Spoiling a waterfront location with an ugly “mini McMansion”

Curbed National does not like a development of “mini McMansions” in Detroit:

We’ve been befuddled by the Shorepointe Village at Grayhaven development before. It has such a nice waterfront location and such terrible home exteriors. But this interior seems to be one of the better ones. This 3,000 square foot home previously asking $479K just sold for $440K. It feels very early aughts but who doesn’t enjoy a little throw back? It has a neighbor still for sale asking $420K.

Even looking at the earlier pictures of the development, I’m not sure why this particular project draws much attention. Sure, the houses have some exterior oddities. But, are they really much worse than the average McMansion, let alone some of the more extreme examples involving turrets, features of castles, multi-gabled roofs, and other garish architectural quirks? The development may be cookie-cutter so are a lot of single-family home developments.

Perhaps the key here is the waterfront location. Such desirable property that tends to prompt higher housing values often feature large houses but often not such bland design.

Just how much blight there is in Detroit

A recent report shows the patterns of blight in Detroit:

These numbers come from a report released this week by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force on the results of a manual survey of 377,602 property parcels in the city. Nearly one in three structures in Detroit needs some kind of intervention, according to the analysis. That covers 78,506 structures that the report has deemed “blighted” or showing indicators of blight, as well as 6,135 lots that have effectively become neglected dumping grounds…

“We need to recognize the volume of blighted structures did not happen overnight,” the report declares. “Detroit’s conditions are the physical result of dire economic and social forces that pulled the city apart over many decades.”…

The empty lots, vacant homes and shuttered industrial plants that attest to this exodus are not evenly spread across the city. And so Detroit — as New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina — will face difficult decisions about where to focus its efforts, prioritizing those places where investment will have the greatest impact on people who still live in the city. By Detroit’s reckoning, no city has ever addressed more than 7,000 blighted structures in a year. The task force is proposing to eradicate all blight in the city in the next five years, lest blight beget more blight, with the problem continuing to spread beyond the city’s ability to keep up…

Detroit Blight Removal Task Force

This could provide an interesting comparison to urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s in numerous major cities that many scholars and residents would see mostly as land grabs. Some of those projects were justified with blight as a cover to push people out. The situation today in Detroit is quite different as there is a large number of blighted properties that not too many people want and few would argue that blight is not a legitimate problem. Of course, as the article notes, these properties drain resources from a city that needs more resources. Yet, dealing with all the blight is not easy…

Why are so many car commercials set in the Los Angeles area?

I’ve noticed something about car commercials lately: many of them are shot in the Los Angeles area. Here are three common scenes:

1. Driving down a few blocks of downtown Los Angeles, possibly with the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the background or in the parking garage that provides a nice overlook over the city. Even if you don’t know the concert hall by name, you may have seen this behind numerous cars:


It takes some work to block off urban streets but these few blocks of downtown get a lot of air time.

2. Driving on Highway 101 along the Pacific Coast. Think of scenes with cliffs on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other, a sunny day, and a beautiful car driving down a narrow road over curves and with sweeping vistas.

3. Driving along Mulholland Drive with the city in the background or along a similar road in the hills north of downtown Los Angeles. One of the commercials on the air right now ends with a shot of the new car winding its way toward the Griffiths Observatory. The observatory is a nice place to explore and there are good views:


Overall, I suspect there is some good reason for all of this. Perhaps it to simply take advantage of all of the power and tools of Hollywood. Perhaps LA is great because of its varied landscape. Perhaps there are some tax breaks involved. However, there are plenty of other cities where this filming could take place and LA is far away from Detroit, the traditional center of American cars. At the same time, this might provide more reasons why that Super Bowl commercial about being “Imported from Detroit” received so much attention.

Problems in Detroit include “dysfunctional American sociology” and lack of regional governance

One commentator focuses on the lack of metropolitan governance in Detroit and also mentions “dysfunctional American sociology.” Here is the bit on sociology:

And without widespread racism, there would have been fewer ghettoized African-Americans.

Hard to ignore this. See the work of scholar Thomas Sugrue in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

Here is more of the argument for regional governance:

In a European-style metro Detroit, unified regional planning would favor reconstruction of the old city centre over new buildings and new highways in ever more distant locations. Some of the tax revenue raised in what are today separate affluent suburban jurisdictions would be spent in the centre of the city. With better roads, schools, police and services, Detroit’s slums would be less slummy and the culture of crime and despair would probably be less entrenched.

There’s actually no need to go to Europe to find better ways to arrange urban jurisdictions. As David Rusk points out in his book “Cities without Suburbs”, the American cities that have expanded their city limits along with their populations generally have stronger economies, less racial segregation and more equal income distribution than the mostly older cities with rigid borders.

The ethical issue can be reduced to an old question: who is my neighbor? Everyone, even economists who believe people should be selfish, recognizes that it is helpful to work together as a community. Almost everyone, perhaps excluding a few cold-hearted economists, would agree that the strong in a community have some obligation to help the weak. But how large is the relevant community?…

David Rusk, Myron Orfield, and others have made the argument for regional governance for decades but it has had difficult gaining traction, particularly in wealthier suburbs that do not see this as such a clear-cut ethical issue. Opposition to regional governance is rooted in longer issues between cities and less urban areas where cities are viewed as bad places full of crime, race, immigrants, densities that are too high, uncleanliness, and other “urban problems.” Why should people who made the choice to move to suburbs be held responsible for the problems of people in other communities? Ultimately, perhaps this is rooted in American individualism which views all moves to the suburbs as the result of individual merit and also tends to lead to an interest in government or control that is as local as possible.

The value of using maps to see the rise and fall of Detroit

Here is a series of maps that show both the growth and decline of Detroit over its history. When looking at these maps, I’m reminded that it is quite difficult to talk about either the rise or decline of a major city just by discussing raw numbers, such as population increases or losses or economic figures, or photographs. For example, we could talk about the rise of Houston in recent decades and contrast this to the sharp population decrease in Detroit. Moving past statistics, we could include photographs of a city. Detroit has been photographed many times in recent years with often bleak scenes illustrating economic and social decline.

In some middle ground between numbers and photos and in-depth analysis (of which there does not seem to be much about Detroit recently – the mainstream media has primarily focused on short snippets of information) are maps. A good map has sufficient information to provide a top-down approach to the city and give some indication of the city’s infrastructure. Additionally, it is much easier today to provide multiple layers of mapped information based on Census data and other sources. Growth is relatively easy to see as new streets and points of interest starting showing up. On the other hand, decline might be harder to show as the streets may be empty and the points of interest might be decaying. Still, a current map shows the scope of the problem facing Detroit: it is population and economic decline plus a large chunk of land and structures that is difficult to maintain.

All together, I’m advocating for more widespread use of maps in reporting on and discussions about cities, whether they are struggling or thriving. Maps can help us move beyond seeing vacant houses or economic developments and take in the big picture all at once.

Three possible reasons why the harsh national spotlight is on Chicago

Whet Moser proposes three reasons Chicago has received negative attention recently from the national media:

It’s a big, easy target. Chicago’s “Big Shoulders” image—it was the city that “built the American dream,” to use the historian Thomas Dyja’s words—makes any fall from that perch seem that much more momentous. “We were the future,” says the Northwestern professor Bill Savage.

The Obama factor. Chicago’s problems never used to be much of a national story (unless a governor got indicted). But after a skinny Chicagoan became president—a man whose team has included a Daley, our current mayor, and one of the country’s most powerful political advisers—the light of press attention shone more brightly. “When you look at what’s wrong [with the country],” says Savage, “you look at Chicago.”

It’s our turn. In the 1970s, New York City “was collapsing,” the Reader media critic Michael Miner points out. “The Summer of Sam, ‘Ford to New York: Drop Dead.’?” When Los Angeles hit hard times in the early 1990s, it “was just as much of a [media] whipping boy,” says Savage. Chicago is a logical third. It will be somebody else’s turn soon enough. Prepare yourself, Houston (which is projected to surpass Chicago in population by 2030): You may be next.

Some thoughts about each of these proposed reasons:

#1: Out of the three reasons listed above, I find this one the least plausible. Yes, Chicago was once the new American city (see the late 1800s) but it has been eclipsed by Los Angeles (perhaps Hollywood and the generally glitter of the city limits negative attention?) and Chicago has been suffering from the same kinds of problems as today (loss of manufacturing jobs, poverty, crime, inequality) since at least the 1970s if not all the way back in the early 1900s with the Black Belt and immigrant experience. Chicago may have once been the future (also see the 1893 Columbian Exposition) but that future disappeared a long time ago (and perhaps Chicagoans hold on to that 1893 fair a little too closely as well). This might be a longer story about Chicago representing the problems of the Rust Belt – a cycle of loss, rebirth (1990-2006 or so in Chicago), then problems again – than about the loss of a future.

#2: Chicago has never had a president so linked to the city. And, while Obama spent much of his adult life in Chicago, he isn’t originally from the city. While the Daleys are well known, their rule was much more provincial.

#3: This suggests that such negative attention is cyclical, either because different cities experience trouble at different times or there is a sort of revolving set of cities that receive attention. Houston might be next if people first learn about its growth and changes.

Plus, has Chicago received more negative attention recently than Detroit?

Michigan to appoint emergency manager for Detroit

The city of Detroit will soon lose self-governance as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says an emergency manager will take control:

“I believe it’s important to declare the city of Detroit in financial emergency,” Snyder announced at a midday press conference on Friday, in front of the banner, “Detroit Can’t Wait.” The EM will assume the suspended powers of the mayor and city council, and will take unilateral control of municipal finances, union contracts, pension systems, and more.

The consolidation of power will likely lead to cuts and asset sales that the mayor and city council had sought to avoid, which could include the privatization of most of the city’s water supply or the sale of Belle Isle Park. The EM also has the power to declare the city bankrupt, though that option seems unlikely.

The process has racial and political overtones. Detroit is over 80 percent black and its city government is controlled by Democrats; the Michigan statehouse is largely white and firmly in Republican control. If an EM is appointed in nearby Inkster (pop. 25,000, currently under a “consent agreement” with the state), as Chris Savage has pointed out, more than half of Michigan’s 1.4 million African Americans will be governed by unelected officials.

Snyder’s decision follows last week’s devastating report from a state review team that Detroit is unable to address its long-term financial problems. The Motor City, the investigation found, has $14.9 billion in long-term debt and pension obligations, and its general fund has not shown a surplus since 2004. The review team unanimously recommended state intervention…

Five other cities in Michigan are also under state control. Detroit will be the largest city in the country to lose the ability to govern itself.

It will be interesting to see what goals the emergency manager has. To fix the budget and turn a surplus? To contract the city to a viable size? To try to attract growth? To stem the population loss? To privatize unprofitable utilities? Related to the goals, I’m also curious to know how the state will determine whether the emergency manager is “successful.” What happens if the emergency manager doesn’t work out?

In the long run, the ability to self-govern seems to be a bedrock principle in American life. I wonder how much Governor Snyder really wants to do this versus feeling like it has to be done to turn Detroit around. The political fall-out from such a move may not be pretty and states don’t want to be in long-term positions like these.