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Understanding what's missing: re-development efforts underway in Detroit's historic New Center offer a walkable and livable sub-district that will benefit the entire greater downtown area.

We have all heard the truism that younger people (who tend to be employed in creative fields) are typically the market that initiates and sustains market-rate urban development throughout the country. I recently read that younger markets will respond to a place rather than a specific job, because in today's new economy, jobs are more portable. I agree, and therefore, believe that good urban design is our roadmap for the future. We must understand what this willing market wants in a downtown. To determine this, one place to start would be every other emerging downtown throughout the country. Those areas' universal experiences have shown that this market wants useful mass transit in the core city, historically sensitive and pedestrian friendly development, and the "nooks and crannies" of entertainment and retail options we tend to overlook or demolish as we re-build Detroit. To me, every vacant building and every vacant lot (and some that are in use) cry out for their proper development or renovation in the interest of a pedestrian rich and dynamic place. A place where people want be. The difficult medicine here is putting parking in its place - in parking decks over retail and behind buildings, de-emphasizing the needs of automobiles and emphasizing the needs of people. If the Greater Downtown succeeds in consistently achieving this aesthetic, we won't have to delineate a specific area for culture or entertainment or whatever it is we covet. It will happen organically, which is always the most "real" and self-sustaining.

I agree with current efforts to promote our region's assets and work to project a positive image. There are countless cultural and economic advantages here, and that must be conveyed to the world. These advantages put us on par with other great American cities. Unfortunately, we have to drive between them in cars, because 1. there is no quality public transportation, and 2. there are too many activity gaps along the way. I believe the main cultural attraction in all great cities is simply the experience of walking and hanging out. This can only be created with hard work, a little sacrifice, consistency and good planning.

Along with the Downtown Detroit Partnership, Riverfront Conservancy and University Cultural Center Association, New Center Council is striving to live up to this design responsibility. It's also important to note that the City of Detroit is becoming an invaluable and powerful partner in this design effort with many knowledgeable champions in the ranks. Hopefully quick success will come to pivotal projects, such as the Book Cadillac renovation. This might provide a clarion call for more to join the ranks of the emerging market in Detroit. This is not to say that neighborhoods outside of the Greater Downtown, such as Corktown, Mexicantown, Indian Village, Woodbridge and others aren't key to this endeavor. In fact, their growth and success makes it even more essential that the Greater Downtown develop with residents in mind in order to properly "connect the dots" between these many success stories.

Some market watchers have recently asked, "What good is a cool city if there are no jobs?" This depends on what jobs we expect to create. I don't think a thriving downtown Detroit will bring back manufacturing jobs, but certainly, emerging industries will only consider cities where their employee base will live. It follows that our leaders' calls to increase the number of downtown headquarters will only be heeded if improvements to the quality of life in downtown Detroit demand attention from corporate decision makers and their potential employees. We only need our fair share of attention to reverse the net loss of residents and companies, but our downtown must look and "act" like a place where urbanites will locate.

RELATED ARTICLE: What's new in New Center?

* The Woodward Gateway Retail and Tech Town/New Amsterdam streetscapes are complete

* The Woodward Facade Restoration Project is underway, with seven storefronts completed

* The New Amsterdam Lofts are 50 percent complete, and the historic Graphic Arts Lofts are now accepting tenants

* The New Center Council Facilities Project (in cooperation with General Motors) is moving forward with plans for a programmed outdoor green space, with concerts, a bistro and outdoor movies, three seasons long


Michael Solaka is president of New Center Council, Inc.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Solaka, Michael
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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