DETROIT – The families of Detroit’s Brightmoor area are delighted that the day is finally approaching when bulldozers will arrive to level more of their neighborhood. After that, their community’s future will be like the cleared landscape – a blank canvas.
For years, Brightmoor residents pleaded with the city to demolish vacant homes that scavengers had stripped of wiring and plumbing and anything of value. Some structures are already gone, and now officials aim to do much more, possibly tearing down as many as 450 empty houses each week across more than 20 square miles of this bankrupt city – a vast patchwork of rotting homes comparable to the size of Manhattan.
The huge demolition project holds the potential to transform large parts of Detroit into an urban-redevelopment laboratory like the nation has never seen. But community leaders here and in cities that have attempted similar transformations say Detroit’s best efforts could still wither from lack of money, lack of commitment or harsh economic realities.
“What’s the plan for lots to keep them from becoming a different type of blight?” asked Tom Goddeeris, executive director of Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp., a nonprofit community improvement group representing a cluster of five Detroit neighborhoods.
The ambitious demolition schedule was formally presented last month as part of the city’s plans to emerge from bankruptcy.
The changes could be far-reaching: Unlike other cities where building space is limited, Detroit will offer urban planners a rare chance to experiment with wide-open land. Neighborhood advocates are talking excitedly about creating urban gardens, farms, forests and other types of “green space.”
Brightmoor already has the Lyndon Greenway, which connects two large parks with smaller parks and bike paths.
No other American city has as many abandoned properties as Detroit.
But smaller-scale successes with similar green initiatives have been engineered in places such as Philadelphia and Cleveland.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philly Green program has converted roughly 10,000 vacant lots over the last two decades, making it the “gold standard,” said Joe Schilling, who directs the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.
Having a non-governmental organization manage and design the effort, is a huge advantage, Schilling said.
“To use a military metaphor, if you go in with your demolition forces and you’re trying to get a stronghold in a particular strategic place, you have to be able to stabilize it before you keep moving on in your campaign,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re going to go back in ... five years and removing all the trash.”
An overall “urban greening” effort for Detroit would be costly, probably requiring money from both public and private sources. Philadelphia benefited from a $250 million bond issue that included about $12 million for greening efforts.
Detroit is not in a financial position to issue bonds while in bankruptcy, Schilling said, but it could find other ways to offer an “infusion of resources.”
The city proposes to tear down as many homes every week as were demolished in all of 2012 in Youngstown, Ohio, another city marred by abandoned buildings because of dwindling population and industry.
Youngstown received many accolades for the plan it launched in 2005 to retool itself into a smaller, greener city. But John Russo, co-author of “Steeltown U.S.A.,” a book about Youngstown and co-founder of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, said the plan “promised much more than it delivered.”
The project inflated the number of jobs it created, did “ad-hoc” demolition and “reinforced the types of economic polarization and inequalities that already existed in the area,” Russo said.
“What they wound up creating were just islands in a landscape of disinvestments, blight and instability,” said Russo, now a visiting professor at the Metropolitan Institute. “If you go to urban gardens three to four years after, they’re vacant lots again.”
He says lasting solutions “are much more complicated than urban farms and demolitions,” adding that they create “a diversion from much more serious economic decisions that have been made.”
Detroit’s plan intentionally avoids spelling out what happens after the bulldozers leave. A spokesman for Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, said that’s outside the scope of the bankruptcy case. Advocates believe those decisions are best left to neighborhoods.
That underscores Detroit’s greatest challenge: Except for the city’s rebounding downtown and midtown districts, most residential neighborhoods aren’t attracting developers. If the vacant land had commercial potential, redevelopment would have happened long ago.
“Just clearing these properties is not going to do anything in the long run in returning Detroit to a new vibrant, wonderful city,” said Robert Inman, a professor of finance, economics and public policy at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Demolitions are an “important first step,” Inman added, but “no city can survive without a really vibrant private economy.”
A realistic model for Detroit’s future, he said, is Pittsburgh, which went from a “steel town to an idea town” between 1960 and 1990 and shed half its population.
Even if Detroit succeeds in attracting new businesses that might bring technology, education and medical jobs, those projects are geared mainly toward the business and entertainment districts.
“That’s wonderful,” said Maggie DeSantis, president of the Warren Conner Development Coalition and a longtime community redevelopment advocate. “But ... it’s not going to make use of all the open space.”
She’s also interested in gardens, hydroponic farms and other food-related businesses. For example, a shuttered east-side high school is being turned into a 27-acre farm with a food-processing facility and greenhouse-like structures to get an early start on spring crops.
But she acknowledges the many unknowns that loom over the process.
“Real Estate 101 says cleared land has inherently more value than land with a blighted structure on it. That would be great in a city that’s normal and has conventional real estate market turnover,” DeSantis said. “Detroit, right now, is down the rabbit hole – nothing about it is normal.”
The city has plenty of organizations involved in reclamation efforts. Still, Schilling said, the greatest challenge will be “connecting the dots,” and real results might not be seen for a decade, he said.
“It’s going to be more of an incremental transformation,” he said.
Any reuse is welcome for Ray Johnson, a 30-year resident of the North Rosedale Park neighborhood and retired Chrysler worker. He mows the lawns of a couple of vacant properties as he awaits the wrecking crews.
“My house will be paid for next year. My plan is to stay here,” said Johnson, talking in front of a community tree nursery where homes once stood. “I was going to move, but my wife talked me out of it.
“She said it’s going to improve,” he added. “We’ll see.”
Associated Press Writer Corey Williams contributed to this report.
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