March 9, 2010 at 1:00 am

Detroit's desolate middle makes downsizing tough

Data shows viable neighborhoods are closer to suburbs

George Shirlee, 83, says he remembers a time when pedestrians jammed the sidewalks near his 17th Street home, which he has lived in since 1962. Today, only three houses remain standing on his block in Detroit's Briggs neighborhood. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Detroit --Mayor Dave Bing is committed to downsizing Detroit, but experts say his emerging plan must confront a difficult challenge: The most vibrant areas of the city also are farthest from downtown.

The most viable neighborhoods, with the fewest vacant lots, are on the fringes, near the suburbs. The ones with the most abandoned houses and vacancies are closest to downtown.

"We have a downtown core and then we clearly have an outer ring," said Douglass Diggs, interim executive director of the recently formed Detroit Land Bank, a primary agency in the city's downsizing push. "The question is how do you link those two?

"Looking at the maps it seems like the real challenge is what to do with the middle part."

The question is at the heart of debate about how Detroit should reinvent itself to save viable neighborhoods as population declines from a peak of 1.8 million in 1950 to about 900,000 today. The disconnect is illustrated by two neighborhoods: Lahser-Berg near Southfield, where nearly all homes are occupied; and Briggs near the old Tiger Stadium, where wildlife outnumber residents.

The mayor is using internal and external data to craft a plan he said likely will include relocation of residents in dilapidated neighborhoods to healthy ones.

Among his tools is a study released last month by the Detroit Data Collaborative, a coalition of city and nonprofit groups. The block-by-block survey found that roughly one in three parcels in the city contain vacant lots or abandoned homes, with most in the city's center or east side.

Bing won't put a timeline, price or cost estimate on his plans, but said the city must get smaller to save money and preserve quality of life. He's expected to release more details of his downsizing initiative during his State of the City speech on March 23.

Even though the plan is being formed, the idea of picking winning and losing neighborhoods is controversial. This week, the Michigan Citizen newspaper likened relocating neighbors to the "Trail of Tears" relocation of the American Indians.

Any large-scale effort would cost millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and skeptics including Edward Rago question if it would even save City Hall money.

Rago, a budget director under former Mayor Coleman Young, argued Detroit would still have to maintain utility lines and drive police and garbage trucks through downsized neighborhoods to ones that are saved. Instead, the best option may be making tough decisions on maintaining basic services such as police, fire and garbage and cutting others, such as buses and health, he said.

"Everyone can agree it's too spread out, but what can they do?" asked Rago.

But Anita Lane, director of programs for Community Development Advocates of Detroit, said a strong plan to reinvent Detroit could save the city cash. Her group last week released a report arguing the city should be divided into 11 categories, from residential areas to green venture zones and urban homesteads that would have minimal services.

"Time, wages and gas spent in these low density areas add up," Lane wrote in an e-mail. "We could definitely save the city money."

Briggs struggles to survive

Decades ago, Lahser-Berg and Briggs may have seemed similar. Today, they couldn't be more different.

Briggs near the former Tiger Stadium and Lahser-Berg near Eight Mile are roughly the same size, about 450-470 parcels. Their homes are about 1,200 to 1,500 square feet. Both are predominantly black and anchored by elementary schools -- Owen on 14th Street and McKenny near Eight Mile.

Enrollment at McKenny is holding at 308 students. Owen closed and merged with a nearby school in 2006 and has become a magnet for vandals and vagrants who roam the neighborhood's hundreds of empty lots, burned buildings and crumbling homes.

Nearly 87 percent of the homes and parcels are vacant in the Briggs neighborhood sandwiched between Corktown and Woodbridge. Across the street from Owen, only one house remains of the dwellings that were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

George Shirlee perseveres. He moved into a home on 17th Street in 1962, raising nine children. Once, there were so many people in the neighborhood, pedestrians had a hard time navigating sidewalks, he said.

They began to leave after the 1967 riots, which began a few blocks away on 12th Street. Those who remained were driven out by the drug wars of the 1980s, Shirlee said. On his block, three houses still stand. On any given day, even finding residents is a challenge.

"Everyone is gone," he said.

Shirlee thought about investing another $10,000 in his house. It wouldn't make a difference. It's appraised at $2,000.

"The city has gone nuts," said Bertha Sieg, 69, who has lived on 15th Street for 42 years. "The city needs to start fixing up the neighborhoods and help homeowners who live here and get something done."

Sieg said she doesn't care how much the city would offer. She plans on dying in her home.

Lahser-Berg thrives

Closer to the border of Southfield, brick ranches are valued around $70,000. They began springing up in the 1950s in Lahser-Berg.

Two pillars of the neighborhood stand on Burt Road: McKenny, which opened in 1950, and Bethany-Pembroke Chapel. Neighbors organize to fight the sale of drugs at Henry Tuttle Park and problems that spill over from the Penthouse Club topless bar on Eight Mile.

All but 12 of the neighborhood's 454 homes are occupied, city data show.

"It's just a very good area," said Raymond Jackson, 51, who attended McKenny and recently returned to care for his father.

Lahser-Berg community organizer Mary Little said there's no big secret to survival: Neighbors care. They cut their lawns and pay their mortgage.

"It's the maturity of the residents, which are basically people who have paid for their homes," said Little, 85.

'Urban village' plan touted

One solution for the city could be the creation of "urban villages," according to a 2008 report, "Leaner, Greener Detroit," from the American Institute of Architects.

Recognizing population loss and displacement, the report recommends clustering residents in nine villages that are linked to downtown, Midtown and New Center. In between would be belts of "opportunity areas" mothballed for farming or other industries.

The model would streamline services and encourage mass transit, said Allan Mallach, an author of the report and a nonresident Brookings Institution fellow. But money would be a secondary goal, he said. "There wouldn't be massive savings, there would be gradual improvement," Mallach said. "It's about creating a city with a better quality of life."

Gary Sands, a retired Wayne State University urban planning professor, said the city could cut public lighting and stop maintaining streets in dormant areas.

He said the city could start by identifying blocks with just one or two residents so that "you don't have to get everyone to move." In the next year or so, it would be an accomplishment if the city could point to a greenbelt created out of 10-12 blocks, he said.

"There just aren't enough resources to do more," Sands said.

Downsizing seminar

Wayne State University will host a daylong symposium March 26 on rebuilding Detroit and downsizing the city, university officials announced Monday. Officials from the city of Detroit, vacant property experts, urban policy professors, Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee and Youngstown, Ohio, Mayor Jay Williams are expected at the "Rebuilding the Post-Industrial City" event from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Law School's Spencer M. Partrich Auditorium. Youngstown and Flint are considered municipal leaders in the downsizing movement.

The shuttered Owen Elementary School, located in the Briggs neighborhood, ...
Well-kept 1950s brick ranches make up the Lahser-Berg area. One ...
Residents of Lahser-Berg work to protect their community. They fight to ...
Raymond Jackson, 51, walks his dog Rip in the Lahser-Berg neighborhood ...