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Retooling the Motor City: Can Detroit save itself?

A retooling plan for Detroit – involving controversial razing, shrinking, and repurposing – is under way as the Motor City tries to save itself.

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"It's more than a threat," Bing says of the state takeover. Last year the city paid $191 million in health care to union employees and retirees and $200 million in pension payouts, both of which Bing says are "unsustainable."

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Unions balk when Bing brings up the possibility of a state takeover, saying they've made concessions in the past and that the city's budget shortfall is not their responsibility. "My attitude is, I'd rather have a fight with an outsider imposed on us from outside Detroit rather than being nickel-and-dimed" by the city, says Michael Mulholland, the secretary-treasurer of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 207.

No matter how the budget issues are resolved, the census figures are forcing city leaders to realize that something must be done to address the stark imbalance of its footprint versus its current density. Detroit was designed to accommodate 2.5 million people, three times its population today. As for sheer land size, Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston all could fit comfortably within the 139 square miles inside its borders.

Yet in those dense urban areas where extra land can be an asset, in Detroit it represents a liability.

Bing believes that the city's rebirth is only possible if residents choose to live closer together in neighborhoods central to downtown.

'BRUTAL TRUTH': COZY IS LESS COSTLY

The central controversy in an act of such social engineering is the sense of coercion or even racial prejudice, because many of the marginal neighborhoods that would be eliminated are black. But convincing residents that denser neighborhoods are better relies on this financial certainty: If you live in a thinly populated neighborhood, your trash will pile up for two weeks instead of one before being collected, your streets will be low on the list for repair, and emergency response calls will take longer than in more dense neighborhoods where police and fire stations are around the corner.

Bing created the Detroit Works Project to puzzle through a long-term plan that will eliminate blight, consolidate city services, and create incentives for residents to move closer to downtown. Similar urban renewal endeavors have helped turn around the ailing economies of Youngstown, Ohio, and Saginaw, Mich. But Detroit is the largest city in the United States to contemplate such a dramatic restructuring.

Through a series of public meetings that started last fall, Bing and other city officials have stressed that no final decisions have been made. But in interviews, Bing makes it clear that "I have to be brutally honest...." Whatever the outcome, he says, there are "a lot of hard decisions that need to be made. We've got limited resources yet we've got demands from our citizens for services like never before, and we can't afford to do it."

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