almost cult-like following that has proven in no uncertain terms that one-time American auto workers can indeed be effectively retrained and repurposed to craft world-class, precision instruments and other high-end products at competitive prices.

And look at the handful of fiercely dedicated urban planners, developers and activists who have operated in Detroit throughout its decline — people like the remarkable Sue Mosey of Midtown, Inc, the leadership team at Rock Ventures, a real estate development firm, and the Motor City Blight Busters, to name just a few — and realize that the city is being rebuilt today, not from the 30,000′ perspective, or by giant corporations or absentee venture capitalists and investors, but at the street level, one small bankroll, one small company, and one courageous dream at a time.

In short, the city is a blank slate for urban planners with vision or builders with foresight and patient capital.

I suppose there was an element of poetic beauty in the fact that while we were there I got to reacquaint myself and interact with so many of the remarkable leaders of USGBC’s local chapters, on whose shoulders and through whose efforts so much of our success has come over the years. And I say “poetic beauty” because just as USGBC as an organization owes such a debt to those working on our behalf in local markets across the globe, who preach the gospel of sustainability at the street level, so too Detroit is just now starting to reap the benefits of so many years of retail-level passion, retail-level dreaming, and most recently and perhaps most importantly, retail-level investment.

All week long I couldn’t help but think about the delicious symmetry of having USGBC, an organization created to promote the practice of sustainable building, the prudent use of our resources and the idea of building things right, convening in a city that presents such a fresh, clean canvas. In fact we gave them a big hug as we launched USGBC+, our new member magazine, there, and featured a lot of the inspiring things going on in Detroit.

Our very own board member, Majora Carter, also moderated an awesome panel featuring some of Detroit’s other leading lights — Phil Cooley, co-owner of Slows Bar BQ and general contractor of Detroit-based O’Connor Development Group which is mentoring small businesses in Detroit; Pashon Murray, founder of Detroit Dirt, a compost company working to turn forgotten parcels of land in Detroit into urban farms that not only feed, but revitalize the community, and the irrepressible Rev. Joan Ross, pastor, social justice advocate and the former Executive Director of the Greater Woodward Community Development Corporation. Her plea tore at my heart — just 10 working streetlights for the North End Community so its fragile rebirth could happen because it’s a place where light = safety, and safety means engagement. We committed on the spot to make that happen. Such a small, but important thing, in a city where 40 percent of the streetlights don’t work. And while we were there, JP Morgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon committed to a $100 million investment in Detroit, to help make sure this rebirth gets a running start)

I’m back home now — in Syracuse, and Washington, D.C., with a few stops in between. But I haven’t stopped thinking about those few square miles of open space and the people who loved them and once called them home, people who are heads down in the hard task of making sure their beloved city is rebuilt — only this time, rebuilt the right way, from the ground up and for the long haul, the way a city of tomorrow should be built, with economic and environmental sustainability at the top of the list.