Friday, April 30, 2010

Detroit Mayor Backs Off Talk About "Downsizing" City

Posted: April 29, 2010

Bing staff backs off talk about downsizing Detroit

Instead, focus is aimed at stabilizing neighborhoods


For months, the term "rightsizing" has been tossed about Detroit as a way to rein in costs and save tax dollars.

Under a pilot program to shrink the city, residents in two east-side neighborhoods -- East English Village and MorningSide -- would see the demolition of vacant homes, and those families left in isolated blocks would be relocated, based on a preliminary report obtained by the Free Press.

"We need to provide stabilization for these streets," said Kelley Marks, president of the MorningSide neighborhood association.

Yet, the person leading the program was dismissed by Mayor Dave Bing last week, sparking questions as to the status of the project.

While on the campaign trail, during his State of the City address and in interviews with local and national news media, Bing has heralded the importance of a long-term strategy that would use the city's 140 square miles more productively, calling such a move critical to Detroit's survival.

Yet on Wednesday, Bing's staff backed away from what was first characterized as downsizing the city, saying, "We are stabilizing neighborhoods and the city as a result of a reduced population by centralizing resources, not shrinking its borders."

Dan Lijana, a Bing spokesman, said that despite a proposal that was given to the mayor last week, there is no formal plan in place to reshape the city, though additional data collection, analysis and assessments are in progress.

Before being relieved of her duties last Thursday, Darchelle Strickland Love, who was assigned to do special projects for the mayor's office, gave Bing a copy of a proposal called "Neighborhood Stabilization & Reshaping."

Strickland Love's plan includes using two neighborhoods -- East English Village and MorningSide -- in a pilot program to demolish vacant houses, clear debris from lots, identify families to move from isolated blocks to denser neighborhoods, rehabilitate and occupy viable city-owned properties and identify home-improvement opportunities for existing homeowners.

"The administration has received several proposals from internal and external sources dealing with land use and neighborhood stabilization," Lijana said. "Mayor Bing and the administration will continue to move forward to strengthen Detroit's neighborhoods and better utilize the city's 140 square miles of land."

Bing's communications team will not say why Strickland Love was asked to leave.

Strickland Love said she understands that she served at the will of the mayor, but wanted to give her proposal to him before leaving city hall. She said she is fearful that her months of work and the emerging plan crafted with faith-based, philanthropic and neighborhood groups could end up in a recycling bin.

Bing has pledged to demolish 3,000 homes by the end of this year, and 10,000 by the time his first term ends in 2013. Yet the city is dotted by neighborhoods that have only one or two standing houses on a block. The mayor has said the city was built for nearly 2 million residents, yet U.S. Census Bureau numbers are projected to show that the population is hovering around 800,000.

Urban planners have spoken with excitement about Detroit's opportunity to downsize into manageable and stable areas, and use vacant land for city farms. Such a plan would be revolutionary for a large, urban metropolis. Creating swaths of green space or farmland would mean less infrastructure to maintain, fewer streets to patrol and less garbage to pick up.

Vincent Tilford, executive director for Habitat for Humanity Detroit, said he was overjoyed when he learned the city was considering MorningSide as part of a reshaping pilot program -- even if it does not include an immediate downsizing. Habitat has built more than 60 houses and invested about $7 million in the area in the past three years.

"For us, it's about making it a neighborhood of choice and stabilizing it for families," said Tilford, who praised Strickland Love's proposal. "We recognize that there are these opportunities to stabilize the MorningSide community."

Tilford said Strickland Love brought a manageable vision to reshaping the city -- by starting small in one or two areas, learning from successes and failures and then expanding the program. Still, he said, he is hopeful that the ideas of revitalizing neighborhoods will not be lost in any political shuffle.

"It's important to have a strong and consistent partnership with the city," he said. "There's nothing that has been indicated to me that it won't go forward at this point. I'm sure there are others over there that can pick up the ball and run with it."

Marks was encouraged Wednesday to learn that her neighborhood -- with approximately 900 vacant homes -- was being considered as part of the pilot program. She said she's hopeful that however the plan evolves, she and neighbors will benefit.

"When you have vacant house after vacant house, that becomes the demise of a block," said Marks, 31, who moved to the neighborhood in late 2006 and lives next to an abandoned home. "We're constantly in touch with the mayor's office, and we don't give them a chance to forget about us."

Contact SUZETTE HACKNEY: 313-222-6678 or

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