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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The city's weak financial situation means it can't rely on more than just nominal tax incentives to attract companies considering a move to Detroit. But Bing says his trump card is something no other city can so generously provide: land. According to the Detroit Works Project, a little more than 12 percent of Detroit, or 10,950 acres, is vacant land. Twenty percent of the commercial and industrial land in the city is vacant. .Skip to next paragraph
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The city controls 50 percent of the unoccupied land and Bing considers this "a huge asset." To businesses considering a move to Detroit, he says, "You come up with a great idea and some kind of plan, and there's something to talk about. It's a white sheet of paper right now."
But Detroit's past is some heavy baggage. Decades of political corruption have stalled progress, and everyone – from city residents to state lawmakers – looks at promises from city hall with a high degree of distrust.
"People have grown very cynical of government in Detroit and that will make [recovery plans] probably more difficult," says Mr. Fontaine, with the University of Michigan.
The situation worsened in recent years with the many scandals taking place under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who faces trial in 2012 on federal charges alleging he used his authority to generate millions of dollars in kickbacks from contractors, nonprofit donors, and others. Mr. Kilpatrick is currently in prison for a parole violation related to two obstruction of justice felonies that put him in prison in 2008 in the middle of his term.
Bing says he realized upon taking office that a major part of his job would be convincing people he was a reformer. He started his term by announcing he'd donate his $176,176 annual salary to the Detroit Police Department to hire more officers.
"This administration came in on transparency, on openness, on telling the truth. So, based on what it was and what it is, it's a 180-degree difference," he says. "But still there's fear."
Besides cynicism over city government, Bing's plan to possibly offer residents the choice to move to thriving neighborhoods faces a second challenge: It's been tried before. In 1994, the city announced it would buy out 500 property owners living near the city airport in order to build a safety buffer. Less than half the owners never received offers and the project is in limbo, says the city, because of a shrinking Federal Aviation Administration budget. Neighborhood advocates complain that property owners were offered less than what their parcels were worth and that, by dragging its feet, the city has accelerated the area's decline.
Mark Demorest, any attorney who represented a dozen property owners in the airport case, says the city has a spotty legacy for dealing with urban renewal.
"I don't think the city should embark on [the Detroit Works Project] unless they know how to pay for it. If you start on a project and let it languish, or abandon it in the middle, it's probably worse than starting it in the first place," he says.
Despite Detroit's troubled history, some residents insist that abandonment is not a solution. Many here remain entrenched because they believe that after hitting bottom with Kilpatrick and the auto industry failures, there simply is nowhere for the city to go but up.
"People always cry about Detroit, but some of the suburbs have the same problems. What's the difference?" asks the happy homeowner Dewayne Hurling. "Change takes time. I'm patient."