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Oh My Gosh That’s So Cool!

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

June 16, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffin
  Colin Hubbell says his Detroit-based development company is succeeding because more people now want to live there.
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 a popular place 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 for about $200,000 apiece.

“Yeah, Carl, how you doing?” he said one recent morning while sitting in his office at the lofts, ear fixed to a cell phone. “Look, I got a guy here. 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, raised 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 career as an organizer on Detroit’s northwest side, joined city government as a planner, and became the director of the city agency that oversees Cobo Hall.

Today he remains involved in public service. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed him to her Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, which she charged with finding the best ways to curb sprawl and revitalize 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 gap between the white industrialists and professionals who live in the suburbs and the black political and business community that still lives in Detroit.

“I love this city, I really do,” says Mr. Hubbell, showing a visitor around the Canfield Lofts, which are located in a once-bleak area of the city. “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 are just six of 116,000 or so whites that still live in Detroit, a city of 950,000. But Mr. Hubbell also represents just the sort of professional that Detroit and most of Michigan’s other cities must attract to thrive.

There are 1.4 million African Americans in Michigan — a community of talent and knowledge and energy just as potent as the majority white population. But 96 percent of that community lives in just one of 11 cities. Michigan is the most segregated state in the nation and probably 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.

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

Southeast Michigan’s 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 competitiveness. Meanwhile, the city itself has less people than it did 85 years ago.

Down, But Not Out

Bruce Giffin
  A hopeful sign: More young people are flocking to downtown Detroit nightclubs like X/S.
Crime, property taxes, and the quality of public schools and city government stigmatized Detroit. The importance of Detroit to statewide prosperity is now alien to most Michiganders. A recent Michigan State University survey found 70 percent of state residents think cities are important to Michigan’s economy and quality of life, but less than 40 percent said Detroit was.

But cities do matter. A state’s long-term economic vitality and its cities’ vigor are so intertwined that one needs the other. In a mobile, sophisticated world, say business executives, companies are not bolted to a region for resources or labor. They and their talented employees can go anywhere.

And in Michigan, they do. In the 1990s Michigan dived to the bottom of the pack — 47th of 50 states — in retaining young people. More than 200,000 25- to 34-year-old adults left Michigan from 1990 to 2000 to help build the new economies of cities such as Seattle, Portland, Boston, and New York. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm noted 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 yet that. But Mr. Hubbell’s devotion to Detroit reflects a revival of civic spirit. He and people like him are intent on proving that an American city first made glorious, and then ruined, by 20th century economic and social forces unleashed by private autos and suburban culture can be systematically transformed into a showcase of urbanism and economic opportunity.

Some Assembly Required

Bruce Giffin
  Compuware’s new high-tech headquarters mark a major turning point for business investment in Detroit.
“It’s all here,” said Mr. Hubbell during a tour of 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 a downtown bustling with new construction. “It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together and convincing people it’s real.”

Detroit’s leaders share such sentiments. In the 1990s they collaborated 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 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 to house 4,100 workers.

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 has attracted $500 million in public, private, and philanthropic investment. 

The problem with building in Detroit, Mr. Hubbell 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 the clouded ownership of over half of the 40,000 vacant homes and lots in Detroit; it takes years to clear titles. “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 that a new mood is emerging. Thousands left the city, but thousands also stayed. 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: Between 1990 and 2001 the city issued 3,929 permits for single- and multiple-family units, 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. He can be reached at keith@mlui.org. Colin Hubbell can be reached at hubbellgroup@juno.com.

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