Van Jones: Detroit went from a mess to a model

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit’s comeback is the best example in the country of turning a breakdown into a breakthrough, CNN host and commentator Van Jones said Wednesday.

“To see a city go from being a mess to a model doesn’t happen very often, and it requires a lot,” said Jones during his keynote address during the Downtown Detroit Partnership’s annual meeting at TCF Center.

“For Detroit to really become what Detroit needs to become in this century, it’s going to be because the people in this room have the courage and the strength through this organization to make the smart decisions and smart investments to take on the three big challenges.”

CNN's Van Jones delivers the keynote address at the Downtown Detroit Partnership annual meeting in the Grand Riverview Ballroom at TCF Center on Wednesday.

Jones said those challenges impacting Detroit and the country are the ecological crisis with climate change, the technological crisis with robots replacing workers and the sociological crisis that has created more division and economic inequality.

“The city that rises to meet those challenges is going to be a model city for the 21st century, and you’re on your way,” Jones told the audience, which included the business and philanthropic community.

Jones’ remarks came as the Downtown Detroit Partnership unveiled its annual report Wednesday detailing the results of its initiatives as well as residential and business trends in the downtown area.

Mayor Mike Duggan, DDP Board Chair Cindy Pasky and DDP CEO Eric Larson shared their thoughts on Detroit development covering a wide range of topics, including the 2020 Census and highlights of DDP’s successes. WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) anchor Carolyn Clifford emceed the event.

Among highlights from DDP’s 2019 Annual Report: there was a 38 percent population growth in downtown from 2011 to 2018, increasing from about 5,000 residents in 2011 to nearly 7,000 in 2018.

The number of residential units in the area stands at 3,611 with 687 newly renovated in 2019 with a vacancy rate at just under 7%.

Average monthly residential rents were $1,398 in 2018 and $1,480 in 2019.

Upcoming residential developments include Harvard Centre Square, Hastings Place, Leland House, Brewster-Douglas Site Housing Development and the residential development within the Monroe Block project.

The report also includes recently completed developments including City Club Apartments, Louis Kamper and Stevens buildings and the Farwell building. Nearly two dozen new restaurants are listed in the report.

The total assessed value of business in the downtown has grown from $827 million in 2014 to $1.1 billion in 2018, according to the report.

"We see more and more opportunities for the investment and development," Larson said.

"Detroit is getting back to the city that is about entrepreneurialism and about creativity. That to me I think is maybe not the biggest of investments, but probably the most real and the most important and authentic aspect of the investment that's going on."

The Downtown Detroit Partnership also noted Wednesday the work of its BIZ ambassadors, a group of workers that can be spotted in the downtown wearing wear bright lime green jackets as they pick up debris, remove graffiti and assist pedestrians.

In 2019, its fifth year, the team removed 800 tons of trash, 5,633 instances of graffiti and helped more than 55,000 pedestrians. Workers include youth, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and those with criminal backgrounds.

Cindy Pasky, founder, president and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions, listens to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Duggan, meanwhile, applauded the work of the Downtown Detroit Partnership and its impact beyond the downtown.

The mayor said the city is using downtown as a model for growing business activity along commercial corridors in the neighborhoods. He used investment along the Avenue of Fashion on Livernois as an example. In the past year, Duggan said 13 business have opened, and 12 of them owned by African Americans. 

“We’re taking some of the things we’ve learned in downtown and Midtown, and we’re starting to do it down Grand River, on Kercheval on the east side, we’re starting to do it on East Warren," he said.

"The Detroit I grew up in as a kid — those storefronts were where you went to get a gallon of milk, to get your shoes fixed. ... It's going to take a lot of work. We've got 140 square miles of work. With the partners that we have, you're going to see more and more."

Duggan spoke about the importance of creating opportunities to attract and retain young talent as they graduate from college. He said that when he visits other parts of the state, he hears from people whose children or grandchildren have found employment in Detroit.

“We’re now becoming a place that keeps our young people in the state of Michigan,” he said. “That has been relatively a fast transformation. I think the opportunities the business community creates is great. … If we can keep that talent here, that's the key to building a future.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN