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Environmental

Across the great divide

Woodward Avenue as a link to regional cooperation

MT photo: Bruce Giffin
Heather Carmona of the Woodward Avenue Action Association is pushing for rapid transit on the storied thoroughfare.
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Published 7/5/2006

Gazing south from Ferndale, at the place where Eight Mile cuts across, there are two ways to look at Woodward Avenue. A visitor from Chicago or Dallas, Seattle or Charlotte, or any number of other American metropolitan regions thriving in the efficient, digitized, quality-of-life 21st century economy might liken the blur of buildings and 10 lanes of black pavement — wide enough to once accommodate two transit lines — to an old man looking back at the beginning. There is a century of southeast Michigan life out here, yet it’s easy to argue that just the first 50 years of it had real music and energy.

And then there’s how Heather Carmona, the young executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, sees Michigan’s most heralded boulevard. The old street is not infected with a sense of loss and diminishment, she says. Rather it is full of the insistent reminders of a large, abundant history that featured innovation, manufacturing and the automobile, tied together by a regional rapid transit system, all of which can be duplicated, even exceeded, in the 21st century.

In effect, she and the association, a nonprofit regional alliance of two counties and 11 local governments, are busy making this case: The life of Woodward Avenue, the revival of Detroit, and the well-being of the suburbs are bound together.

“I don’t think I’m the only one in this region who works at the grass roots and sees what is really beginning to develop,” Carmona says in an interview. “There is a consensus developing around the need to redevelop this street, the need for regional transit, the need to think differently about what we need to do to make things better.

“For the longest time there just weren’t enough people, the right people, listening,” she added. “But right now we have some leaders willing to step forward to make change. Change is tough. But we are changing. You can see it, and you don’t need to look that hard anymore.”

Carmona, who was raised in Pleasant Ridge, educated at Wayne State University, and now lives in Ferndale, can say such things without any traces of irony. At 37 years old, her entire life has been spent along a road that served as the Silicon Valley of its time. Woodward Avenue attracted the engineers, entrepreneurs and designers who built the American auto industry and, in the first half of the 20th century, changed how people lived and communities developed.

Now, the association she has worked for since 1999 has emerged as one of southeast Michigan’s important forums for urban and suburban leaders, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to discuss and act on the consequences of what happened over the century’s second half.

By no means has the association — which was founded in 1996 and is composed of 11 cities and townships, along with representatives from Oakland and Wayne counties — developed all the answers. But it does have two that make very good sense in an era of escalating energy prices, salary stagnation, rising land and infrastructure costs, and the need to develop new nodes of housing and business activity.

The first is to market the auto industry’s history and culture along the 27-mile roadway, in effect developing a new narrative to attract businesses, residents and tourists. The Federal Highway Administration liked the idea so much that four years ago it designated the road as a National Scenic Byway, one of about 125 in the United States, making the cities served by Woodward eligible for federal grants to finance marketing research, beautification projects and other economic development programs.

The second step is to be a more prominent advocate for a new transit line from Detroit to Pontiac to conveniently move people from one historic and cultural destination to another. The Woodward Avenue line would also spur billions of dollars in new housing and business construction, as such lines have done in almost every one of the 20 American regions that have built light rail systems since the late 1980s.

Main street
That idea, too, has galvanized leaders. In May, Democratic state Reps. Marie Donigan of Royal Oak and Andy Meisner of Ferndale formally requested that the Granholm administration provide $3 million to update a transit feasibility study conducted on the Woodward corridor in 2001. The new study is crucial to starting the process of gaining federal funds to build the line. The state Department of Transportation is reviewing the request.

“Woodward is Oakland County’s main street, and we need to have rapid transit there,” says Donigan, whose transit advocacy prompted the Detroit Regional Chamber this week to endorse and financially support her re-election campaign. “We have part of the study done already. This push will really move us ahead by years. It puts us in position to develop two sides of a transit system at one time. The Detroit to Ann Arbor line is in process. The Detroit to Pontiac line needs to be done also.”

With its inclusive approach and methodical process, the Woodward Avenue Action Association is proving that bringing talented people together to listen, cooperate and reach consensus on big goals can lead to significant results. The steps the organization has taken to date, and its achievements, are a microcosm of what’s possible in the region if similar principles were put into effect in other forums.

“It takes time,” says association head Carmona. “But there is just no way to really make a difference unless people get together, work through their differences, and then make good decisions. I know that isn’t a new thought in most places, but it is in Detroit.”

That essentially is what Edsel Ford II, a member of the Ford Motor Company board and one of the city’s industrial heavyweights, told a large audience of business executives and civic leaders at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual conference on Mackinac Island in early June. In one of the conference’s most widely noted speeches, Ford alerted his colleagues that he was leading the chamber’s new planning and economic development project, Design Regional Detroit, and that his first order of business was to help break down barriers that kept good people from collaborating effectively in southeast Michigan.

“There are too many borders,” Ford said. “These borders or barriers are getting in our way. We’ve put up with them too long. Perhaps that’s why we’ve grown accustomed to them.

“We all need to become accustomed to using the word regionalism,” he added. “There. I said it. The ‘R’ word. We need to tear down those barricades that keep us from achieving what makes us a vibrant growing region.”

Listing badly
It’s about time. In almost every significant category of social and economic well-being the Detroit metropolitan region is either at the top of the national charts it doesn’t want to be on — joblessness, income growth, racial and economic disparity, rates of obesity — or at the bottom of the indexes it really needs — ability to retain talented young people, average increase in value of homes and real estate, new business starts.

This is not a new story, just one that is growing more urgent. The basic market signals that enabled the Detroit region to spread out as it did in the 20th century — cheap energy, cheap land, rising wages, ample government expenditures for roads and sewers — have all flipped in the 21st. The three-car, house on the cul-de-sac, mad dash, drive-through, big-box lifestyle not only is a lot more expensive and demoralizing. It’s also obsolete.

It’s just taken southeast Michigan longer than any other major metropolitan region in the United States to recognize that. While the region’s business and political leaders spent decades working for more of the same — the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ economic development reports call for more than $70 billion in new road construction and other transportation projects over the next two decades, and $52 billion more for water and sewer systems designed primarily to spread people farther apart — Detroit’s competitors in and outside the United States were doing something much, much different.

Denver, Charlotte, N.C., Portland, Ore., Seattle, Chicago, even St. Louis, analyzed the new market conditions and recognized that speed, energy efficiency, environmental sensitivity and astute public and private downtown and neighborhood investments were the new factors determining a region’s economic well-being. These places developed the new forums, recruited broad alliances and decided on novel strategies to build the public will and fill the treasuries to attract businesses and housing, build rapid transit, expand parks, improve public safety, modernize schools and protect natural resources.

Moreover, metropolitan regions largely moved on their own initiative, fully understanding that they couldn’t really count on their state legislatures or the federal government to help. Brutal partisanship had slowed the ability of legislatures and Congress to make timely decisions on quality-of-life investments. Abortion, gay marriage, the Ten Commandments, tax cuts and deregulation dominated political discussion at a time of peak oil demand, record trade and budget deficits, and job losses due to globalization.

The speed with which the planet’s economy, ecology and trading patterns were changing demanded faster recognition, better analysis, and bipartisan decisions. Cities and metropolitan regions have turned out to be right-sized for more nimble governing in this century.

New transit sytems have been a key part of this transformation; the economic benefits generated by light rail systems in other cities have been terrific.

St. Louis, which opened its first-17-mile light rail line in 1993 and its second 17-mile light rail line in 2001, is reaping the economic benefits. From 1999 to 2005, more than $3.5 billion has been invested in downtown businesses and homes in nearby neighborhoods. The Washington Avenue historic district, the recipient of $800 million in new investment, is one of the great walkable places in the Midwest with new lofts, stores, offices and restaurants, along with handsome homes.

Dallas’ downtown and northern district have benefited enormously from the 45-mile light rail system that carries 17.5 million passengers annually. A series of real estate reports over the last two years found that properties near new light rail stations had a 25 percent greater increase in value than properties in neighborhoods not serviced by light rail, with the greatest increases found in commercial and residential properties.

The Dallas Morning News reported earlier this year that developers have announced or built more than $3 billion in projects in light rail corridors since the system opened in 1996.

In Houston, new commercial and residential nodes have cropped up around the city’s new light rail stations, prompting the regional transit authority to announce the expansion of the transit system. Portland, Oregon’s diverse system is responsible for $2 billion in new investment since 2000 in one neighborhood alone.

The popularity of light rail in these and nearly 20 more American cities that have systems has helped to prompt the longest sustained growth in transit ridership in the nation’s history, according to American Public Transportation Association. Americans made 9.7 billion trips on mass transit last year, 2 percent more than in 2000.

Chicago’s way
Examples of how metropolitan regions anticipated and responded to the market signals of the new century are legion, but none is more apt for Detroit than Chicago. The nation’s third largest city, wracked by crime, flight and deterioration similar to Detroit’s, decided to do something about it starting in the late 1980s. The city and its suburbs, business leaders and civic professionals gradually developed a metropolitan consensus around a 30-year-old idea — that being cleaner, greener and more attractive is as crucial to prosperity as improving the public schools and housing, and battling crime.

By hoisting the city’s Latin motto — Urbs in horto, city in a garden — on its famous big shoulders, Chicago has emerged as a global model for how a major urban center can ardently pursue environmental goals to achieve remarkable economic success. City officials have planted 500,000 trees, erected the most energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive municipal buildings in the country, agreed to grant developers permits much more quickly if they construct similarly “green” buildings, instituted a $600 million-a-year program to repair neighborhoods and city parks, promised to secure 20 percent of the electricity used by the city from clean and renewable sources, and converted hundreds of abandoned and contaminated properties into new businesses. “I believe very strongly that the cities that pay attention — really pay attention — to quality of life will be the cities that thrive in the 21st century,” said Mayor Richard M. Daley in a public statement.

During the last decade, the city’s performance, measured in virtually every conventional category of civic well-being, has been off the charts. Chicago attracted more than 100,000 new residents, added tens of thousands of new downtown jobs, prompted a high-rise housing boom, reduced rates of poverty, built thousands of affordable homes, spurred a $9 billion-a-year visitor and convention industry, and became, arguably, the most beautiful city in America. Chicago transformed itself over the last generation from a grimy, down-on-its-luck, industrial city into an ultramodern, energetic metropolis because it anticipated and then responded to energy prices, infrastructure costs, fiscal constraints and globalization.

“It’s not so much about saving the world,” says Sadhu Johnston, Chicago’s 31-year-old environment commissioner. “It’s more about using green technology to save $4 million here or earn $10 million there and make the city better by doing that. It’s an approach to how we as a city do business and lead by example.”

That’s not to say Chicago is perfect. It’s not. The city’s environmental leaders note, for instance, that there are gaps in the green program, including two big coal-burning power plants that operate without modern air pollution controls. It’s just that the city and its partners in the business, religious, housing and nonprofit communities agreed on an economic development strategy that crossed racial, religious, political, partisan and jurisdictional boundaries because it makes sense in the 21st century.

It can make sense in the Detroit region too. The intellectual foundations of Chicago’s program borrow extensively from a new school of thought about the value of linking a metropolitan economy to a region’s core strengths, and then designing investment strategies that enable businesses and residents to flourish. Bruce Katz, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and a frequent visitor to Detroit, calls this “transformative investment,” the clearly focused public and private spending that “remakes the urban physical landscape to stimulate economic growth, improve fiscal vitality and advance social equity.”

Building on history
As far as Heather Carmona and her colleagues at the Woodward Avenue Action Association are concerned, the transformative investment that the Detroit region needs to make centers on its core strength, which has historically been innovations in transportation technology.

A century ago, the Detroit region had the finest regional transit system in the world. Passengers would pay 3 cents to ride streetcars and the “interurban,” which stretched from Port Huron to Toledo, Ann Arbor to Imlay City, Detroit to Flint, and hundreds of rail-centered communities in between. Rail made it possible for Henry Ford and his workers to build the Model T in two plants along the Woodward corridor. The very last rail line closed on Woodward 50 years ago, which is just about when Detroit’s population peaked, and the city, and then its suburban region, began to slip.

Still, a great deal of the avenue’s architectural and industrial history is intact. Ford’s Piquette Plant, where the Model T was first built, is just a few miles down the road from the Highland Park factory that showcased the assembly line’s efficiency. At one time, around 1917, 23 automobile companies in Detroit, many of them located along Woodward Avenue, assembled more than 1 million vehicles a year.

General Motors moved to its Albert Kahn-designed headquarters on Grand Boulevard, one block west of Woodward, in 1921. In 1925, the Chrysler Corporation moved to a new headquarters at Colorado and Oakland streets, three blocks east of Woodward in Highland Park.

The wealth that auto manufacturing generated produced the fabulous homes of the Boston-Edison historic district, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Palmer Woods, the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Zoo, the State Theatre, the Fox Theatre and downtown skyscrapers.

The human energy characterized by these historic sites also is remarkably intact. Each summer more than a million people turn out to participate in the Dream Cruise, showing off or watching the world’s longest and largest parade of collector cars. Detroit’s downtown, which still has roughly 70,000 jobs, has new restaurants, sports stadiums, recreation, housing, parks and an increasingly active nightlife. The Wayne State University district is becoming a much livelier hub for students, thanks to new dormitories, restaurants and condominiums. New Center, the malls in Highland Park, the active street scenes in Ferndale and Royal Oak, and Pontiac’s historic district all indicate the powerful pull of Woodward’s gravitational field.

But Carmona and her association are convinced that all of these places, and the more than 150 events along the avenue each year, need to be better tied together, not by cars, but by fast, convenient, rapid transit.

This, too, is not a new idea.

Revived study
Six years ago the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), the regional research and planning organization, hired the IBI Group, a California-based consulting firm, to study the feasibility of constructing a rapid transit line along Woodward Avenue, reviving service that ended in 1956. The study’s authors concluded that “there is a strong need and justification for rapid transit in the Woodward corridor” to support and connect downtown Detroit to Oakland County’s suburbs. The report also suggested that the best technology was either light rail or a bus rapid transit system that used dedicated lanes. Both could be built at a reasonable cost.

Light rail would cost about $55 million a mile — which is comparable to the per mile cost of constructing a divided highway.

Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick has periodically expressed support for a modern light rail system in the city and along Woodward Avenue. Four years ago he told the Congressional House Committee on Housing and Transportation about the findings of the Woodward Avenue feasibility study and said, “We are now working to move ahead to implement an alternative transit method in this corridor.”

Transportation Riders United, the Detroit transit advocacy group, reported last week that more than 31,000 people ride the bus along Woodward each weekday, according to figures from Detroit and suburban bus lines. The group noted that, in most cases, based on the findings of transit ridership studies in Denver, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Salt Lake City, that 40 percent to 70 percent of light rail riders are new to transit. Megan Owens, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, says that means that “we could have 40,000 to 50,000 daily riders on a new Woodward light rail line.”

She added: “Once built, light rail is less expensive to operate than busses. A Woodward light rail line could save money and increase the effectiveness of our transportation investment.”

Bus rapid transit, which uses vehicles similar to light rail, but with a dedicated roadway instead of tracks, would cost only about $2 million to $5 million a mile to build.

Until very recently, though, this kind of discussion didn’t get much official attention here. The Woodward transit study, and the nine others conducted by SEMCOG over the years, existed in a kind of bureaucratic deep freeze, stored in the dark where they wouldn’t interfere in the plans of a regional agency much more dedicated to studying and funding new freeways and water systems.

But as Carmona says, things are changing in Southeast Michigan. Late last year, Tom Barwin, the city manager in Ferndale and a tireless advocate for a new regional rapid transit system, urged the Woodward Avenue Action Association to bring the IBI Woodward corridor transit study out of SEMCOG’s freezer and implement its recommendations.

Barwin drafted a proposal for the association’s board, that called for 1) starting the next phase of research and design needed to secure federal funds for building the transit line, 2) seeking allies in a campaign to amend the state Constitution to allow for new regional taxes to help finance rapid transit systems, and 3) helping develop a competent regional transit agency to build and manage the system.

On Dec. 8, 2005, Barwin’s proposal was approved in a near-unanimous vote by the association’s board. “It was an important moment,” says Barwin. “It confirmed everything that we’ve been hearing almost everywhere we go now. People tell us they want regional transit. Whether it’s a college kid going to school at Wayne State, a professional going downtown, workers going to jobs in the suburbs, it’s the same conversation. People would like to have a rapid transit system in their lives and in their family’s lives.”

Barwin also is convinced that the favorable vote on his motion, which was opposed only by a representative from the office of L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County’s executive, is part of a new economic activism in the region. The same elements of urgency and creativity are starting to converge around other basic building blocks of metropolitan prosperity — business development, leadership, transportation and land use — in a way not seen in Detroit in a very long time.

If you doubt this, consider three more regional advances that bear special note:

First, the weeklong festivities surrounding Super Bowl XL proved that Detroit business and civic leaders, along with thousands of volunteers, are capable of executing a complex plan to renovate and polish the downtown core, so much so that more than a million people took part, and Detroit’s hospitality was praised in the global media.

Second, Wayne and Washtenaw county officials are awaiting the findings of a crucial study to choose the preferred technology – light rail, commuter rail or bus rapid transit – on a regional rapid transit line between Detroit and Ann Arbor, with stops in between, including at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. SEMCOG has finished the report and is expected to make it public very soon.

Third, Patterson’s consistent and fierce resistance to a regional rapid transit system appears to be softening. During the June business conference on Mackinac Island, he and the leaders of Detroit, Wayne and Macomb counties announced they had appointed former Democratic state Sen. John Hertel to revive the Regional Transit Coordinating Council, an 18-year-old intergovernmental agency. Hertel’s charge: Galvanize public support to design a public transit system that serves southeast Michigan. “I’ve always been a supporter of regional mass transit,” Patterson told reporters. “I’ve always considered it an issue of economic development.”

Well, not always. Although he supported a property tax increase to help fund the SMART suburban bus system four years ago, he’s announced his opposition to the construction of a rapid transit line between Detroit and Ann Arbor, and has not indicated any support for a rapid transit line on Woodward.

There are more than 200,000 jobs on or very near Woodward Avenue, and many more residents within walking distance, according to U.S. Census and SEMCOG transit studies. Moreover, in contrast to what transit critics contend, the population density along the corridor and within the region is more than sufficient to support a regional rapid transit system. According to a 2001 SEMCOG study, southeast Michigan’s population density is about 3,251 people per square mile, 11th highest of the 25 largest metropolitan regions. The Detroit region’s population density, in fact, is higher than 12 other metropolitan regions, among them Minneapolis, Dallas, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Houston, that have built regional rapid transit systems in the last decade or so, and are experiencing record rates of transit ridership. By the way, they also are experiencing much higher levels of regional prosperity.“The excitement is in the air now for transit,” says Carmona. “There are more and more people talking about it. I don’t know why we’ve gone so long without it. But when people get excited about something, good things can get done. There is a good opportunity now to make a change.”

Keith Schneider is a journalist and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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