Dreams of Amazon’s HQ2 and projects already in the works like the Monroe Blocks and Hudson’s Site Development have the city of Detroit in a creative mood so we at Think313 decided to get in on the spirit. We’ve detailed five crazy ideas below that would transform the face of the city and ignite further development in and around the downtown area.
1. Downtown Pedestrian Zone
Although Europe is known for its extensive web of urban pedestrian-only zones, North American cities are quickly following suit as they recognize the various benefits associated with vehicle-free commercial areas. In a paper written for the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP), urban planner Nasim Iranmanesh outlined environmental impacts such as pollution reduction, economic benefits tied to retaining window shoppers, and social benefits like increased interaction with other pedestrians.
The downtown area bounded by Park Ave, Washington Boulevard, Jefferson, Randolph, and Broadway (shaded in green above) could be broken up into four “pedestrian islands” so the main avenues of Woodward, Michigan, and Monroe could still function as usual while creating a total of 0.15 square miles for pedestrians to enjoy retail, restaurants, and parks at their own pace without fear of vehicular traffic.
2. Urban Artificial Lake
Everyone wants to live on some sort of body of water. Zillow reports that “Nationally, waterfront homes are worth more than double of the value of homes overall.” Neighborhoods just outside of the Greater Downtown Detroit area with vacant blocks and overgrown lots could have a block or two turned into artificial lakes not only to raise property values and eat up underused land but also to provide stormwater drainage to take pressure off of the municipal sewage system. A small lake in the city would become an important source of recreation and general sense of well-being as well as an ecological hub for a diversity of wildlife.
3. I-375 Canal
If you’ve walked around downtown Chicago, Milwaukee, or any other number of cities you’ve most likely been attracted to stroll along a river walk, taking in the sites of the urbanscape while relaxing or exercising by the water. While Detroit sits on a river, it’s about 2400 feet wide at downtown and requires a passport to reach the other bank so it’s not necessarily as negotiable for pedestrians as the water corridors of Amsterdam or Venice. A canal replacing I-375 (shaded in red above) running from the Detroit river through Schweizer Place and onto the freeway would provide both a more versatile waterway to retain pedestrians and provide a sense of place while boosting property values for future development. Similar to Amsterdam, the city of Detroit could permit house boat docking on the canal to nurture old-world charm and keep in line with Detroit’s reputation as a center for creativity, uniqueness, and eccentricity. (An idea from the Founder of JMJ Phillip Holdings, James Philip)
4. People Mover High Line
Perhaps one of the more contentious municipal installments in the city is the 2.9 mile looped monorail system known as the Detroit People Mover. The single-track light rail system has drawn criticism for hemorrhaging money due to low ridership; before its opening in 1987 it was planned to carry 24,710,500 passengers annually through the city but only saw a tenth of that number in 2015. According to Spero News, the People Mover cost $4.28 to move a single passenger one mile in 2009. If we multiply 2.4 million annual passengers going halfway around the 2.9 mile loop by $4.28, we’re looking at a total cost of $14,894,400 per year to operate the People Mover. The $.75 fare does little to offset this, as it equals out to $1.8 million for 2.4 million passengers per year, slightly lowering the cost to $13,094,400 annually. So how could we remedy this underused and uneconomical rail system?
The High Line elevated park in New York City’s west side, itself inspired by Paris’s Coulée verte René-Dumont, is built on a former elevated rail line and since opening in 2009 has enjoyed booming real estate values and development in the surrounding areas. Maintenance costs for the 1.45 mile-long promenade are $4.5 million per year, astronomical for a park but still miniscule compared to the People Mover’s cost of $13,094,000. I propose that the People Mover track, about a half or third of the width of the High Line, should be transformed into a winding park through Detroit’s downtown with unparalleled views of the cityscape and the offering of a natural escape from brick and pavement below. The full loop could operate from 7am-8pm with a smaller portion offering extended hours on weekends.
5. Vertical Farm Skyscrapers
Detroit is famously known as the Motor City but in recent years it has donned another title: Mecca of Urban Farming. Started in grassroots movements by necessity to give lower earning Detroiters access to clean and healthy food, organizations catering to micro-farms, social work, and restauranteering have built a well-established community of aid and assistance to potential growers in the city. Larger institutions have also taken notice; MSU Today reported in 2016 of a future Center for Urban Food facilitated by Michigan State University and located in one of Detroit’s neighborhoods.
As a city of innovation and a major player in urban farming, Detroit should build on that momentum by driving development in the industry. As the greater downtown grows in height during the next five years, unique urban agricultural advancements like vertical farming should see areas like Midtown grow upward while aiding research in future farming practices, providing food for local consumption, and cleaning the air.
By Jared Hoffman
Research Associate, JMJ Phillip Group