When I was placing an order for portable toilets for April 23rd’s Better Block installation, we came face to face with the infamy surrounding Detroit’s city center. The rental company drew a clear line between renting in Detroit versus its suburbs. “We don’t allow overnight rentals within city limits,” said the representative. “What if it’s outside the city?” I asked. “Then it’s fine,” she said.
It isn’t news that Detroit has faced a series of hardships over the past 60 years. From the riots in the 1960s and ’70s, to declaring bankruptcy in 2013, the city has been left with excess housing, population decrease, increased crime, and drastically cut funding for city programs. In 2012, during the height of Detroit’s economic decline, the police force warned their employees and suburban residents to “enter Detroit at your own risk,” citing the reduction in police pay and benefits, and subsequent increase in crime.
In recent years, thanks to support from foundations such as The Knight Foundation, the dedication of active community groups, and a slowly increasing tax base, revitalization efforts have taken place and the city is becoming a hub for innovation. As part of these efforts, The Knight Foundation, together with Detroit Collaborative Design Center, University Commons, Live6 Alliance, and the City of Detroit, brought Better Block Foundation to Detroit to conduct a two-part project on Livernois Avenue in northwest Detroit. Livernois Avenue., a major North-South corridor that connects inner-city Detroit to its suburbs, has suffered from disinvestment and car-centric infrastructure, leading to a low perception of safety, high-vacancy rates, and poor walkability.
The Better Block project kicked off April 23 on one block of Livernois directly across from the University of Detroit Mercy campus, an area dubbed “Live6” for its proximity to 6 Mile Road. For one weekend, we brought the community together to take back part of their street, give local entrepreneurs an opportunity to showcase their businesses, and attempted to bridge the divide between the university and its neighborhood.
No. 1: Perception of Safety
As illustrated above, negative connotations from the past are still heavily in place. While the city has emerged from bankruptcy and Mayor Duggan is prioritizing police staff and pay, perception of safety remains one of the biggest hurdles in creating walkable neighborhoods in Detroit’s core.
A further instance of this is the exact block where we conducted our project, Livernois Avenue between Grove and Florence streets. The University of Detroit Mercy has constructed an eight-foot iron fence around the campus to provide a secure barrier between the students and faculty and the blighted neighborhood that surrounds it. A long-standing debate over the fence weighs the University’s obligation to protect its students versus its responsibility to the community in which it resides. During the course of the project, the fence became a metaphor for the larger issues of segregation and perception facing the city; though communities and stakeholders are engaged and committed to Detroit’s progress, a resistance still exists to letting that community in.
No. 2: Access
Aside from the safety implications, students complain that they have to walk half a mile from certain parts of campus just to get to the street, though, without the barrier, they’re only 200 feet away. The result is a lack of street life and economic vitality in the immediate corridor outside of the University’s gates. When convenience is hindered to the point where the students need to get in a car to get a meal, they’re likely to bypass the immediate block where they reside and go to a more established destination, as distance is no longer the impediment that it would be on foot. The situation encourages blocks that are neglected to stay neglected, and small businesses that attempt to branch outside of already successful areas have difficulty staying afloat.
This problem extends beyond the particular block on which we worked. As the recent City Observatory Storefront Index showed, Detroit had the least storefront density of all 51 municipalities included in the study, with the highest being in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The study proved a direct correlation between the number of street-facing stores and a city’s vibrancy. According to the report, “One of the best indicators of the vitality of an urban space is the presence of customer-facing retail and service businesses. A concentration of boutiques, bars, and restaurants; apparel and merchandise stores; entertainment venues; art galleries; and the like are the kind of privately owned but publicly open spaces that draw people into cities. And the relationship between the city’s street life and the storefront business is truly symbiotic: Businesses depend on the city for customers, and the concentration of businesses provides the goods, services, entertainment, and experiences that help define city living.”
Livernois Avenue, which has a major population obstructed from reaching the street and limited transportation options between neighborhoods and their commercial corridors, has a great need for more retail and entertainment at the street level, and, in turn, elements in place to encourage those businesses to form.
Another element affecting access between the neighborhood and its businesses are the wide roadways. Motor City lives up to its name, with dozens of spacious corridors designed to move suburban dwellers quickly through the city. Now that the city has nearly half its former population, the roads are drastically under capacity and overbuilt, and Livernois Avenue is no exception. In addition, the city recently installed a raised median in the center of the avenue, creating a divided boulevard that, according to an article in Model D, is said to improve driving and pedestrian safety on the street. The backlash from residents and business owners of the area has been that the improvement simply adds to the already burdensome infrastructure of the street, when those funds could have gone to a more sustainable solution to slow traffic and increase pedestrian mobility.
According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Detroit ranks eighth in the number of car-free households out of the 30 most populous cities in the US. It’s also the city that has most drastically increased the amount of car-free households since 2007. In many of the other cities on the list, access to public transportation and proximity to business and entertainment districts are common reasons to be car-free. Convenience, however, is not a reason to forego a motor vehicle in Detroit; with a public transportation system that is lacking and underfunded bicycle and pedestrian initiatives, Detroit’s car-free population is largely its low-income population, meaning the city more than ever needs multimodal transportation options for its residents.
The Better Block
With these issues in mind, we constructed a one-day demonstration of a “Livable Livernois” on April 23, with a second, more extensive demonstration planned for August 6. With the help of our many partners and volunteers, we narrowed the roadway to one lane in each direction, replaced the East lane with a 12-foot cycle track, activated the area around the University gate with seating and a coffee kiosk, and connected it with a crosswalk to a pop-up food court on the West side of the street. To ease property-owner concerns about parking, we re-aligned the spaces to allow for diagonal parking in front of the block’s businesses, and kept the rest of the lane open for parallel parking.
The gate near the kiosk was originally planned to be opened up to allow access between the university and the street. However, the day of the event came and no one from the University came to unlock the chains, to the dismay of many event-goers.
While the event took place on Saturday, the Department of Public Work coned off the street starting Friday morning to acclimate traffic to the changes. What we found was that, while cars built up slightly at each intersection, removing lanes from the street did not have a catastrophic impact on the flow of traffic. Commuters could still get to where they were going in a reasonable time, but had to slow down a bit when they drove through the event area. This gave them some time to turn their heads and see what kind of food vendors were set up outside, hear some of the musical performers, and examine the cycle track.
The lot where the food vendors set up was owned by the University, but so far, no plans have been made for its development. With the demonstration, we attempted to show the demand for more food and drink options on the block to encourage a similar type of development. Small businesses from the area, all black-owned and organized by Scott Rutterbush of Dine & Drink Detroit, set up under tents and welcomed a steady stream of hungry students and residents.
Of 42 attendees surveyed, only one was opposed to the bike lanes, citing traffic concerns. Two others commented that a different style of bike lane might be preferable, such as one-way protected bike lanes on either side of the street instead of a single cycle track. We will be testing this model at our event on August 6.
Overall, however, feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive. Sixty-six percent of respondents cited the bike lanes as the element of the demonstration that they would most like to see made permanent, followed closely by seating and crosswalks. Other elements that were requested for future or permanent installation included additional lighting, public art, more local businesses, and a celebration of the corridor’s history; it was long-lauded as the Avenue of Fashion, and has a musical past rooted in American jazz. These are characteristics we plan to highlight during the August 6 installation, which will coincide with the annual Jazz on the Ave festival.
Data gathered at the event will be used by the City’s planning and public works departments to apply for a TIGER grant for permanent bike lanes and street improvements for Livernois Ave. The August 6 event will continue this research, and build on the momentum generated in the community to get more involved with their immediate neighborhood.