News that Bedrock will add 9,000 new permanent employees and 15,000 temporary construction jobs to downtown should send a loud message: Get ready, Detroit. The planned development will flood the downtown district with new workers and strain the supply of skilled tradesmen.
Those aren’t negatives — a building boom of this magnitude will leap forward downtown’s revival. But they pose challenges that will have to be met. And since most of the projects will be going into the ground over the next year, the timetable for meeting them is short.
What Bedrock, the development arm of Dan Gilbert’s business empire, promises is an 800-foot office tower on the old Hudson’s department store site that will be the tallest structure on Detroit’s skyline; an overhaul of the largely vacant Monroe blocks between Campus Martius and Greektown; refurbishing the Book Building into residential and retail space and a hotel; and an expansion of the former Compuware Building.
Together, the projects will total $2.4 billion. Combined with the development planned around the newly opened Little Caesars Arena, the work will transform downtown Detroit in very short order.
Detroit is also competing to land Amazon’s second headquarters — a proposal that could add as many as 50,000 additional jobs. Mayor Mike Duggan has asked Gilbert to lead that effort. The city is up against many others eager to attract the online retail giant. And recent FBI statistics showing Detroit is once again the most violent city in the country won’t help. Also, Detroit’s chronically low-performing schools are a major setback. These are glaring problems that must be addressed to attract outside investment.
To accommodate the rapid growth already underway, the city and region will have to upgrade both its infrastructure and workforce. Transportation should top the preparation priority list.
Southeast Michigan voters last year rejected a regional transit plan that would have relied heavily on a sophisticated bus system.
Planners now have a chance to go back and draft a proposal that better incorporates new modes of public transportation, including ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber, and that takes into account the future of autonomous vehicles. The new plan should be ready, and heavily marketed, for the fall 2018 ballot.
Downtown Detroit is already stretched for parking spaces. Bringing in several thousand new workers into the central city by car will overwhelm the existing lots and garages. And it will further clog the arteries leading into downtown.
More workers will have to arrive by bus or car pools. Detroit mandates that 51 percent of the workers on the construction projects be Detroit residents. Achieving that goal is a fantasy at the moment. There just aren’t enough skilled tradesmen in Detroit.
This fall, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, with considerable help from the business community, reopened the Randolph Career and Technical Center to begin training both students and adults for construction jobs.
That’s a great start, and it must be joined by many more efforts aimed at developing a skilled workforce. Opportunity is knocking in Detroit. We need to get busy answering it.