September 4, 2014 at 8:23 am

Laura Berman

Detroit Future City helps shape public, private visions into area's transformation

Michelle Lutz working at the farm that is part of Recovery Park. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Kenneth Cockrel Jr. has been a Detroit City Council member, council president and — for six months in 2013 — the city’s mayor. But for the last nine months, as the executive director at Detroit Future City, he’s seen Detroit anew. “It’s a view from the balcony,” he says.

As a city official, Cockrel recalls being busy solving crises, “so focused on the daily grind, putting out fires every day, that you don’t get a chance to think about how to prevent fires from starting.”

Now, the city’s future — and how to get there — is the only job for Cockrel and his co-workers at the concrete-floored, urban-rustic DFC implementation office on West Grand Boulevard.

How do you transform a city laden with 19th century infrastructure, 20 square miles of vacant land and a history of insolvency? How do you help public and private entities pick and choose the best ideas — and those likeliest to succeed — in the future? How do you even get them to ask you for help?

Detroit Future City doesn’t make grants or create change. Its effectiveness depends on the willingness of developers, foundations and officials to tap into its ideas and turn them into reality.

The goal — urban transformation — is ambitious and slightly zany. This is a workplace that encourages thinking about what might happen five decades from now. It provides an environment where its leaders are thinking long term about using vacant land for agriculture, energy production and new approaches to transit, getting rid of blight and stabilizing neighborhoods.

With three leaders (Cockrel, director of projects Daniel Kinkead and director of operations Heidi Alcock) and a 12-member staff, it’s an intense, nimble group that’s part think tank, part consulting team, part seat-of-their-pants innovators. It was through DFC, for example, that the Duggan administration recruited a deputy director of technology — and got two years of foundation funding for the position.

Backed by Kresge and other foundations, removed from politics but not reality, this office of urban planners, architects, public policy wonks and a banker or two is working on Detroit’s future, pragmatically, bit by bit, working with the private and public sectors.

The DFC framework — the core of a city master plan — was completed as a 345-page book in 2012. That project, launched as “Detroit Works” and renamed Detroit Future City — was an exhaustive effort to engage citizens, map the city, analyze land use and population, and make recommendations for the best ways to use land and the city’s water, people and other resources.

Now the job is making sure the big fat book doesn’t collect dust on a shelf like all the other plans for Detroit.

(“I saw a stack of them when I was mayor,” says Cockrel.)

Kresge Foundation, which has a five-year, $150 million commitment to Detroit, is the major funder and booster. All of the Troy-based foundation’s Detroit grants are in sync with the DFC framework.

Whether backing a greenhouse on the east side or encouraging retail development on Livernois, the grants coordinate development beyond Midtown and downtown.

“It’s a way to unleash economic impact,” says Kresge’s Laura Trudeau, who describes the framework as a way to “compile a lot of aspirations for the city,” and help see them to fruition.”

“Detroit Future City is unprecedented in scale, depth and even breadth,” says Calvin Gladney, a Washington, D.C.-based urban revitalization expert who has been a consultant on Detroit projects.

“Other cities plan. But having an entire office set up, after a plan has been developed, is really unprecedented.”

Of course, if opening an office could transform Detroit, we’d have had a new Detroit 10 times over. And DFC’s role is typically advisory or collaborative. Technically, it operates under the nonprofit Detroit Economic Growth Corp. But the office helps other entities sharpen their focus, avoid duplicating efforts and winnow out the best ideas to develop or effectively use the city’s vast empty acreage.

Among the group’s goals:

■Increase the number of trees — not for aesthetic reasons, but because an adequate tree canopy can reduce Detroit’s mean temperature, absorb carbon dioxide and vehicle exhaust particles, and filter out toxins in land. “We have 50 percent less tree coverage than we should,” Kinkead says.

■Invest in urban agriculture as a means to provide jobs, energy and food. Producing food in the city cuts transportation costs and makes the city less dependent on outside sources. “In 50 years, Detroit may become one of the few food-secure cities in the world,” Kinkead says.

A pilot project last winter to “deconstruct” rather than demolish Detroit housing stock proved useful to the Duggan administration, which is using many DFC recommendations in its blight removal program, Gladney says. Rather than just tear houses down, the goal is to take them apart and salvage, sell or recycle as much of them as possible.

The city may ultimately use an updated version of DFC’s framework as the city’s formal master plan — yet another way to help coordinate projects and decision-making.

Gary Wozniak, executive director of Recovery Park, an urban agriculture project, showed up at every forum and meeting in 2011, when Detroit Works spawned fears that the city was plotting a way to shuttle people from their homes and shut down parts of the city. (Cockrel recalls conversations about “winners and losers that scared the heck out of some people.”)

Some of those fears persist. But Wozniak, himself an initial skeptic, says he’s found the brain-trust and support from DFC to be invaluable.

“They brought the intellectual ideas in the book. Now they’re implementing them by bringing these very smart people to the table to talk to us about what works and what doesn’t,” says Wozniak, who has $1 million in grants to launch a Detroit hydroponic farming project.

People in a room sitting around talking can’t propel the city forward.

As Gladney, the consultant says, market forces drive the result.

Unleashing those forces in the smartest, future-oriented way is the business at Detroit Future City.
(313) 222-2032

Ken Cockrel Jr. found a new role for himself in Detroit after leaving the ... (The Detroit News)