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Oh My Gosh That’s So Cool!

A young leader, one of many, spurs Detroit’s comeback

May 29, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Griffin/MLUI
  Colin Hubbell, a native Detroiter who daily pedals a bike eight miles from his east side home to his office at the newly redeveloped Canfield Lofts in downtown Detroit, is intent on reviving the once flourishing city.

Colin Hubbell is a white guy who loves Detroit. As an executive with Crosswinds Communities, and in the last three years as the founding partner of his own Hubbell Group, he’s been involved since 1996 in constructing 1,000 new homes in Detroit, a city that is confounding friend and foe alike by emerging as one of the most popular places to build in Michigan. For instance, all 35 units in Canfield Lofts — an ambitious redevelopment project located in a once very run-down central city area — sold less than a year after they were finished in 1999 at prices averaging more than $200,000 apiece.

“Yeah, Carl, how you doing?” he said one recent morning while sitting in his office in those lofts, his ear fixed to a cell phone and his eyes scrolling a barrage of email. “Look, I got a guy here. Can we talk later this afternoon? Yeah, yeah. He’s a writer. Wants to talk about Detroit as a cool city. Right. He wants to write something nice about us. I gotta go. I’m going to show him my city.”

Mr. Hubbell, the second of six boys raised in a Catholic family on Detroit’s west side, learned how to make money from his stockbroker dad, and how to put it to work for the common good by his mother, a community activist. He began his own career as an organizer on the northwest side of Detroit, joined city government as a planner under Mayor Coleman Young, and rose to become the director of the city agency that oversees Cobo Hall.

Today, although he’s very busy building his own private business, he's also involved in public service. This past winter Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Mr. Hubbell to her Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, which she tasked with finding the best ways to save the state’s open spaces and farmland from unwise development and revitalizing Michigan’s many distressed cities.

Blonde, goateed, and balding, Mr. Hubbell cultivates a rough-hewn urban look. In a city that lost half of its people in 50 years, including 722,000 whites, Mr. Hubbell effortlessly bridges the two dominant cultures: the white industrialists and professionals, almost all of whom live out of town, and the black political and business community that is still devoted to living in Detroit.

“I love this city, I really do,” says Mr. Hubbell, showing a visitor around the Canfield Lofts. “This building was the first condo loft in Detroit. It was hard as hell to get comps and do the deals with the banks. But more are catching on. Bankers are getting the urban thing. Developers are getting the urban thing. Come on.”

Bridging the Black-White Gap
Mr. Hubbell and his family of six live on the city’s east side and are almost anomalies. Just 116,000 or so whites still live in Detroit, a city of 950,000. But as a young, prosperous, and increasingly prominent entrepreneur, Mr. Hubbell also represents just the sort of professional that Detroit and almost every one of Michigan’s other cities need to attract to thrive.

There are 1.4 million African Americans in Michigan — a community of talent and knowledge and energy every bit as potent as the majority white population. But almost every black person in Michigan — 96 percent — lives in just one of 11 cities, led by Detroit. According to the U.S. Census, Michigan is the most segregated state in the nation.  It may well be the most segregated place in American history. Five of the 25 most racially segregated metropolitan regions in America — Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Benton Harbor, and Muskegon — are in Michigan. The next closest state is New York, with four.

The racial divide has punished Michigan, and Detroit in particular, for more than half a century, influencing personal choices about where to live and public decisions about where to invest taxpayers’ dollars. The manifest consequences, apparent for years in distrust and social unrest, are now becoming apparent to residents in and out of the city who are desperate for solutions.

Southeast Michigan’s increasingly congested, expensive, and mostly white suburbs are spreading out at an astonishing rate and at exorbitant cost to personal finances, the public treasury, the quality of life, the environment, and the state’s economic competitiveness. Meanwhile, the City of Detroit has less people than it did 85 years ago.

Down, But Not Out
Crime, property taxes, the quality of public schools, and questions about the capability of city managers did not just form an image of Detroit. They stigmatized the city. The notion that cities in general and Detroit in particular are central to the state’s prosperity gets at best a mixed reception among Michiganders. A survey by Michigan State University earlier this year found that while 70 percent of state resident think cities are important to Michigan's economy and quality of life, less than 40 percent said that Detroit was important.

But cities do matter. A state’s long-term economic vitality and the vigor of its cities are so tightly knotted that one cannot exist without the other. In a mobile, sophisticated world, say business executives, companies no longer are bolted to a region for resources or labor. Most can go anywhere; so can their talented employees.

Doubt this is relevant? One of the sobering facts of the 1990s is that Michigan dived to the bottom of the pack — 47th of 50 states — in its ability to retain talented young people. More than 200,000 25 to 34-year-old adults left Michigan from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census, to help build the new economies of cities such as Seattle, Portland, Boston, and New York. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, who promised last year to invest in cities and help cure suburban sprawl, took note of this brain drain in her State of the State Address in February. “We want to create cool cities, hip places to live and work,” she said.

Detroit is not that, at least not yet. But Mr. Hubbell’s devotion to Detroit also reflects an unmistakable revival of civic spirit. His work is more than a strong attachment. It’s a calling stirred on the one hand by memory and loyalty to the magnificent city he knew as a kid, and on the other by professional ego, confidence, and the lure of real money. He and others like him are intent on proving an American city first made glorious, and then ruined, by 20th century economic and social forces unleashed by private autos and the suburban culture they fostered can be systematically transformed into a showcase of urbanism and economic opportunity in the 21st century.

Some Assembly Required
“It’s all here,” said Mr. Hubbell during a day of touring the stately neighborhoods along the Detroit River, the once-empty lots inland where new housing is being built, the avenues boasting museums and medical centers and universities, and downtown bustling with new construction. “It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together and convincing people it’s real.”

Detroit’s civic and business leaders certainly share such sentiments. In the 1990s they collaborated with political leaders in an almost heroic campaign to stabilize southeast Michigan’s economy principally by focusing on Detroit’s quality of life. For example, they began a $600 million cleanup of the Rouge River that is now anchored by William Clay Ford Jr.’s decision to spend $2 billion to rebuild the Rouge River manufacturing plant founded by Henry Ford, his great grandfather. New downtown stadiums were built for the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions. Compuware constructed a $350 million high-tech headquarters in downtown Detroit, a 15-story wedge of steel and glass to house 4,100 workers that is set to open in August.

Other investments include an $80 million African American history museum, three new casinos, the renovation of the Renaissance Center as General Motors’ new headquarters, and an East Riverfront Park along the Detroit River that already has attracted $500 million in public, private, and philanthropic investment. 

That is not to say Mr. Hubbell overlooks all of the challenges he faces. The problem with building in Detroit, he says, is not the city’s reputation for moving too slowly on permits. “If you know what you’re doing and you have a good project, you can get your permits in a matter of weeks,” he says.

Rather, the central problem is that there are 40,000 vacant homes and lots in Detroit, and ownership of half is so clouded that it takes years to clear titles in order to begin new construction. “Until that is solved, people doing business here are just going to say we tried and it didn’t work,” says Mr. Hubbell.

But enough hands are reaching out in Detroit instead of being thrown in the air in frustration that ever so gradually a new mood is emerging. Thousands left the city. But thousands also stayed and they are people of energy and commitment like Mr. Hubbell. They want to be in Detroit.

In 1988, Detroit did not issue a single new building construction permit. Things have improved considerably since then: Between 1990 and 2001, according to a study by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the city issued 3,929 permits for housing, which are selling as fast as they are built.

“People want this choice,” Mr. Hubbell said. “They want to live in a city. They want to live in this city.”

Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to The New York Times, Detroit Free Press, and Gristmagazine.com, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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