Detroit: Our students get the last word

by Donnajean Ward

In May of this year, I accompanied a group of USC Price undergraduates to Detroit for a week to not only visit and view the oft-discussed decline and nascent revitalization of the city but to actually participate in moving forward a set of existing projects by partnering with two Detroit area non-profits – Michigan Community Resources and Presbyterian Villages.

Detroit student group Summer 2015
Photos by Donnajean Ward

The goal of the USC Price School of Public Policy’s undergraduate capstone lab is to “encourage students to use their coursework… on a real-world project.”  The course is planned to expose students to the real-world challenges of planning, public policy, healthcare, real estate development, and management.  Yes, the Price School does cover a lot of ground and prides itself on this interdisciplinary approach.  In Detroit, our students needed to call on all of the aspects of planning, public administration, and public policy to produce the feasibility studies, market analysis, design recommendations, and development proposals that they presented to the two Detroit organizations.

Detroit rivertown space with studentsPresbyterian Village’s, Thome (toh-may) Rivertown project is a new concept in affordable housing for low-income seniors.  This is not a nursing home but individual one-bedroom “pet-friendly” apartments with on-site support services such as a pharmacy, adult daycare, and an in-house assisted living agency.  Another unexpected feature? The complex happens to be located steps from Detroit’s 3.5 mile Riverwalk park and other amenities not usually associated with low income or senior housing.

Our students were tasked with coming up with a new use for an adjacent empty industrial building on the property as well as streetscape improvements for a private alley and surrounding streets.  What did they come up with?  How about a café, a communal library, or a “community living room”/tutoring space where the senior residents could offer after-school homework help to the students at the nearby elementary and high schools?

In an interview with USC communications writer Matthew Kredell, Presbyterian Villages’ director of Real Estate, Nathan Keup (who flew in from Detroit for the final presentations) noted that they had originally planned to lease out the building space for commercial storage and noted that the students’ ideas were “much more community-friendly, community-building options that as a developer we hadn’t considered.”  Enough said.

Detroit MCR meeting students at tableAn even more challenging project faced the group who took on the Mt. Elliot District Reinvestment Strategy Project on behalf of Michigan Community Resources, a non-profit that provides an array of services to help low-income communities improve their quality of life.  MCR’s services include legal and policy advice, community engagement, planning, and technical services.

Our students were asked to help find solutions to the Mt. Elliot District Project, which is one part of a much larger, a multi-year, multi-project, strategic framework being prepared by a range of Detroit stakeholders known as Detroit Future City (DFT)

The objective of the Mt. Elliot project is to “establish Mt. Elliott Corridor as a premier hub for advanced manufacturing and to attract businesses that will create jobs for existing Detroiters.  A tall order to be sure.  Just how tall?  Mt. Elliot is a project so challenging that giant AECOM’s initial response to an RFP for the area was to “lay the groundwork for future conversations.”

To be fair, the Mt. Elliot corridor is over 3,000 acres in size with more than 600 acres of vacant and underutilized land.  And we drove all 3 thousand acres many times over during the week!

Detroit rail from bus windowThe upside to this sprawling district, encompassing several neighborhoods, is its transportation assets, including I-75, I-94, rail and freight yards and an airport, and its proximity to both a GM and a Chrysler assembly plant and other smaller manufacturing.

The range of solutions presented by our students was broad and pretty impressive if I do say so myself.  Two presentations focused on workforce development initiatives with precedents and examples from other communities of successful partnerships between community colleges, businesses and, yes, labor.

The bulk of the presentations were focused on how do you solve a problem like an airport with runways too short to support large passenger planes that cannot be extended because they are surrounded by historic cemeteries?

Coleman A. Young Airport saw its last Southwest Airline flight take off in 1993.  While it has occasional corporate jet traffic, it is largely non-operational as a commercial airport.

So what were the alternative solutions?  How about an array of non-airport uses like parks, indoor, vertical farming and farmer’s markets in the airplane hangars?  Or turning the runways into bike-friendly roads connected to existing bikeways like the Dequindre Cut?  Or capturing the $1.7 billion dollars Detroiters spend annually in the suburbs for retail goods and services by turning the airport into a town square style shopping plaza.  Or switching the airport’s use to launching and testing drones instead of airplanes?  Or using the facilities to develop and manufacture alternative energy technology?

Detroit Airport

The most radical solution?  How about an airport?  As one student discovered through good old fashioned research, Coleman A. Young, a “general aviation” airport compares in size with SoCal’s Hawthorne, Riverside, and McClellan airports.  Whether or not it could compete with other regional airports in southern Michigan remains to be seen but now the information on that option is in the hands of the decision-makers.

Presentation after presentation, the students rolled out innovative solutions to tough problems, ever optimistic about the city’s future, energized and proud of their contribution to Detroit’s revitalization.

Detroit Students at table with blue glasses