Friday, August 21, 2009

Shrinking Cities: What can we learn from Detroit?

The post below is written by Peter Zeiler who serves as the Transit Station Area Development Coordinator in the Neighborhood & Business Services for the City of Charlotte. He can be reached at

Back up in Detroit I spent a lot of time and energy focused around the Shrinking Cities project and discussing the issue with local and global policy makers.

One of the key points missed in planning for a shrinking city is property ownership & control and the costs to actually a policy of shrinking. Disinvestment is not linear or block by block. A city managing decline must rationalize the chaotic decay in order to effect any meaningful change other than the natural entropy – which as we have seen is not a viable model.

The costs to return large tracts of patchwork land in neighborhoods back to natural or agricultural (or even industrial) uses is staggering.

As an example, a project I worked on in Detroit over a seven year period was to basically apply the coup de grace to a dead neighborhood. Out of 1,600 homes in 1940 in the target neighborhood, only about 400 were still standing. 100 of those were vacant, the other 300 were about half owner occupied, 85% were sub-code and the households were largely impoverished. Nearly 700 of the vacant parcels were already owned by the City through tax foreclosure.

The neighborhood was surrounded by industrial uses in a classic pre-zoning land use pattern. The goal was to remove the vestiges of the trapped neighborhood, move the residents to other neighborhoods that had a chance to survive to help stabilize them and then backfill the site. The site would become an industrial / office park with excellent freeway access and tax free status for 15 years through a program known as Renaissance Zones (businesses would be exempt from all non-bonded property tax, utility taxes and all local and state business taxes- and we would sell them the newly cleared land with significant writedowns).

Shorty story – it failed. Miserably.

The cost to relocate households averaged about $150,000 - $200,000 per household despite the fact that their homes were valued generally at less than $30,000. Following state and federal guidelines for eminent domain added significant (and wholly justifiable and ethically correct) expenditures. Then came the task of tracking down and condemning vacant 40’ x 90’ residential lots – at an average expense of $35,000 per parcel.

Once the majority of the site was acquired the physical work needed to be engaged. Because we were demolishing a significant number of structures, the entire site needed to undergo a full EPA analysis – meaning house by house investigation for contaminants which would be part of an overall environmental program. No just bulldozing the home, you had to check each and every one and – for example - mitigate ACMs like linoleum mastics by hand. $3,000 per unit demos skyrocketed to upwards of $60,000 per in some cases. There were significant costs to relocate water, sewer, gas and electrical infrastructure that ran through the site and connected to other neighborhoods. Infrastructure is a network, not a system of nodes that can be switched off arbitrarily and thus creates reengineering and rerouting challenges. Then the vacant land and abandoned streets had to be remediated (lead, arsenic etc in soils, PCB plumes from neighboring uses) and grubbed.

In short nearly $120 million was used to create a 50 acre industrial park - without roads. Recall the Empowerment Zone program of the Clinton era that was to spark urban redevelopment was criticized as squandering tax payer dollars by granting $100 million to each of six cities. The entirety of the Detroit Title IX money could have been consumed and still not been enough for the 50 acres of the site.

The result of all this is a 200,000 square foot JIT (just in time) warehouse facility that employs 60. Even with generous land write-downs and nearly full tax exemption for 15 years, the site did not attract users. There are simply no jobs left in southeast Detroit and no reason to move jobs there. Now if that is the cost for 50 acres, the math for even 10% of the 138 square miles of Detroit would be staggering.

This isn’t to say that the goal is not worthy or that it can’t be done. Flint, MI and Youngstown, OH have moved towards managing decay but they are timid steps still. The concept is viable and no longer groundbreaking in a policy context. The next step that needs to be taken to advance the policy of managed decline is a true accounting of its costs and a national program to address it.

I have a hunch that when people see the cost of managed decline and its non-existent ROI, the costs of regeneration will seem like chicken feed in comparison. If we are gun-shy to spend $100 million in ten years in Detroit for regeneration, how gun-shy will we be for the billions to create forests?

The time has come to move beyond the idea. If urbanists and environmentalists want to move the managed decline argument forward, it’s time to start hanging a price tag on it. It may be that the most compelling argument for sprawl containment and smart growth is the exponentially higher cost of returning developed land back to nature for which we are now beginning to have an understanding of the full and quantifiable costs.

Food for thought.


  1. I am following the shriking cities debates from the istance here in Spain, as I find this issue quite central to establish the roots for the change of social and economic model everyboy talks about. Just for you interest, I selected some references you may find of interest:

  2. Peter is correct on every point ... until he reaches his last paragraph. If not a combination of large scale return to nature, very low maintenance open space and some experimental quasi-agricultural land use, what?