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A Rare Call for Stronger Cities

Blanchard says urban neglect is over

May 23, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Jim Blanchard’s formula for urban improvement: Create parks within metropolitan areas. Offer a broad range of transportation choices. Fix roads first before building new ones. And update the obsolete public policies that subsidize sprawling suburban development at the expense of a quality metropolitan lifestyle.

DETROIT — Responding to growing grassroots clamor for the state to address long-ignored metropolitan problems, former Governor Jim Blanchard, a Democrat who’s running again for high office, has proposed a 50-point urban agenda that seeks to ensure the state’s neglected cities become attractive communities, not seedy places to avoid.

Appearing before a large audience on April 30, 2002 at the Focus: HOPE Center — a civil and human rights organization founded in the wake of the 1967 Detroit riots — Mr. Blanchard spoke passionately about the need to revitalize vacant properties, invest in inner city schools, and eliminate cultural barriers.

"It would be ridiculous to talk about improving life in cities without candidly talking about the need to improve race relations," Mr. Blanchard said. "It’s an unspoken issue that we have to deal with. What is a strength in Michigan — diversity — is far too often viewed as a handicap. It’s time to make our diversity an asset."

Mr. Blanchard’s Michigan Community Partnership initiative, detailed here for the first time, is one piece of what he calls a comprehensive economic plan to ensure that Michigan remains a center for innovative business and a competitive force in the emerging global marketplace. Andy Bowman, planning director for the Grand Valley Metro Council, a regional planning authority in Grand Rapids, said he could not recall an election when a candidate in Michigan packaged a host of urban issues and unveiled an agenda aimed specifically at improving the overall quality of life in cities.

Mr. Bowman, one of the state’s most prominent planning authorities, said attempts to solve urban problems generally have gone issue by issue in bits and pieces, with scant results. "The concept of Smart Growth was in its infancy the last time Blanchard was in office," Mr. Bowman said. "But to talk about vibrant city centers as a tool to manage growth, and curb sprawl, certainly elevates the discussion today."

To provide the quality of life necessary to lure economic investment, Mr. Blanchard said Michigan must also create state parks within metropolitan areas, offer a broad range of transportation choices, fix roads first before building new ones, and update the obsolete public policies that subsidize sprawling suburban development at the expense of a quality metropolitan lifestyle.

"We can’t keep building out and out and out," Mr. Blanchard said. "Seven of the last eight years were record and runaway prosperity in America and in Michigan. Yet in many respects our cities and neighborhoods have declined. Until we focus on maintaining and repairing what we have our cities are going to look like third world countries. It’s a disgrace."

Long Neglect
The plight of Michigan’s inner cities — like most throughout the nation —presents some strikingly obvious but tremendously complex and expensive problems, said urban authorities. Abandoned housing stock and polluted property hampers local real estate markets. Transit options remain limited while traffic is congested on crumbling roadways. Neighborhoods composed purely of low income families struggle to support even basic services such as grocers. And young talent flocks to new hotspots like Denver and D.C. while a spirited urban nightlife in most Michigan cities is virtually nonexistent.

In Michigan the challenges have united an unlikely critical mass of stakeholders — social justice advocates, corporations, environmental groups, farmers, and municipal officials — in a call for a modern urban strategy that’s now motivated the 2002 gubernatorial candidates to acknowledge that a strong Michigan depends on a thriving network of city centers.

"We need a candidate who’s not afraid to reprioritize," said David Bulkowski, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Center for Independent Living, a disability rights advocate. "Right now the top priorities appear to be tax cuts and prisons. But the goals should be to provide good schools and enable self-sufficiency. Take transit for instance. Sure we’ve seen some funding increases. But if we keep looking at transit like crumbs from the table that we give to second class citizens then we’re going to have a system for second class citizens. We must make some fundamental changes."

What The Other Candidates Say
Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate and former state chairman of Habitat for Humanity, has yet to detail fully what those changes might include. But he has said regularly that successful cities must offer high paying jobs, safe streets, strong schools, and affordable housing. Lt. Gov. Posthumus has pledged, if elected, to commit the full resources of the governor’s office to transforming Detroit into a world-class city by the time the Super Bowl comes to the Motor City in 2006.

Congressman David Bonior, a Democratic candidate, supports forming a partnership between the Office of the Governor and local urban leaders to support urban revitalization. Mr. Bonior also says he would develop neighborhood credit unions to eliminate shady lending practices and provide financial assistance for citizens to renovate homes or start small businesses. Like Mr. Blanchard, Mr. Bonior is an outspoken advocate for decentralized, community policing and improved public transit.

Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the current Democratic front runner, supports regional cooperation and creative partnerships between business leaders and local governments to manage growth and spur urban revival. Ms. Granholm’s top priority, however, is public education, which many say could be the single most important starting point to begin drawing people back downtown.

"If we had a strong public school system we’d probably have more families than we’d know what to do with," said Suzanne Schulz, a planner for the City of Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids Experience

Grand Rapids, west Michigan’s economic anchor and the state’s Smart Growth leader, has not experienced the same level of population loss and disinvestment that devastated cities like Detroit and Saginaw. Nonetheless the city has similar problems — boarded up downtown storefronts, sidewalks hungry for foot traffic, and financially strapped schools.

Since 2000, officials have engaged in an exhaustive process — holding more than 200 meetings and soliciting input from some 2,500 citizens — to update the city’s 1960’s era master plan and articulate a modern vision for the future. The common and recurring priorities identified by participants include efficient public transportation, improved access to the Grand River, and urban neighborhoods that blend not only commercial and residential space, as in Chicago or San Francisco, but also residents with a variety of income levels.

"We don’t need more clustered, low-income housing," Ms. Schulz said. "We need to expand opportunities for mixed income housing. That way the higher income families can help support services such as grocery stores tha t strictly low-income neighborhoods typically cannot sustain on their own."

State leadership is one key to growing cities like Grand Rapids and can help by investing in projects that enlarge public green space, cleanup polluted properties, and expand urban transit, Ms. Schulz said. Cities now compete with the expansive suburbs for residents, businesses, and opportunity. But with the proper design and investment Ms. Schulz believes metro areas ultimately can provide one advantage that suburbia cannot — convenience.

"When people talk about great cities they talk about beautiful parks, easy mass transit, and fun night clubs," she said. "Who wants to live in the suburbs when all the action is in the city? People can live downtown, work downtown, play downtown, and even find daycare downtown. They can go out to eat and take in a show at the theater all without having to spend two hours in the car. That’s the type of attractive lifestyle amenities that a city can offer."

Andy Guy, a journalist and columnist, manages the Institute’s Grand Rapids field office. Reach him at 616-308-6250 or andy@mlui.org. For more of the Institute’s first rate reporting on the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial campaign see www.mlui.org

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