November 13, 2018 - From the November, 2018 issue

Detroit's Resurgence from Rustbelt Decline: Architect Steven Lewis on City Planning & Equitable Development

For most of the last half-century, Detroit has been portrayed to the rest of the world as a city in decline, and a market where developers could dictate the terms of investment. Today, facts on the ground are beginning to challenge that assessment. In 2015, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hired Maurice Cox to head  the Detroit Planning Department with the goal of enmeshing urban planning into the redevelopment of the city. Cox hired Los Angeles architect R. Steven Lewis to be the Design Director for the Central Region of the City Planning Department. In this exclusive TPR interview, Lewis shares his rich experience in Detroit over the last two years in a planning department that went from six to 36 without a playbook for how to integrate urban planning into the city's turn-around, and reflects on the opportunity challenges of reimagining and equitably redeveloping Detroit's decades-in-the-making depressed economy. Lewis, now back in Los Angeles with the architectural firm ZGF, dives into the dynamism of Detroit’s current redevelopment efforts that have as their goal integrating complete street projects, green spaces, and equity into the planning process.

R. Steven Lewis

"Political leadership needs the courage to convince financial leadership that diverse environments are healthy things that ensure our future survival." —R. Steven Lewis

You left Los Angeles two and a half years ago to become an Urban Design Director for Detroit in the midst of its redevelopment. What attracted you to that opportunity?

R. Steven Lewis: This was a once-in-a-career opportunity to shape the recovery of the poster child for Rust Belt decline. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

In the past, Detroit had been so desperate for anything in the way of new investment that any developer who came to the table called the shots. The Planning Department had been reduced to six people—primarily bureaucrats relegated to handling perfunctory functions of stamping development applications.

But with a new sheriff in town, Mayor Mike Duggan, came a new set of values and sensibilities—starting with the appointment of my good friend and colleague Maurice Cox as new Director of Planning.

Maurice was attractive to Mayor Duggan because of the tremendously successful community design center he had established at Tulane University in New Orleans. The mayor told Maurice that he wanted one of those in each of Detroit’s seven council districts.

Maurice set out to attract colleagues from all over the country who had worked in African-American communities. Detroit is an 83 percent Black city, and he wanted the demographic makeup of the Planning Department to reflect the community as much as possible.

There were three urban design directors, each responsible for a section of the city’s 139-square-mile geography. I got what I consider the lucky draw of Central Detroit, which starts at the waterfront and includes Downtown, Midtown, and all of Southwest Detroit, a 99 percent Latino neighborhood.

The portrayal of Detroit that the world sees is very unfair. It’s all ruin porn and decline. When I actually explored the city, I found incredible neighborhoods intact. You see, historically, every time white flight happened from a top-tier neighborhood, the backfill was African-Americans. Now you can drive through Palmer Woods and see mansion after mansion, and 83 percent of the people opening the front door are African-American.

The thing that a lot of people miss is that there is a full spectrum of educations and incomes and everything within Detroit’s African-American community, just as in every culture. Detroit, while it has a lot of poverty and disillusionment, also has strong middle and upper classes that are very active politically, socially, and philanthropically.

What was the mission of Detroit’s new planning department under new mayor Mike Duggan?

The Planning Department’s mission is to create a healthy and equitable city for all Detroiters, where economic opportunity and beauty are shared among everyone. That was the big outcome we were looking for, and it was our job to figure out how to get there.

Frankly, we were not given a playbook when we arrived, but we brought our collective experiences to the party. We jumped right in, convening meetings with folks in the neighborhoods to understand what was going on.

Ultimately, at the mayor’s direction, we identified seven targeted neighborhoods where, after a planning area study, we would solicit RFPs for projects. These were places—usually about a quarter-square-mile—where there was still enough viability that, if we built on their strengths, we could bring population back. The idea was to build enough density to support retail and reestablish commercial corridors whose glory days were long gone but whose bones were still there. We also wanted to build a new kind of housing that Detroit never experienced: the missing middle. We explored form-based code in a few neighborhoods with the goal of making the path to development easier while also embedding our values and aesthetic sensibilities into policy.

Out of the planning studies, our charge was to create a list of projects that were achievable in a one-to-three-year timeframe by aligning whatever resources were available with the wants and needs of the neighborhood. We didn’t want to work with 20-year timeframes. After so many decades of broken promises, we had to be able to show results in order to rebuild trust with the community.

As modest as some of these initiatives were, given the constraints, we arrived at them through a very robust community engagement process. All of our RFP interviews were conducted in a public setting, so that people could watch the whole process and ask questions of the team. Hundreds of people would show up on a weekend to watch, and teams would do creative things—one rapped his presentation. That would never happen behind closed doors. This transparency was remarkable, and new for Detroit.

There was a sense of ownership on the part of residents, and some of our harshest critics became real allies by the end. I think, through our actions, we made it clear that we had no ulterior motives as others in the past may have had. We were simply there as public servants, and we had come from far and wide because we took the responsibility of being stewards of the African-American community very seriously. There was a sense that if we couldn’t get in here and work with folks and get this done, then no one else would be able to.

What public financial incentives and planning tools were available to you to take on the Planning Department’s challenges?

It was all about that three-letter acronym: HUD. We operated on community development block grants. We were able to award projects that got Low-Income Housing Tax Credit financing of 4 or 9 percent. Now, Detroit is at a tipping point; the first project without a need for subsidy came in a month ago. But until then, nothing had been feasible without some sort of subsidy.

There was also a big brownfield tax-increment financing program run out of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, our sister department that we worked very closely with. And the city has a lot of land, some of which is located in areas ripe for mixed-use development.

There was also state roads bond fund that the city got an allocation of. We could bend the funding criteria to allow for spending money in our target neighborhoods, and that enabled us to build protected bike lanes connecting the riverfront asset—which some people never even knew existed—into neighborhoods.

How did you interface with other Detroit city departments, i.e. Building and Safety, Transportation, Streets, Fire, and public safety?

We were an annoyance at best! They hadn’t moved very far in decades, and now we were not just moving, but moving fast. And for us to succeed, we needed them to move with us.

We had a lot of challenges, especially because we’re viewed as outsiders, and many of these folks had been in their jobs for a long time. But we managed to build strong relationships and allegiances across departments, thanks in part to mayoral leadership.

Our team partnered Melissa Dittmer at Bedrock on an exhibit called Detroit Design 139. It showed the work coming out of our department, like planning studies; the housing projects on city land coming out of the University of Michigan’s Housing Studios; and work by private architects in the city. We mounted this exhibit in the lobby of a beautiful midcentury tower on the edge of the Campus Martius public square.

For a month, we had events there; the public wandered in, and they were fascinated. And the mayor convened his weekly cabinet meeting there. All the department heads—fire, police, building and safety, etc.—were sitting in the middle of the exhibit, and the mayor said, “You see this? This is our future. This is where we’re going, and you’d better get on board.” He laid down the law right then and there.

What has spurred the resurgence of Detroit over the last decade, given that the city lost 1 million people in the prior half century?

Detroit’s resurgence didn’t just start on its own; it wasn’t spontaneous combustion. What happened was that Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and founder of Quicken Loans, decided in 2010 to move his company into Downtown Detroit. Through his real estate firm, Bedrock, he bought 80 surrounding buildings and immediately began investing tens of millions of dollars into the public realm.

Now, he’s no dummy. That investment raised the value of everything around it—including his 80 buildings. But there’s a consciousness and an awareness in all of his deals of taking care of the local folks. He believes in the quality and the power of architecture, and he’s invested in hiring world-class firms like SHoP and Schmidt Hammer Lassen (part of Perkins + Will) as well as local African-American firms like Hamilton Anderson. Bedrock is extended into so many projects, it’s a wonder how he’s able to do it—but he’s got all of it moving steadily down the field.

Dan Gilbert is the economic engine, and that engine is cranking away. The question is: How do we spread that through the rest of the city? How do we bridge neighborhoods that were left with a concentration of poverty, hopeless, and despair after everyone with means left?

How did Detroit approach reinvestment in public infrastructure, given its stressed economy? 

We examined the needs of each neighborhood through a series of lenses, which we tweaked to acknowledge their exigencies and differences. For example, one focus area was streetscapes and the street realm, and we considered a signature park an essential element for each neighborhood.


Vacant land and the stabilization of single-family housing stock were also big ones. Detroit has demolished more blighted homes through federal programs than any other city by far, and they’re on tap for thousands more. They’ve got an aggressive schedule of 4,000 demolitions per year until they’re done. But then we’re going to be left with blocks and blocks where only one or two houses still remain. The question then arises of the geography and services. It would be a challenge to extend, not only utilities, but also police, fire, and emergency services.

Instead, Detroit has a tool called Bridging Neighborhoods, in which they offer families the opportunity to trade their home in the most devastated of neighborhoods for a renovated city-owned home. A strategic planning group then converts their former, now-vacant property.

The Planning Department’s Open Land Study looks at strategies for how to convert vacant land into a productive use at a variety of scales. Their first actual project was in a quarter-square-mile neighborhood, connecting two institutions—University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College—with a greenway made of city-owned lots. In the center, the greenway was interrupted by a signature public park. Then they issued an RFP to renovate every home in the neighborhood—115 of them—and convert the 22 square acres of vacant into a productive use.

You mentioned earlier the importance of HUD. HUD has gone through a transformation over the last two years. What has been the impact of our federal administration on Detroit’s community development plans?

Fear and uncertainty. The continuance of community development block grants is essential. If they get taken away, unless something else shows up in their place, it’s going to slow things down for us incredibly.

It’s a delicate situation, but there are two factors that make it interesting. First, HUD Secretary Ben Carson is from Detroit. And second, Hunter Kurtz, our former deputy director of Housing and Revitalization, is his chief of staff. 

Given that your third of Detroit includes its downtown, address the city’s continuing interactions with Quicken Loan founder Dan Gilbert and his development firm Bedrock, as well as with the city’s smaller community developers.

Bedrock and the city work very closely together. Maurice and I had biweekly check-in meetings with Melissa and her staff.

Two years ago, the voters approved a community benefits ordinance, which put the Planning Department in charge of convening and conducting a community benefits process for any project $75 million or greater. We thought, “Well, how many projects over $75 million could there be?” It turned out to be five or six projects a year.

In addition to Bedrock projects, the big projects include Ford’s adaptation of the old Central Station. This was the poster building for Detroit’s decline, and it will now be renovated into Ford’s autonomous vehicle headquarters, housing 5,000 employees. Quinn Evans is the historic preservation architect, and Snøhetta is doing the plan for the Corktown neighborhood.

In a sense, development in Detroit has two currents: a corporate wave, where the mayor’s out cutting deals to bring in Fortune 500s and Fortune 200s, and a real funky grassroots economy of restaurants, bars, and artists that is benefiting from new eyes on Detroit.

You've called your work in the Detroit Planning Department "purpose-driven." What does that term mean to you? 

It means helping to change the lives of people who are disenfranchised by conducting a process with them to create an energy that will last after we’re gone. That’s the energy of hopefulness and possibility.

The Planning Department often does pop-ups. In one case, we did a streetscape intervention along a retail corridor in the form of a temporary protected bike lane. We got a long strip of black rubberized mat and painted crosswalk stripes on the black mat, and then we rolled the thing up and carried it over to the curb, where we were able to unfurl it instantly as soon as there was a break in the traffic. That kind of thing gets people to stop and look and ask questions. It creates interest—and pride.

Another example is the park we just opened in the Fitzgerald neighborhood. At first, people were saying, “That’s not for us; that’s for new people coming in.” When they realized that there was a full basketball court there, they started to say, “Maybe this is for us.” On opening day, a game was going on. Eight kids were piling onto the tire swing. Everybody from the neighborhood was out, plus a bunch of us from outside. There was hopefulness in the air. The energy of hope is powerful, and it is palpable.

Not that there aren’t critics whose job it is to heckle you at every public meeting, but overwhelmingly, we’re winning back the support of people in neighborhoods. I can say that with confidence, because when my departure was announced, I began to get emails from people who had been adversarial with me thanking me for my service and saying how much things had changed. It was really touching to hear that.

You’ve described in this interview the very strong leadership on planning and economic development driving the resurgence of Detroit. Compare and contrast that to the situation in Los Angeles.

I started my career at the City of LA’s CRA working for John Spaulding and Rafique Kahn. My heart—and my practice—tends to be with people at the low end of the spectrum. But in Los Angeles, a whole different set of challenges affects these residents.

I’m still on the board of Century Housing, a community development financial institution that finances affordable housing throughout California. We had approved a nearly $14 million loan for the conversion of a motel in Pasadena into a 77-room permanent supportive housing project. But the rancor at the public hearing was so vociferous that the city cancelled the project. They just had no backbone—no will.

It requires leadership at the top to make any of this happen in a comprehensive way. Sure, there will always be spot successes here and there when stars align. But political leadership needs the courage to convince financial leadership that diverse environments are healthy things that ensure our future survival.

In California, the definition of city planning seems to have narrowed from a complex mission focused on livability to simply encouraging and allowing market-driven density regardless of even affordability. Your thoughts?

That’s an answer that I myself am still searching for. There’s so much vacancy in Detroit that density equates to the health and survival of the city. In Los Angeles, it’s almost the opposite.

If transit-oriented development lives up to its goal of providing access to transit and getting people to all the other stuff we need, it will be a good thing. But what price are we paying for it? Right now, it’s exclusivity based on financial means.

I came to the CRA in 1980 because I wanted to work on Skid Row. Well, we’ve still got Skid Row. And the first time I walked through Skid Row after two and a half years away, I could not believe what I was walking through. That path was interrupted by little pockets of sidewalk patio dining, with people sipping martinis while everyone else exists in a completely different state right beyond an invisible barricade.

At first, I didn’t know what to do with that. But I’ve since begun an initiative at ZGF called “Is ZGF MAD?”—where MAD stands for “making a difference.” I hope that, with the help of my new colleagues, we will answer that question in the affirmative. 

Describe the professional opportunity that has now lured you back to Los Angeles.

I’m principal of urban design at ZGF. ZGF is noted for its large-scale healthcare design work, as well as college campus planning and architecture. They do very fine architecture, but their urban design group is relatively small, and part of my role is to help strengthen and build it.

Another part of my role is to be a change agent and make real the value proposition of a diverse workforce. ZGF’s headquarters is in Portland, which is the whitest city in America, and most of their leadership is white.

There is, however, a diversity of architectural thinking. I recently sat in on a design review for a local institutional project, and I was amazed at the collaborative spirit. I feel very at home there. My goal is to bring in opportunities in places like Detroit or Birmingham, Alabama that produce a redeeming value, that we can be proud of, and that change people’s lives.


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