Detroit's top 10 urban planning blunders (and 10 successes) 

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June 1, 2018 will mark 200 years since the death of the Plan of Detroit, Judge Augustus B. Woodward's street design that gave us Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park. The Michigan Territory began to auction off vacant land north of Adams Avenue in large parcels on that day in 1818, against Judge Woodward's impassioned pleas to continue the city plan northward instead. This proved to be just the first of many city planning mistakes that would make the city, in the words of urbanist James Howard Kunstler, "the place where everything that could go wrong with a city, did go wrong."

But credit should be given where it is due, because occasionally even Detroit gets it right, especially with its great public parks. Today we present 10 of Detroit's worst urban planning blunders, and 10 of its most successful projects, ranked in no particular order.

COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
  • Courtesy Library of Congress

Blunder: Abandonment of the Woodward Plan
When the cramped town of Detroit burned in 1805, Judge Augustus Woodward platted a new metropolis in its place, complete with spacious parks and broad avenues to help contain future fires. The plan was cut off at Adams Avenue when land north of the city was sold as farm lots in 1818. When the city obtained the Fort Shelby grounds in 1827, the Woodward Plan was officially abandoned and this area was platted as a simple grid. Afterward, every land speculator in the city was essentially free to draw streets wherever they wished. The result was a haphazard street grid with a lack of crosstown thoroughfares, and bottlenecks where Woodward's avenues met the speculators' narrow streets. Correcting these problems entailed widening and straightening roads by condemning and clearing private property, often after expensive and lengthy legal battles. Many of these road-widening projects were carried out at times when city leaders were debating the merits of building a costly subway system.

COURTESY WALTER REUTHER LIBRARY, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Blunder: Demolition of Detroit's first Chinatown
Detroit's Chinese population was small and decentralized until 1917, when a local Chinese mercantile association announced plans for such a neighborhood. It was to begin with the construction of a three-story mixed use building at Porter and Third streets. The immigrant neighborhood took root and expanded down Third and Abbott streets. Detroit's Chinese-American population reached 2,600 by 1960, but in 1961, the Detroit Housing Commission included Chinatown in a downtown area to be condemned for urban renewal. Thirty displaced Chinese-owned businesses planned to be part of a nearby "International Village" project, but when the concept didn't materialize, the intersection of Cass and Peterboro was hastily chosen as the new Chinatown. Where a self-reliant immigrant community once thrived is now home to surface parking lots, a parking structure, and a pointless boulevard in Third Street — originally a narrow urban street which was significantly widened for this project.

IMAGE FROM THE DETROIT FREE PRESS, MAR. 17, 1980, VIA NEWSPAPERS.COM
  • Image from The Detroit Free Press, Mar. 17, 1980, via Newspapers.com

Blunder: The lack of a subway system
A subway for Detroit has been discussed countless times since Boston opened its first underground line in 1897. After the Detroit Common Council failed to act on subway proposals in the 1910s, Mayor John C. Lodge appointed the first Rapid Transit Commission in 1922. Voters and the Common Council rejected their proposals until 1933, when electors overwhelmingly approved a two-line subway. The only problem was that it was supposed to be funded by the U.S. Public Works Administration, but the federal government refused to fund it. President Gerald Ford promised $600 million for a Detroit subway in 1976 on the condition that it be approved by the Southeastern Michigan Transit Authority. Suburban interests simply did not want any funds spent if Detroit was to receive the most benefit, and the project stalled. A portion of those funds would ultimately be spent on the Detroit People Mover, intended as a hub for the system. The Reagan administration finally withdrew the remainder of the pledge. Today, the People Mover creeps along in a 3-mile loop, widely regarded as a punch line.

COURTESY WALTER REUTHER LIBRARY, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Blunder: Removal of skid row
Every big city at one time or another had a "skid row," a derelict street where its most desperate citizens, typically individuals with severe substance abuse problems, hit rock bottom. Detroit's skid row was Michigan Avenue between Cass Avenue and the Lodge Freeway, a stretch of pawn shops, bars, cheap hotels and soup kitchens where homeless men abounded. Proving the adage true that "when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail," when federal demolition subsidies became available in the 1950s, city planners thought that complete neighborhood demolition looked a lot like the cure for alcoholism. After razing the area in 1962, a new skid row simply appeared in the Cass Corridor. Only a handful of monolithic structures were built on the condemned land on Michigan Avenue. Today the area is an oddly desolate "border vacuum" separating Corktown and downtown, rather than the historical and walkable neighborhood it might have been.

COURTESY WALTER REUTHER LIBRARY, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Blunder: Dismantling of interurban streetcar system
A century ago, the privately-owned Detroit United Railway was not just a convenient way to get around the city. Interurban branch lines also carried riders as far away as Port Huron, Grand Rapids, and Toledo. The city purchased the lines within its borders in 1922, and the publicly owned system saw ridership peak in 1929. The decades following the Great Depression saw increasing disinvestment in the city's worn out streetcar infrastructure while subsidies for automobile infrastructure boomed. After years of replacing some streetcars with buses and discontinuing others completely, the city in 1955 sold its fleet of 183 streetcars in to Mexico City for $699,000, a fraction of their book value.

COURTESY WALTER REUTHER LIBRARY, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Blunder: Bulldozing of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley
Demolitions began on the Gratiot Redevelopment Project, Detroit's first major urban renewal venture, in 1950. Eventually about 2,000 families, virtually all African-American, would be displaced from the project site, which included the historically black neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Hastings Street was bulldozed completely and converted into a 0.6-mile expressway to nowhere. When the city attempted to auction off 51 parcels in the project district in July 1952, it received zero bids. No longer generating any tax revenue, the land became overgrown with weeds while waiting for developers to show interest. Finally, in 1956, ground was finally broken for the first building in what is now called Lafayette Park.

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo

Blunder: Subsidized sports stadiums
Like most American stadiums, Detroit's major sporting venues have received public funding in one form or another. $86 million of Comerica Park's construction was funded by hotel and rental car tax increases; Ford Field received $80 million from several public agencies; and Little Caesars Arena was built partly with $324 million in publicly funded bonds—most of which will be repaid with downtown property taxes that otherwise would have been deposited to the state School Aid Fund. Such subsidies, our leaders assure us, are supposed to benefit local economies. But do the handouts ever deliver on their promises? Economics professors Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys examined nearly 20 years of studies on the subject in 2008 and concluded that there is "almost no evidence that professional sports franchises and facilities have a measurable economic impact on the economy."

DAVID TURNLEY/CORBIS/VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES
  • David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Blunder: The condemnation of Poletown
In 1980, General Motors purchased a shuttered Dodge plant in Hamtramck and announced plans for a massive factory to straddle the Detroit-Hamtramck border. The modern plant was to replace two aging facilities on the city's west side. All GM asked in return was for Detroit to obtain $300 million from the federal government to demolish the former Dodge plant, condemn 465 acres of private property, raze 1,176 buildings, and displace 3,438 residents of Detroit's Poletown neighborhood — in addition to a 12-year property tax break. The Poletown Neighborhood Council sued the city to stop the land grab on the grounds that economic development was not a valid reason to seize private property. The case made its way up to the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled in the city's favor in 1981. Ultimately, the court reversed its own decision in 2004.

COURTESY WALTER REUTHER LIBRARY, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Blunder: Old City Hall demolition
Debates over what to do with Detroit's Old City Hall, completed in 1871, had raged long before Detroit's mayor and common council moved into the new, modernist City-County Building in July 1955. Although many wanted to demolish Old City Hall, Mayor Albert Cobo vowed to preserve it. The building continued to be the "official" seat of government and hosted ceremonial civic functions. After Cobo's sudden death in 1957, Old City Hall's foes could not be stopped, and the wreckers finally came in 1961 after a protracted legal battle. The site was a modest patch of grass and a few ornamental plantings until 1965, when an underground parking garage was built. This was topped by a fountain that developed a leak that city workers could not locate, so it was permanently shut off in 1976. The site remained vacant until the One Kennedy Square building was constructed here in 2005.

click to enlarge LEE DEVITO
  • Lee DeVito

Blunder: Running the QLine along the sides of the road
As excitement grew in the late 2000s for a 9.3-mile light rail line on Woodward, the only question was, should trains run in the center of Woodward or along the sides? A 2011 governmental environmental impact study advocated running trains in the median north of Adams Avenue. This would entail less disruptive construction, fewer hazards for bicyclists, more on-street parking, safer fire truck access, greater pedestrian safety, fewer automobile collisions, and fewer obstructions. But M-1 Rail, a private investor group, wanted curbside stations and threatened to pull funding if they did not get their way. In December 2011, the federal government decided to support bus rapid transit rather than rail. M-1 Rail seized the opportunity to pushed through the 3.3-mile, side-running QLine, ultimately obtaining some federal funding anyway. Today, the QLine runs along the sides of Woodward, and every hazard and delay discussed in the environmental impact study has manifested exactly as predicted.

COURTESY CAMPUSMARTIUSPARK.ORG
  • Courtesy CampusMartiusPark.org

Triumph: Campus Martius
Originally a rectangular plaza in Judge Woodward's Plan of Detroit, Campus Martius — the "Field of Mars" — shares a name with public squares in Rome, Paris, and St. Petersburg. As automobiles took over the city, roads ate away at the space until just a small triangle remained at the north end. In 1997, Mayor Dennis Archer announced that the barren intersection would be transformed into an urban park. The reclaimed public space, finished in 2004, was designed by landscape architects Rundell Ernstberger Associates. Fountains mask urban street noise, shade trees provide much-needed greenery, and a café and seasonal programming act as destinations within the park. Campus Martius is an outstanding example of a modern urban park.

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo

Triumph: Cultural Center
The Detroit Museum of Art was originally located downtown on Jefferson Avenue — a space that it quickly outgrew. In 1910, museum directors sought out a new location, finally settling on a residential stretch of Woodward Avenue one and a half miles from downtown. That year, Andrew Carnegie announced a $750,000 donation to build central and branch libraries in Detroit. Seeing an opportunity to establish an arts district for future generations, the city purchased land across the street from the museum site in 1912. The City Plan and Improvement Commission hired architects Edward H. Bennett and Frank Miles Day to create a site plan. They recommended that the city obtain enough space to reflect the buildings' monumental nature, and to accommodate future expansions. The main library, designed by Cass Gilbert, opened in 1921, followed by Paul Philippe Cret's Detroit Institute of Arts, opened in 1927. The complementary buildings now anchor the city's Cultural Center.

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  • Courtesy photo

Triumph: Purchase of Belle Isle
Although Belle Isle seems like an obvious choice for a park setting today, it almost never came to be. Many Detroiters wanted a large, urban park by the 1870s, but disagreements over where it should be located and what it would cost thwarted progress on the issue. In 1879, the Michigan legislature passed a law allowing Detroit to issue bonds to purchase Belle Isle, ostensibly for a railroad bridge over the Detroit River. The Common Council proceeded to spend $200,000 to purchase the island from the descendants of Barnabas Campau. Some Detroiters were outraged at such a wasteful expenditure. Today, Belle Isle is the largest city-owned island park in the nation. Having been run as a state park since 2013, the island welcomed 4.1 million visitors in 2016, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
  • Library of Congress

Triumph: Radial Avenues
Although Judge Woodward often gets credit for Detroit's radial avenues, they don't actually follow his plan. The avenues were actually federal military roads, many of which replaced existing Indian trails: West Jefferson (1809) was a road to Fort Meigs, Ohio; Woodward (1818) replaced the Saginaw Trail to Pontiac; Michigan Ave. (1825) replaced the Great Sauk Trail to Illinois; Gratiot (1827) connected Detroit to Fort Gratiot; and Grand River (1832) opened a path to Lake Michigan. These avenues helped establish Detroit as a regional hub, and are perfectly suited for a rapid transit system (should metro Detroit ever build one).

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo

Triumph: The Detroit Zoo
The Detroit Zoological Society, founded in 1911, struggled for years to locate a suitable site for the city's zoo. That all changed in 1916, when land developers purchased a 350-acre farm in Royal Oak Township. The seller, George Hendrie, stipulated that 100 acres be deeded to the Zoological Society. It took until 1922 for Detroit voters to approve a charter amendment that allowed the city to accept the land. A handful of councilmen from the west side did all they could to prevent the deal, favoring a zoo at the site of present-day Rouge Park instead. They forced the final decision of the zoo's location to be put to a vote of the people. On April 3, 1923, Detroiters overwhelmingly voted in support of the Royal Oak site. The city hired landscape architect Arthur Shurtleff, who laid out the park with cage-free habitats designed to resemble the animals' natural environment. The Detroit Zoo opened August 1, 1928.

COURTESY WALTER REUTHER LIBRARY, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Triumph: Historic preservation ordinance
When Beulah Groehn and her husband, Henry, attended an estate sale on West Canfield Street in 1965, they were so impressed by the 1874 home that they bought it and moved in from the suburbs. Soon after, a developer purchased several Victorian homes across the street with the intention of tearing them down for an eight-story apartment building. Groehn spearheaded a movement with neighbors, architects, and planners to save the block, resulting in the city's first historic preservation ordinance in 1969. The West Canfield Historic District became the first locally designated historic district in the state of Michigan. Rewrites of the city charter have included provisions similar to the 1969 ordinance. Today there are 138 local historic districts in Detroit, protecting some of the very best architecture in the region.

BURTON HISTORICAL COLLECTION, DETROIT PUBLIC LIBRARY
  • Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Triumph: Water and sewer system
The City of Detroit's first public waterworks began in 1836 when the city purchased a rudimentary system of leaky wooden pipes operated by a private company, and converted the Savoyard Creek into the city's first sewer. The city invested heavily in constant upgrades, including the installation in 1871 of the then-largest water pumping engine on Earth, capable of delivering 24 million gallons per day. The municipal water system that Detroit built is now the third largest in the nation, and supplies drinking water to 40% of Michigan's population.

BURTON HISTORICAL COLLECTION, DETROIT PUBLIC LIBRARY
  • Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Triumph: Grand Boulevard
Industrialization had left American cities so crowded and filthy by the mid- to late-1800s that city planners became increasingly interested in building wide-open parks and boulevards. In the early 1870s, progressive Detroiters suggested the construction of a broad avenue encircling the city, ornamented by stately homes and lush greenery, for the purpose of pleasurable carriage rides through the countryside. In 1879, the Michigan Legislature passed a law creating an unpaid Board of Boulevard Commissioners to create such a parkway, passing through portions of Detroit as well as Hamtramck, Greenfield, and Springwells townships. Some decried the wastefulness of such a road through mostly farmland. The route was chosen in 1880 and ground first broken in 1881, but few portions would actually be improved for some time. Under the leadership of Mayor Hazen S. Pingree, the city dedicated more resources to the project. Alderman James Lauder broke ground on the boulevard just east of Woodward on August 10, 1891 to begin an initial four miles of grading and paving. Detroit grew well past Grand Boulevard just as predicted, and is now the location of some of the finest homes — and skyscrapers — in the city.

COURTESY DETROIT RIVERFRONT CONSERVANCY
  • Courtesy Detroit RiverFront Conservancy

Triumph: The Riverwalk
Sometimes an urban planning success is necessary to mitigate the damage done by an urban planning blunder. In the 1990s, Mayor Dennis Archer pushed the idea of legalized gambling in Detroit, and advocated locating the casinos on the waterfront east of downtown. The city condemned 52 acres in the Warehouse District, devastating the neighborhood and leading to the closure of historic businesses, including the Woodbridge Tavern. In 2002, after the casinos had located elsewhere, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy was founded to build a continuous, public riverwalk from Joe Louis Arena to the McArthur Bridge and to expand and improve existing park space. One resulting project was Milliken State Park, Michigan's first urban state park, featuring reconstructed wildlife habitat and wetlands that naturally treat stormwater runoff from surrounding parcels.

COURTESY OF THE DETROIT RIVERFRONT CONSERVANCY
  • Courtesy of the Detroit RIverFront Conservancy

Triumph: The Dequindre Cut
On May 24, 1836, Antoine Dequindre granted the Detroit & Pontiac Railroad Company a 40-foot strip of land on the eastern border of his riverfront farm for the purpose of laying track, and this strip of land would be called Dequindre Street. Safety concerns forced the Grand Trunk Railroad, successor to the Detroit & Pontiac Railroad, to dig down and lower their right-of-way beginning in 1927. When the line was discontinued in the 1980s, the corridor attracted urban explorers and graffiti artists. MGM Grand Casino bought part of the line in 1999 for a freeway to a proposed casino district, but the project fell through and the city of Detroit acquired the land.

In December 2002, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick unveiled plans to transform the Dequindre Cut into a recreational biking and running trail, connecting Eastern Market to the Detroit River. The Dequindre Cut opened in May 2007, with graffiti murals left intact. One unintended benefit of this project is that it preserves a right-of-way formerly occupied by a commuter rail that, until 1982, ran between the Renaissance Center and Pontiac, with stops in Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham. Perhaps this line will run again.

Paul Sewick operates Detroit Urbanism, a blog about the history of city roads, borders, and infrastructure. He also contributes to Curbed Detroit.

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