Will Demolishing Buildings Erase Detroit's Blight?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

At the officials swearing in ceremony for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in January, he pledged to make noticeable improvements in the city within six months.

Duggan said among the first and most visible efforts would be eradicating the tens of thousands of abandoned structures blotting Detroit.

“You are gonna see the land bank unified back under the city of Detroit, which is where it should be," Duggan says. "And all of the blight authority efforts, Dan Gilbert, who’s doing a phenomenal job on his efforts to create the data base, and all the different folks be focused there.”

Well, not exactly.

The Blight Task Force co-chaired by Quicken Loans founder Glibert and appointed by the White House is on its own trajectory.

Weeks ago the task force finished the monumental task of mapping every piece of land in Detroit.

But its officials have not yet told the Mayor, or the public, what they found.

In the mapping project’s mission control room, Siwatu Sanders is one of the many who used hand-held devices to text back pictures of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

“So I’ve put in my credentials, it’s logging in, loading the parcels," says Sanders. "That data is in there and you can see that we have the parcels loaded up over the map.”

Sanders says he was a bit surprised to discover as much good as bad in the city.

“Vacant properties in some areas, some burned structures that need to be demolished, removed. And then some salvageable structures that they only need some paint, maybe some windows, a door and then they’re viable properties," says Sanders.

Blight Task Force officials say they will release the results of the mapping survey and their recommendations for what should be salvaged or torn down in May.

Until then, Detroit officials say a kind of jousting is underway at the city’s new Department of Neighborhoods, where leaders of individual districts are making their case to be next on the list for rehabilitation.

That’s how the Marygrove area was chosen as the first neighborhood Duggan began his plan to force property owners to fix-up blighted buildings and parcels. Businessman Bill Pulte had already cleared about 700 lots over the past year through his private Detroit Blight Authority group.

Duggan Administration officials say that authority will concentrate on lots – not the thousands of abandoned structures in the city. And some Detroit activists say the power to demolish buildings should rest in the hands of city government.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing," says Maggie DeSantis, head of the Warren-Connor Development Coalition. "I think what the Mayor is trying to do is really figure out what is the right strategy. And you can’t do that if you’ve got all these disparate pieces that are not necessarily working under one strategy or under one, if you will, mandate.”

She says she welcomes the latest push to eradicate blight…but wonders what happens after the bulldozers are gone.

“For example is city-owned property ... then be put into the Detroit Land Bank and held and maintained so that it can be properly assembled and so that it can be re-purposed," DeSantis says. "Or if private investors are interested in taking that land, buying that land. What are they gonna do with it? Are they gonna maintain it? Or are they just gonna sit on it?”

She says the city could place the land in a kind of land trust though it would still be necessary to fund the upkeep of the property.

Without consistent care, Detroiters like 20-year-old Leonardo Butcher says they fear there may be little improvement in the city’s neighborhoods.

A lifelong Detroiter, Butcher says he’s already seen how demolishing certain areas in the city can also force out the few families who have kept their homes in good shape while all else faded around them.

“And let’s say that type of change is necessary and healthy," Butcher. "Where you gonna go from it? Because then Detroit would be even met with another problem. Rather than abandoned areas, it’s just a lot of unoccupied waste. And you can see it in some neighborhoods. You go there now you’ll just see dead grass.”

Many Detroit mayors before Mike Duggan vowed to make inroads into the city’s abandoned stock of buildings.

But the question remains. How will any city leader prevent blight from recurring once the blighted buildings have been removed?

WDET’s news team took to the streets to talk to hundreds of Detroiters about their neighborhoods – asking what they wanted for their communities – and what needs to change. Learn more about The Detroit Agenda here.