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The Cradle of Transportation Considers A New Baby

Rallying for rapid transit along Detroit’s Woodward Avenue

July 16, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffin

Heather Carmona, who directs the Woodward Avenue Action Association, aims to revive this corridor of commerce and innovation, by marketing its history and championing a restored rapid transit line.

DETROIT — Gazing south from Ferndale, at the place where Eight Mile cuts across, there are two ways to look at Woodward Avenue. A visitor from Chicago or Dallas, Seattle or Charlotte, or any number of other American metropolitan regions thriving in the efficient, digitized, quality-of-life 21st century economy might liken the blur of buildings and 10 lanes of black pavement — wide enough to once accommodate two transit lines — to an old man looking back at the beginning. There is a century of southeast Michigan life out here, yet it’s easy to argue that just the first 50 years of it had real music and energy.

And then there’s how Heather Carmona, the young executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, sees Michigan’s most heralded boulevard. The old street is not infected with a sense of loss and diminishment, she says. Rather it is full of the insistent reminders of a large, abundant history that featured innovation, manufacturing and the automobile, tied together by a regional rapid transit system, all of which can be duplicated, even exceeded, in the 21st century.

Ms. Carmona, who was raised in Pleasant Ridge, educated at Wayne State University, and now lives in Ferndale, can say such things without any trace of irony. At 37 years old, her entire life has been spent along a road that served as the Silicon Valley of its time. Woodward Avenue attracted the engineers, entrepreneurs and designers who built the American auto industry and, in the first half of the 20th century, changed how people lived and communities developed.

In effect, she and the association, a nonprofit regional alliance of two counties and 11 local governments, are busy making this case: The life of Woodward Avenue, the revival of Detroit, and the well-being of the suburbs are bound together.

“I don’t think I’m the only one in this region who works at the grass roots and sees what is really beginning to develop,” Ms. Carmona said in an interview. “There is a consensus developing around the need to redevelop this street, the need for regional transit, the need to think differently about what we need to do to make things better.

Ms. Carmona aims to harness a growing regional solidarity to achieve two very ambitious goals.

The first is to market the auto industry’s history and culture along the 27-mile roadway, in effect developing a new narrative to attract businesses, residents and tourists. The Federal Highway Administration liked the idea so much that four years ago it designated the road as a National Scenic Byway, one of about 125 in the United States, making the cities served by Woodward eligible for federal grants to finance marketing research, beautification projects and other economic development programs.

The second is to be a more prominent advocate for a new transit line from Detroit to Pontiac to conveniently move people from one historic and cultural destination to another. The Woodward Avenue line would also spur billions of dollars in new housing and business construction, as such lines have done in almost every one of the 20 American regions that have built light rail systems since the late 1980s.

Cities Find Transit is Key to Prosperity and Quality of Life
Rapid transit has catalyzed some of America’s most stunning urban transformations.

St. Louis, which opened its first 17-mile light rail line in 1993 and its second 17-mile light rail line in 2001, now enjoys immense economic and cultural benefits as a result. From 1999 to 2005, more than $3.5 billion has been invested in downtown businesses and homes in nearby neighborhoods. The Washington Avenue historic district, the recipient of $800 million in new investment, is one of the great walkable places in the Midwest with new lofts, stores, offices and restaurants, along with handsome homes.

Dallas’ downtown and northern district have benefited enormously from the 45-mile light rail system that carries 17.5 million passengers annually. A series of real estate reports over the last two years found that properties near new light rail stations had a 25 percent greater increase in value than properties in neighborhoods not serviced by light rail, with the greatest increases found in commercial and residential properties.

The Dallas Morning News reported earlier this year that developers have announced or built more than $3 billion in projects in light rail corridors since the system opened in 1996.

In Houston, new commercial and residential nodes have cropped up around the city’s new light rail stations, prompting the regional transit authority to announce the expansion of the transit system. Portland, Oregon’s diverse system is responsible for $2 billion in new investment since 2000 in one neighborhood alone.

The popularity of light rail in these and nearly 20 more American cities that have systems has helped to prompt the longest sustained growth in transit ridership in the nation’s history, according to American Public Transportation Association. Americans made 9.7 billion trips on mass transit last year, 2 percent more than in 2000.

These investments in speed, energy-efficiency, and mobility stem from a growing conviction among civic leaders that environmental sensitivity and astute downtown and neighborhood investments will determine a region’s economic well-being in the information age. Vibrant, prosperous cities like Denver, Charlotte, N.C., Portland, Ore., Seattle, Chicago, and St. Louis developed new forums, recruited broad alliances and decided on novel strategies to build the public will and fill the treasuries to attract businesses and housing, build rapid transit, expand parks, improve public safety, modernize schools and protect natural resources.

A similar revitalization strategy, built on Detroit's historic strengths and mindful of 21st-century needs, can work in the Southeast Michigan too. Strategic investments in regional rapid transit and Detroit's core neighborhoods could go a long way to restoring Detroit's prosperity. Bruce Katz, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and a frequent visitor to Detroit, calls this “transformative investment,” the clearly focused public and private spending that “remakes the urban physical landscape to stimulate economic growth, improve fiscal vitality and advance social equity.”

Main Street
A Woodward Avenue rapid transit line is the kind of “transformative investment” the Detroit region needs, according to Ms. Carmona. Democratic state Representatives Marie Donigan of Royal Oak and Andy Meisner of Ferndale, agree: In May, they formally requested that the Granholm administration provide $3 million to update a transit feasibility study conducted on the Woodward corridor in 2001. The new study is crucial to starting the process of gaining federal funds to build the line. The state Department of Transportation is reviewing the request.

“Woodward is Oakland County’s main street, and we need to have rapid transit there,” says Representative Donigan, whose transit advocacy prompted the Detroit Regional Chamber last week to endorse and financially support her re-election campaign. “We have part of the study done already. This push will really move us ahead by years. It puts us in position to develop two sides of a transit system at one time. The Detroit to Ann Arbor line is in process. The Detroit to Pontiac line needs to be done also.”

With its inclusive approach and methodical process, the Woodward Avenue Action Association is proving that bringing talented people together to listen, cooperate and reach consensus on big goals can lead to significant results. The steps the organization has taken to date, and its achievements, are a microcosm of what’s possible in the region if similar principles were put into effect in other forums.

 “For the longest time there just weren’t enough people, the right people, listening,” Ms. Carmona said. “But right now we have some leaders willing to step forward to make change. Change is tough. But we are changing. You can see it, and you don’t need to look that hard anymore.”

Just as important, local leaders are learning to collaborate, thanks in part to Ms. Carmona’s coalition building. The Woodward Avenue Action Association, where she has worked since 1999, has emerged as one of southeast Michigan’s important forums for urban and suburban leaders, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to discuss and act on the consequences of what happened over the century’s second half.

Detroit will need broad regional cooperation to achieve its goals, said Edsel Ford II, a member of the Ford Motor Company board and one of the city’s industrial heavyweights. At the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual conference on Mackinac Island in early June, Mr. Ford announced to a large audience of business and civic leaders that he was leading the chamber’s new planning and economic development project, Design Regional Detroit, and that his first order of business was to help break down barriers that kept good people from collaborating effectively in southeast Michigan.

“There are too many borders,” Mr. Ford said. “These borders or barriers are getting in our way. We’ve put up with them too long. Perhaps that’s why we’ve grown accustomed to them.

“We all need to become accustomed to using the word regionalism,” he added. “There. I said it. The ‘R’ word. We need to tear down those barricades that keep us from achieving what makes us a vibrant growing region.”

Keith Schneider is a journalist and editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A longer version of this article appeared in the July 5, 2006 edition of Metrotimes, Detroit’s largest weekly, which is publishing a series of articles on southeast Michigan’s campaign to build public support for a regional rapid transit system. Part two of this series appears on Monday.  Reach Keith at keith@mlui.org.

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