Sunday, February 21, 2010

Right time to right size

My son and I have a ritual in which we go for a swim (sort of) at the Y downtown, then go to Lafayette Coney Island for a bite. I say kind of, because he is still learning to swim, and I'm really just getting him more comfortable in the water. But he has certainly gotten the eating afterwards part down pat.

Yesterday, after the meal I took him down the block to view the demolition project at the site of the Lafayette Building in the heart of downtown Detroit. Of course, he thought the bulldozer sitting on the huge pile of rubble and the partially collapsed building were cool, and we took a couple of photos as a result. But as I stood there I thought about an excursion I took him on last weekend in Macomb County, to an establishment on M-59 where one of his friends was having a birthday party. I recall driving past a development of McMansions that sat where once a farm had stood, and was disturbed to see that none of the homes in subdivision appeared to be occupied.

As I stood there this weekend on Michigan Avenue taking the photo of my son in front of the demolition site I thought back to the image of the subdivision and realized that sprawl is now sickening to me. Sprawl has killed communities and is responsible for many of the problems we have in this region. People fled the city after the 1967 civil disturbance in Detroit, and as more people ran away from the city, the suburbs expanded into rural environs -- as developers convinced farmers they could make more money per acre longer term by selling for the money they were offering. (Which is why you'll notice the next time you drive past a new subdivision of those McMansions that there are no trees).

At a time when we have waayy too many vacant houses in the city and an overabundance of empty space in the central business district of the city that is the hub of the state, the fact that we are building entire subdivisions of homes 30 miles away is a travesty.

The Lafayette Building didn't have to die. I have a theory, that if we encourage colleges and universities to develop satellite campuses in the collection of empty skyscrapers in the central business district we could create a foundation for sustainable downtown redevelopment. We could guarantee a sizable population of people living and working downtown, and hopefully attract an intellectual class that we could ultimately motivate to help rejuvenate the city core. That is just my 2 cents. I know that those who are working on the rightsizing strategy for the city have similar ideas. I look forward to seeing their proposed master plan. I also hope that it will motivate developers to quit looking to build as far away from the city as possible.

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