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Detroit’s Future City

A new framework for the Motor City
Pages 32-33

Last year, the Detroiter reported on Detroit Future City (DFC), an ambitious strategy being developed to transform Detroit and improve the quality of life and business in the city. DFC will help to better align Detroit’s assets over the next five to 20 years in new innovative ways requiring the involvement of government, businesses and investors, neighborhood and community groups, philanthropic organizations, and other non-governmental organizations.

The Detroiter recently interviewed the two people tasked with bringing the now completed strategy to life – DFC Executive Director Dan Kinkead and economic growth lead Kyle Polk.

The DFC Strategic Framework Plan was launched earlier this year. Where are you in the process?
Kinkead: Our staff is currently outlining strategic action plans for working groups associated with each of the five planning elements within the Strategic Framework. The plans will be completed for board review this fall to coordinate engagement, policy, and project actions focused on the next two years. Such actions are seen as the fundamental starting point for a longer-term transformation of Detroit. Some of DFC’s near-term actions include coordination with the city of Detroit to achieve substantial changes to the Master Plan of Policies and the Zoning Ordinance to accommodate Strategic Framework recommendations, successful application for the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, and a multistructure deconstruction pilot in the city’s Springwells neighborhood.

This sounds like a tremendous amount of start-up work.
Kinkead: Yes, it is ambitious, but we recognize how critical this moment is in our city’s history. We have unprecedented challenges – our municipal government is bankrupt, our residents and businesses continue to lack critical services. We also have an unprecedented opportunity – we are working to strategically coordinate our major transportation investments, neighborhood stabilization efforts; and regulatory reform with significant private investment, strong anchor institutions and an emerging dynamic economy. This allows us to create large-scale impacts that can stabilize the city and improve quality of life. Without that coordination, we may miss the opportunity to truly transform Detroit.

You’ve mentioned important aspects of the economy in transforming Detroit. How does that play into your implementation efforts?
Kinkead: It is not by chance that the Strategic Framework Plan begins with economic growth. We feel it is the center of so much within our city and our lives that it must lead in our strategic decision-making. A city in which one private sector job exists for every four residents cannot be sustained, no matter what else we might accomplish across the other planning elements. The framework focuses on growing the employment base through a place-based growth strategy that leverages existing assets in seven key employment districts. Our research has shown that fusing a stronger relationship between large employers and local entrepreneurs can provide a rich opportunity for organic job creation. We feel strongly that the key to sustainable job growth will be the accessibility and inclusive nature of the opportunities.

The DFC report accurately notes, “Detroit is not too big, its economy is too small.” What will the implementation phase of DFC do to grow the economic pie?
Polk: DFC has identified asset-rich employment districts across the city of Detroit. Each employment district has a unique set of existing economic clusters, vast amounts of job-producing land and access to a physical road/rail infrastructure that site selectors nationwide seek. The implementation phase of DFC will seek to target resources toward increasing the employment density in Detroit’s core employment districts. At the moment, Detroit Future City is working with Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) on their flagship D2D procurement program. This buyer-led initiative is spearheaded by Olga Stella, DEGC vice president of business, and has an innovative focus on increasing business-to-business activity through increased local procurement between Detroit’s 15 largest purchasers and a network of 200-plus suppliers.

DFC places a substantial emphasis on aligning employment districts and innovative land use to foster economic activity. What would this look like?
Polk: The DFC work has shown that economic opportunity needs geography. Not only do jobs need to be in close proximity to job seekers, from a mobility perspective, but also the infrastructure that supports the small and medium Minority Business Enterprises needs to be fiscally sustainable.

The implementation phase of DFC will seek to leverage successful public-private partnerships in key employment districts to reduce city system cost on business owners and co-locate business expansion/ attraction efforts with workforce mobility. For example, DFC is currently working with RecoveryPark, led by Gary Wozniak, to reutilize a vast area of vacant, costly, and underutilized land into a scalable footprint for innovative food production firms near Eastern Market. Food cluster firms in Detroit represent high employment density, accessible educational requirements, and significant export opportunities.

You mentioned vacant/blighted land. Is DFC supporting any innovative models of blight removal?
Polk: With the vast number of vacant structures across the city, blight elimination is essential for the city to provide an effective value proposition to its residents and businesses. This is not only a residential quality of life issue, it’s also a quality of business environment concern as well. In partnership with Erin Kelly of Next Energy, DFC is launching the Springwells deconstruction project to pilot initiatives that eliminate blight, but also actively test ways in which this can be done to maximize resource recovery from the structures and create employment opportunities for Detroiters. It also helps to develop the best environmental standards for the process, and incorporates community insight into the future configuration and use of the lots left behind. Here, blighted liabilities can be transformed into community assets.

Many of the ideas contained in DFC and the broader implementation work are dependent on guiding and advancing regulatory reform. What is DFC doing to move the needle on this in the short and mid term?
Kinkead: DFC recognizes that Detroit’s ability to strategically navigate its redevelopment will require updated regulatory tools. We plan to work closely with the city of Detroit to update the Master of Planning of Policies and the Zoning Ordinance to support the objectives of the Strategic Framework. DFC proposes several important updates to these documents, and we’ve been coordinating necessary steps with the Planning and Development Department and City Planning Commission since late 2012, prior to the launch of the Framework. Updates include incorporation of form-based factors, innovative land use typologies, and primary and secondary employment districts.

How does DFC see the new, smaller scale firms that are popping up playing a role in Detroit’s transformation?

Polk: Small and medium-sized firms are the cornerstone of the nation’s economy. DFC is committed to improving the quality of technical assistance, access to capital and inclusive resource channels available for these firms. The Strategic Framework calls out Detroit’s disproportionate share of sole proprietorships as an entry point opportunity for growing jobs locally. Through innovative partnerships with local and national entrepreneurship partners, DFC will support a series of pilot projects targeted at growing capacity at the sole proprietor level.

To learn more about the Strategic Framework, visit DetroitFutureCity.com or call 313.259.4407.