Planning director says neighborhoods about to shine

Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox and Deputy Director Janet Attarian --PHOTO: Keith Owens
Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox and Deputy Director Janet Attarian –PHOTO: Keith Owens

It’s way past time for Detroit’s neighborhoods to get some love same as downtown, but it looks like that time may have finally arrived. To quote the city’s new Planning Department director Maurice Cox:
“I like to say this is the beginning of [James Brown’s] The Big Payback. This is what I believe people who have stuck it out in the city have been waiting for. For the attention to turn from downtown, which is doing just fine, and Midtown, which is doing just fine, to neighborhoods that have just not received a lot of attention. And that’s really where the soul of this city resides. It’s the thing that gets me super excited about my job. I mean, the downtown stuff, no offense to anyone, but, you know, everybody’s done it and doing it. And now we’re doing it, and that’s great. What people have not done as effectively is focus on the neighborhoods where people live. How do you acknowledge what’s already there, and keep people in place? That’s part of our strategy. There’s so much space in this city that no one should have to be displaced.
“We don’t have to build another single family house in the city for at least my lifetime. We could just rehab the thousands and thousands of gorgeous houses that still exist.”
Cox has now been at the helm of Detroit’s Planning Department for 18 months, and one thing he emphasized strongly when he first showed up on the scene was his desire to bring the same amount of attention and passion to the city’s neighborhoods that is currently being enjoyed primarily by downtown and Midtown. During a relatively brief but highly informative talk held at the Green Garage in Midtown last week, Cox delivered an update to a previous discussion he had delivered at the same location a year ago. The focus of the update was to inform the public not only of what has been done, but what is being planned.
“A lot has happened, and it’s been an extraordinary year for us.
“When I got here, I inherited a very skeletal planning operation. Most would say they did not do planning. In fact, there are people who have grown up in Detroit who have never seen a planner. But there were six planners that I inherited whose average tenure was about 15 years with the city. So the mayor asked me, what was it going to take to transform this into one of the best planning departments in the country, and I said well we can start by you giving me some additional planners. I don’t think I can do it with six. Just to put that into perspective, Washington D.C., a city of about 550,000, had 60 planners. We had six. So you can see the problem.”
The mayor allowed Cox to make 25 new hires 25 new planners.
Along with the hiring of Janet Attarian, his deputy director, whom Cox described as a “rock star”, “we also hired four historic preservationists, four landscape architects, four urban designers, and about eight architects” as well as four planners. “So the composition of our planning department is pretty radical for planning departments” because most planning departments only have planners in them. Cox described his decision to expand the definition of the department through its creative staffing as the best way to address the full scope of what Detroit’s neighborhoods need.
“The other part after I got here was how to get a handle on the sheer size of Detroit. And so one of the diagrams that I’m sure many of you have seen is the diagram by University of Detroit Mercy that shows the City of Boston, the City of San Francisco and the island of Manhattan all within the City of Detroit. And so it kind of impressed me that really what we’re talking about are cities within a city. …It was a very convenient way of breaking it down.”
Following through on that novel view of Detroit, Cox and his staff went about creating departments within his own, each designed to tackle specific neighborhood planning and development issues. There is the Department of Strategic Planning, which operates from a broad scope overviewing the city as a whole. Then there is the Office of Zoning and Innovation, which focuses on more innovative approaches to zoning such as ‘pink’ zoning (the name came from the idea of diluting red tape, thus going from red to pink…), deals with disentangling the bureaucracy that inhibits innovation in the city’s commercial corridors. And then there is the aptly-named Office of Yes, which manages the department’s higher education and philanthropic partnerships. The goal, spurred by the name, is to find more ways of getting to ‘yes’ on assisting with innovative approaches, rather than the characteristic ‘no’ which is what so many have come to expect.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating ideas Cox is bringing to Detroit is one that would help to better stabilize those core neighborhoods that are already densely populated but just need some assistance to move away from just hanging on toward a more comfortable state.
“Our job is to complete what’s missing from those neighborhoods,” he said.
“And so one of the ideas that we borrowed from Portland, Oregon is the idea of 20-minute neighborhoods. And it’s a very simple concept; you as a resident of one of these higher density areas should be able to walk or bike within 20 minutes of your front door to a host of neighborhood-serving amenities.” That could include libraries, schools, parks, public transit, restaurants, etc.
This approach is already being pioneered in the Livernois/McNichols area which includes about eight different neighborhoods. Cox said that a portion of the vacant land there will be to host a variety of sustainable landscape uses such as orchards. Neighborhood businesses will also be able to utilize the lots adjacent to them. Another 100 acres of land is reserved for a neighborhood central park, and yet another 100 acres will be strung together to create a greenway for a bicycle/pedestrian connection that connects University of Detroit Mercy to Marygrove College.
“We are now taking this strategy of comprehensively looking at neighborhoods to where we’ve committed to seven more [neighborhoods] that will be under design in 2017,” said Cox, adding that four planning and design contracts have already been awarded to various organizations to work in concert with neighborhood residents in designing these areas.
One of those areas is Southwest Detroit. The Rosa Parks/Claremont area is another, as well as Grand River northwest. However, the obvious question is what happens with the neighborhoods that aren’t very stable and are much less dense? Those with only a few houses on the entire block and nothing but wide open field and garbage everywhere else?

“Our notion was not to leave anyone behind but to focus like a laser on the places that we know that with these additional strategies we can make whole. Not five years from now, but right now. That tends to be areas where the city owns 25-30 percent of the property. Then there are areas where 35-50 percent of the land is publicly owned, and we’re going to be there too. So that’s Claremont/Rosa Parks area. Fifty percent of that land is publicly owned.
We know we can get the early successes in those areas that are most dense. And then once we figure that out we can expand that and get to the next ring that may not be as populated.


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