February 25, 2009 at 1:00 am

Commentary: Will next mayor continue Detroit's death spiral?

Recovery requires consolidating land, downsizing, working with suburbs

Here's the question Detroit's next mayor will need to answer first: Should the city be run as a hospital or a hospice? Are we healing the patient or enabling a slow death?

The question can only be answered by facing reality: Detroit has neither the economy nor the resources to revive the city's 140 square miles, a fact the voters need to understand.

The leading mayoral candidates -- now winnowed down to two after Tuesday's primary election -- have promised honesty, a balanced budget, reduced crime and stabilized schools. These achievements would provide comfort to Detroit residents, but they won't change the prognosis for the city. The patient is still dying.

Detroit needs major surgery to survive. The cure requires:

  • Downsizing.

  • Restructuring large sections of the city.

  • Forging a regional economic development plan with the suburbs.

    Detroit's leaders have downplayed signs of a city-wide economic collapse for 40 years. Since the 1960s, 1,000 residents per month have left Detroit for jobs and better living conditions elsewhere. Today, the city has one million fewer residents than it did four decades ago. This exodus is not reversible in the foreseeable future. Barring major changes in the city's economy, it will continue unabated.

    The focus on keystone projects downtown has masked deepening problems in the neighborhoods, which have not retained working-class residents. The human tragedy of the mortgage foreclosures will be matched with the neighborhood tragedy of accelerating population loss and housing abandonment.

    Detroit's single biggest problem is a lack of jobs for its residents. If working-class people cannot find work in the city, those who can will leave. Those who cannot leave face myriad social problems -- crime, housing abandonment, poor schools, inadequate services and damaging environmental health conditions.

    The restructuring of the auto industry will further exacerbate Detroit's problems.

    While Detroiters bear the major brunt of these problems, everyone in the region is hurt when deplorable city conditions discourage businesses from locating and expanding in the metropolitan area.

    Detroit needs a visionary 20-year plan to downsize significantly. To heal the patient, Detroit's 50 square miles of vacant land must be reused effectively by consolidating large sections of abandoned property for economic redevelopment and open space use. The city's checker board land holdings are largely useless as economic building blocks. When land becomes available its development needs to be integrated into a comprehensive regional economic strategy, an approach that will mesh with the new urban policy of President Barack Obama.

    The challenges of downsizing effectively are daunting. The mayor can expect strong opposition from community organizations and residents where neighborhoods would be phased out and city services curtailed. The Michigan Constitution was recently amended to take the power of eminent domain for economic development out of the hands of crumbling city governments, so assembling land will be very difficult.

    Nevertheless, land consolidation is Detroit's only salvation to revitalize its neighborhoods by restructuring the city's economic base.

    The economic center of the region is no longer within Detroit's limits, as it was in the 1950s. Detroit's government now has little influence and almost no participation in regional development. If Detroit's decline goes unchecked, how long will it be before the region decides to close ranks, further separate itself from the city and create an image and name of its own to bolster its economic survival and future? East Detroit has already been renamed Eastpointe.

    Detroit's next mayor must act decisively in meeting the city's economic challenges. Only then will the patient be healed.

    John E. Mogk is a professor of law at the Wayne State University Law School in Detroit.