Taubman College considers Detroit redevelopment

November 21, 2001
  • umichnews@umich.edu

EDITORS: To view student redevelopment proposals from the U-M Detroit 300 series event, contact Maureen Perdomo, (734) 763-6518. For information about U-M Taubman College, visit Web site at www.tcaup.umich.edu/news/.

ANN ARBOR—The history between Detroit and the University of Michigan is uniquely interwoven: the University began there before it moved to Ann Arbor in 1834.

“U-M would not be a great University today if it wasn’t for the economic and cultural power of Detroit,” says Doug Kelbaugh, dean of U-M’s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “I can’t think of a more exciting project than rebuilding Detroit and rebuilding all the cities of America that have been so beleaguered and so troubled in the last 50 years.”

For Detroit, redevelopment poses several challenges, but this is a great opportunity to create a more vibrant, efficient and ecological-friendly city, he says. A unique challenge the city faces is its layout and geometry. “Any city that’s on a river or a lake has a geographic and geometric challenge. As it grows the center of gravity moves away from the river and the historical center tends to be removed over time from the population center. This means the downtown has to be even better, even stronger and more vibrant to maintain its central position.”

Kelbaugh explains that Detroit is full of cultural wealth as evidenced by its library, architecture, music history and museums, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts. And in the past couple of years, there have been a number of positive steps in redeveloping the city—Comerica Park, new housing and retail developments, and the casinos have taken root.

The new housing developments, however, are generally low-density and spread out. “It’s very easy to redevelop Detroit in a low-density suburban paradigm,” Kelbaugh states. “Although that may be what the market wants immediately, it may not be in the long-term interest of the city because you neither get the vibrancy of a city nor much connection to nature.”

One of the major problems plaguing the city has been its large decline in population. According to Margaret Dewar, professor and academic program chair of the Urban Planning Program, the city has lost nearly half its population since its peak in 1953. A city that once had nearly 2 million residents now has shrunk to under 1 million. This decline in population has caused a huge loss in the property tax base as well as many empty lots and abandoned buildings. Progress has been made in terms of speeding up the demolition of abandoned houses. However, there remain approximately 35,000 empty land parcels that are in city ownership.

In spite of such difficult challenges facing Detroit, many opportunities for redevelopment continue to present themselves. Dewar focuses on bright spots, such as a growth in the medical services, legal services and advertising sectors in Detroit’s economy.

At a Detroit 300 series event held in
Offering the developer’s perspective at U-M’s Detroit 300 series event, Herb Strather, chief principal of Strather and Associates, Inc.—a Detroit-based real estate acquisition and development firm—discussed the different facets one considers in redeveloping Detroit. Strather stated that it takes energy and motivation to move forward, noting that he has learned more and broadened his vision about architectural design through his dealings with U-M Taubman College.

www.tcaup.umich.edu/news/Doug KelbaughMargaret Dewar