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Planes and Trains, Part I

Airport City’s new wings for Detroit

March 10, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Taubman College of Architecture

 Airport City would be a crossroads of regional, national, and international commerce and a great place to live, work, and play.

Part One of a Two-Part Series

DETROIT -- Tipped against a wall in Mulu Birru’s office is a large piece of cardboard with a map of western Wayne County pasted to its surface.

Black lines trace an L-shaped swath of ground roughly bounded by Willow Run Airport on the west, Detroit Metropolitan Airport on the south, Michigan Avenue on the north, and Inkster and Taylor to the east. More important, the lines trace a revolutionary plan to revive southeast Michigan’s economy and reverse Detroit’s 50-year population decline.

The idea is to build neighborhoods that will attract talented people and innovative businesses from around the world and to build the transportation infrastructure—commuter rail, light rail, and rapid bus lines—that will enable people, goods, and ideas to swiftly cross the region and circle the globe. Airport City would be a crossroads of regional, national, and international commerce and a great place to live, work, and play.

The Airport City that exists on Mr. Birru’s map—and in the imaginations of influential dreamers around the region—is a major departure from business-as-usual in Detroit. But Mr. Birru says that may be exactly what the region needs.

“When you want to create something you don’t go with the flow,” said Mr. Birru, who is the development director for Wayne County. “You sometimes have to be a little radical in your thinking.”

Top Architecture Students Design Airport City
A soft spoken Ethiopian, Mr. Birru earned a national reputation for resuscitating struggling cities in Pittsburgh, where he also directed the development office and advocated for a successful bus rapid transit system, built a couple of sports stadiums, constructed a new convention center, and revitalized hundreds of acres of former industrial sites into high tech, office, retail, and industrial developments.

Now, he has his sights set on the Detroit region. This year, Mr. Birru enlisted the help of Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the University of Michigan’s Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, to design Airport City.

As he has done every year since 1998, Kelbaugh invited some 50 planning students and a squadron of technical experts to lock themselves in a Detroit region hotel for three days. Their goal: Carefully evaluate a particularly interesting and difficult problem of urban deficiency and propose design solutions that developers and city officials actually accept and execute. This year, the students emerged from the Ypsilanti Mariott near Willow Run with maps and computer graphics illustrating a place of commerce, jobs, entertainment, transport, and homeownership. Its name? Airport City.

Students envisioned architecturally distinguished homes and offices, boulevards and neighborhood streets, markets and other gathering places designed to save natural resources, stress affordability, and reawaken human connections and neighborliness. People and goods will find their way in, around, and out on uncongested roads and fast commuter rail, light rail, and rapid buses. Business executives will be able to check their Blackberries on the train to the airport, entrepreneurs will be able to bike to their place of business, and children will be able to walk to school.

Transit Needed to Bring Detroit Up to Speed
There’s nothing radical about establishing communities and markets around international airports. It’s already happening in Dallas, Amsterdam, Seoul, and other metropolitan regions.

The radical part is convincing southeast Michigan to trade in political partisanship, racism, fear of change, and government rivalry for a new set of operating principles: Political statesmanship, regional cooperation, human understanding, smart public investment, energy efficiency, technological superiority.

Last month, a chorus of prominent boosters, led by Super Bowl XL committee chairman Roger Penske, called for more of the cooperation that made the Detroit Super Bowl a success, and for unity in building the civic assets that the city and region desperately need. Building a regional rapid transit system tops the list.

That’s because transportation drives land use, and transportation and land use together define how people live and communities grow. In the United States during the mid-19th century, for instance, the nation laid 20,000 miles of railroad in two decades and fostered the settlement of the Great Plains and West. In the 20th century, the 1956 Highway Act prompted construction of the more than 40,000 mile Interstate Highway system that emptied Detroit and other cities, and generated massive, expensive, and resource-wasting suburban and exurban development.

The Detroit region is now paying the price for the 50-year experiment in building an urban region solely around the construction of freeways and the use of private vehicles. The seven-county region is either at the top or the bottom of most of the unwanted measures of economic performance and quality of life—housing value and income growth, joblessness, economic and racial segregation, congestion, obesity, and out-migration of young adults.

Those measures have converged so powerfully that they’ve finally forced business executives and political leaders to really think about where southeast Michigan is heading.

A look at other regions that are investing in rail, downtown housing, and environmental restoration, reveals a promising alternative. Chicago, for example, has spent billions to modernize its transit system, restore its Lake Michigan waterfront, encourage new housing downtown and in nearby neighborhoods, and promote environmentally sensitive development and business practices. The result is that the nation’s third largest city and its metropolitan region are reaping new jobs, higher incomes, and major business expansions.

Airport City, with its network of planes, trains and buses, superior quality of life, and business-friendly environment, may be Detroit’s ticket to rejoining the ranks of America’s greatest cities and establishing new markets with global reach.

 “Speed,” says Mr. Birru, “is the economic asset that will make Airport City competitive.”

Wanted: Cooperation and Statesmanship
But southeast Michigan needs some new cultural and civic software to get up to speed.

First, Airport City will need to look and feel great. Mr. Birru says that means developing a regional master land use plan, common architectural design standards, and regional zoning that describes what will be built where and how it will look. The five existing cities and three townships in the area, along with the county and the state, will need to lay aside their rivalries to pursue a common agenda.

Two, Airport City needs ample public investment to leverage private cash. Tax-resistant conservatives will be a big impediment.

Third, the region’s ugly race barrier and economic segregation, a major turnoff for companies and their young talented employees, needs to disappear.

Fourth, in order for Airport City to work efficiently, it should, in Mr. Birru’s words, “discourage cars.” And that means providing alternatives. To keep highways and streets clear and road maintenance costs down, the city will be interlaced with transit lines and routes that are close by job, home, shopping, school, and other destinations.

Mr. Birru knows that a commuter rail line has not operated in southeast Michigan since the early 1980s, and that Detroit and its suburbs turned back a $600 million federal mass transit grant in 1976. He also knows that the Detroit region has the worst transit system of any major metropolitan region in the nation. 

That doesn’t mean that building Airport City is beyond the realm of reason. On the contrary, several assets that make places like Airport City possible are already in place. The Detroit Metro Airport, the nation’s sixth largest, handles 36 million passengers and 350,000 tons of cargo each year, employs 18,000 people, and supports 71,000 jobs across southeast Michigan. Willow Run Airport, just seven miles away, is a modern air freight hub that transports 3.5 million passengers and 250,000 tons of cargo each year, contributes $85 million to the regional economy, and employs 1,500 people.

The two airports sit midway between two great cities—Detroit and Ann Arbor—and three important research universities: Michigan, Wayne State, and Eastern Michigan.

Rapid transit also has a chance of falling into place. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is set to complete a feasibility study by June for establishing new commuter routes from Detroit to Ann Arbor, with possible links to Metro and perhaps to Willow Run.  Five options—two bus rapid transit routes, two commuter rail routes, and one light rail option—are under study. And last summer Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow and other members of the Michigan delegation convinced Congress to commit $100 million to design, engineer, and perhaps start construction on the preferred option.

“It’s a big project and it will take a lot of consensus, a lot of cooperation, and a lot of imagination to make it work,” acknowledges Mr. Birru. “But it’s all possible.”

A longer version of this article appeared in the March 8, 2006 edition of Detroit's Metrotimes. Part two of this series appears on Sunday. Keith Schneider is the founder and editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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