Detroit Business District Could Be One Template for Reshaping City

The talk of the town in Detroit these days is Mayor Dave Bing’s controversial proposal to “shrink” the city and save money by consolidating neighborhoods. As one good place to focus on his goal of increasing density, I nominate the commercial district lining West Seven Mile Road.

A cluster of businesses brightens West Seven Mile Road in Detroit.

Earlier this week, I helped live tweet the Bing administration’s latest Detroit Works Project neighborhood meeting on behalf of Declare Detroit, an unaffiliated group. Residents who attended said it was important for the cash-strapped city to invest in business corridors, emerging industries and small businesses, among other things.

I drove home that night on Seven Mile, which I like to take from time to time to check in with a part of the city not often visited by non-residents.

To my mind, this several-miles-long strip, between roughly Lahser Road and Livernois Avenue on the city’s far northwest side, is a dynamic case study. It’s one of relatively few places where Detroit still feels like a big city.

An Unpolished Gem

No, it’s not always pretty. Some blocks are pockmarked by empty or blighted storefronts, and others are broken up by sprawling parking lots. Some of the businesses are likely hanging on by a thread. Many shield their cash registers behind bulletproof glass, reflecting another persistent problem facing Detroit.

Nevertheless, a reasonably stable, dense commercial district endures.

Here you can find independently owned hardware stores, take-out joints, barber shops, dry cleaners, record stores (remember those?), taverns, cobblers, a Jamaican restaurant, party stores and other fixtures of urban neighborhoods. The city’s only Home Depot opened here several years ago.

Perhaps most importantly, the district benefits from that most precious and fleeting of urban assets ─ it oozes character.

An example of Detroit's urban prairie.

There aren’t a lot of dense business districts like this left in Detroit. The adjacent residential neighborhoods mostly remain densely populated. And with a concerted push and some investment, it’s not too hard to imagine it as a thriving, inviting place.

Reinforcing City’s Strengths

Bing has drawn criticism from some residents for saying he wants to encourage residents who live in lightly populated neighborhoods to move to more heavily populated ones. That’s understandable. No one wants to leave the homes and neighborhoods they’ve poured their heart and souls into.

But the reality is, the city can no longer afford to service every one of its 139 square miles, especially with so much surplus, abandoned land. City officials say they’ll spend $9 million per square mile delivering services like trash pick-up, police and fire protection in 2011, one of the highest rates among cities nationwide. Detroit can’t afford to service the urban prairie anymore.

It makes sense to focus Detroit’s dwindling resources on neighborhoods like the ones along West Seven Mile, where infrastructure, energy and critical mass already are in place. At this point, the city has little choice but to try and focus on its best remaining assets.

See our events calendar for a schedule of upcoming Detroit Works Project meetings.

Photo by jane boles.

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