ULI Colorado Blog

Michael Leccese’s Letter from Detroit

More than 4,000 ULI members (including 156 from Colorado) poured into Motown to experience a city whose revival seems in full swing—but still with a daunting way to go.

Much of the credit seems to go to the city’s tag-team billionaires, Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans and Chris Ilitch of Little Caesars pizza. The two have invested or engineered $8 billion worth of revitalization, as they discussed before a packed opening session on Wednesday, May 2.

Gilbert (net worth said to be $6.5 billion) has taken on Detroit’s once-deserted downtown by purchasing (through Bedrock, his real estate arm) 70-100 buildings, many of them historic gems from the city’s gilded age of the 1920s-50s. He has moved 17,000 Quicken Loans employees downtown and encouraged many other companies to follow suite. Gilbert also helped fund the efficient Q Line street car system stretching from the riverfront to re-emerging neighborhoods around Wayne State University.

Owners of sports teams and casinos in addition to the pizza empire, Ilitch’s family (Chris Ilitch’s estimated net worth is $6.1 billion) has taken on Midtown. There he was instrumental in getting new football and baseball stadiums and a hockey-basketball arena built next to each other, and using that to leverage the emerging Detroit District featuring food and entertainment.

Both areas are connected by safe, cleaned-up public spaces including new parks and bike lanes and renewed squares like Capitol Park. As a result, Motor City is surprisingly compact and pedestrian-friendly in the core.

In 2003, GM launched Detroit’s incipient revival by moving from its 1930s headquarters, a stunning neoclassical palace designed by Albert Kahn, to the futuristic (in a somewhat scary way) Renaissance complex on the Detroit River. At the time GM also invested $25 million in cleaning up the riverfront, which now features a lovely 3.5-mile promenade connecting to greenways.

Dubbed TechTown, GM’s former HQ neighborhood has been revived with creative/startup spaces, including an incubator grown in GM’s massive former product testing building where the automatic transmission was developed.

In addition to the billionaire and corporate muscle, grass-roots Detroit deserves plaudits for jump-starting local innovation and rekindling community pride.

As Gilbert noted, “people got tired of hearing, ‘oh, that use to be there.’ It became a new word, ‘usda’.” Another local told us, “My dad cried when he saw the M&M Super Bowl ad.”

With the core Midtown and downtown areas substantially revived with lofts, offices, retail, restaurants and creative spaces, the city moves on to the more difficult task of shoring up its impoverished, pockmarked neighborhoods. A design competition called Detroit Design 139 (for the city’s 139-square-mile footprint) is showing the way with creative schemes for infill and affordable housing.

Sessions at Spring Meeting highlighted the rebirth of manufacturing and innovations in the auto industry, especially relating to self-driving cars. Ironically, that very week Ford announced it was ending car production to focus on trucks, but even bigger news was Detroit’s rising from foreclosure to greater fiscal stability.

Detroit’s population withered from 2 million I 1950 to 725,000 today. There remains much more to rebuild. But it has the promise to become the Berlin of America, rising from multi-generational decline and destruction to achieve a new level of vibrancy. As much as anywhere in the US. Detroit represents a potential best-case scenario of ULI best practices at work.

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