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Trains, planes and (fewer) automobiles

How Airport City could help a beleaguered region take off

MT photo: Bruce Giffin
"When you want to create something, you don't go with the flow," says Wayne County Development Director Mulu Birru.
Artist visions for Airport City.
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Published 3/8/2006

March 1, 2026:

Gathering speed on the immensely popular light rail line from downtown Detroit to Metro Airport is a car full of executives on their way to Manila. It's a beautiful sky-blue day. As the train leaves the station stop in Taylor, passengers gain an eye-level view of the Detroit area's newly built, ultra-modern and world-renowned Airport City. This is the eastern edge of a 25,000-acre stretch of western Wayne County that not long ago was a congested mismatch of aging neighborhoods, cracked parking lots, traffic-clogged highways and featureless warehouses stretching from Dearborn Heights to Willow Run Airport.

A generation later this part of southeast Michigan is entirely engaging, fresh and globally significant. An astonishing display of stone and steel and glass, straight lines and beckoning angles, unveils itself to passengers, a modern metropolis with 450,000 residents and 350,000 jobs. Like Silicon Valley of another era, Detroit's Airport City brims with deep pools of entrepreneurial and technical talent supplying an array of product laboratories, technology manufacturers, suppliers, global distributors and corporate offices unrivaled in the Midwest.

Overhead, nonstop flights to 130 destinations worldwide take off from Metro and Willow Run every day. Winding through Airport City is the Huron River and its tributaries, wide ribbons of green and blue, the miles of shoreline, open spaces and parks that city officials and residents planned, defended and attained. Tight by the parks and the clubs and the jobs are new neighborhoods with tree-lined streets, sidewalks and handsome homes affordable to executives and workers alike.

Airport City, a landscape of modernity and prosperity, has helped Detroit become the nation's fastest-growing big city and pushed southeast Michigan back to the top of America's best economic performers, a place it has not held in 70 years. The quality of life in southeast Michigan — which at the start of the century embarrassed bright young adults and drove them away — is now a point of pride keeping them around.

One reason is that Airport City's neighborhood streets, colorful boulevards and smooth highways are surprisingly free of traffic. Workers and residents in this high-wage and healthy young city like to walk. Recreational trails tie together neighborhoods and offices, schools and stores, parks and shopping and recreation, all of which are planned and built in close proximity. And new lines of fast commuter rail, convenient light rail and easy-to-use rapid bus transit make longer trips and commuting more convenient and much less expensive than driving a car.

March 1, 2006: Tipped against a wall in Mulu Birru's office in the Wayne County Building downtown is a large piece of cardboard with a map of western Wayne County pasted to its smooth surface. Birru is Wayne County's development director, a decorous, tall and soft-spoken native of Ethiopia. Two years ago, County Executive Robert Ficano convinced Birru to migrate west from Pittsburgh, where Birru earned a national reputation for resuscitating struggling cities. Among other achievements, Birru, as economic development director, advocated for a successful bus rapid transit system and built a couple of sports stadiums, as well as a new convention center designed with green building standards.

Now Birru's big project is promoting Airport City, which exists in his imagination, the minds of a few other influential dreamers in the region, and on this map. Black lines trace an L-shaped swath of ground roughly bounded by Willow Run Airport on the west, Metro Airport on the south, Michigan Avenue on the north and Inkster and Taylor to the east.

In vision and values, though, the lines trace a potentially smashing project to revive southeast Michigan's economy and reverse Detroit's 50-year population decline. The intellectual foundation for Airport City is to add multiple layers of value to realm of transportation, one of Michigan's historical strengths. The concept joins the new global economy developing around air transport, with fast commuter rail and other efficient ground transport, the interconnected economy that Thomas Freidman describes in his 2005 bestseller The World Is Flat. In fact, futurist Alvin Toffler envisioned such bustling markets in The Third Wave, his 1980 bestseller which predicted that the 21st century would link information globally so that data, people and goods could move very fast.

"When you want to create something, you don't go with the flow," said Birru describing his concept of Airport City. "You sometimes have to be a little radical in your thinking."

There's really nothing outlandish about the concept of establishing communities and markets around international airports. John D. Kasarda, a development specialist at the University of North Carolina who's been involved in the Wayne County project, has written extensively about airport cities emerging in Dallas, Amsterdam, Seoul and other metropolitan regions.

The radical part, Birru knows, is convincing southeast Michigan to abandon stubborn and obsolete operating principles — political partisanship, racism, fear of change and government rivalry — and develop new ones — political statesmanship, regional cooperation, human understanding, smart public investment, energy efficiency and technological superiority.

Until the first week of February, there weren't a whole lot of people in and around Detroit who believed that Airport City, with its rapid transit lines, new housing and modern global attitude, had any chance of being built. It was like asking a fat man with a smoking problem and a heart condition to finish a marathon.

And then came the first week of February. For a scarce few days Detroit was a city of tumult and change, caught, quite literally, in the bright wash of powerful spotlights. The streets were full of them, brightening the bottoms of steel-gray clouds, making tall buildings shimmer and shine, backlighting the crowds filling a downtown beckoning with restaurants, shops, new living spaces and laughter.

Up close it was as though all of Detroit, aglitter in new clothes and color, had arrived for its premiere. From afar the shoulders and crowns of the city's skyscrapers looked like surgeons in a white-lit operating theater, peering down at a high-risk patient emerging from anesthesia.

For residents of the city and its suburbs transfixed by what they saw, it all seemed so unfamiliar, so disorienting. It had been a very long time, decades in fact, since the line on Detroit's cardiogram had spiked with such vigorous life. People sensed that behind the big game was an important backstory, one that produced a freshly scrubbed and credible downtown and maybe even more than that. Downtown Detroit looked good because classic Michigan creativity and hard work converged with a foreign cultural value: the cooperation that occurred between black and white business and civic leaders, Democrats and Republicans, and between the city and its suburbs.

This last point about untraditional allies toiling shoulder-to-shoulder to achieve something remarkable can't be stressed enough. The Super Bowl organizing committee's most important triumph was convincing people to cross race, class, political and geographic boundaries to showcase Detroit. The other triumph, of course, was that they pulled it off, arguably the greatest economic and civic success in Michigan in the last decade.

Indeed, the success of Super Bowl week offers lessons about clear goals, effective public and private investment, courage, and persistence that merited attention at every level of business and government, and were discussed for weeks afterward. A chorus of prominent boosters, led by Super Bowl committee chairman Roger Penske, called for more of the cooperation that produced Detroit's glow and unity in investing and building civic assets that the city and region desperately needed. At the head of the list, said Penske, was building a regional rapid transit system.

It's possible that the human energy and marketing momentum that Super Bowl week generated could turn out to be a tipping point for Detroit and Michigan. Birru and his staff hope so. Airport City will only be built when enough people agree to follow the powerful convergence of transportation, land use and economic development trends that are transforming Michigan, the nation and the world.

The short course is that transportation and land use define the way people live and how communities grow. In the United States during the mid-19th century, for instance, the nation laid 20,000 miles of railroad in two decades and fostered the settlement of the Great Plains and West. In the 20th century, the 1956 Highway Act prompted the construction of the more than 40,000-mile interstate highway system that emptied Detroit and other cities, and generated massive, expensive and resource-wasting suburban and exurban development.

Other regions of the country are already responding with very significant rail projects, downtown housing, environmental restoration, business tax changes and other public policies to improve their competitive position in the global economy. Chicago, for example, has spent billions of dollars to modernize its transit system, restore its Lake Michigan waterfront, encourage new housing downtown and in nearby neighborhoods, and promote environmentally sensitive development and business practices. The result is that the nation's third-largest city and its metropolitan region are reaping new jobs, higher incomes and major business expansions.

The Detroit region, in contrast, has not kept pace and is now paying the price for the 50-year experiment in building an urban region solely around the construction of freeways and the use of private vehicles. The seven-county region fares poorly in measures of economic performance and quality of life — housing value and income growth, joblessness, economic and racial segregation, congestion, obesity, out-migration of young adults and the like.

Those measures have converged so powerfully and in such a rapid and significant way that they've finally forced business executives and political leaders to really think about where southeast Michigan is heading. And that's where Birru and his idea comes in. Because set down right smack in the middle of the road to the region's future is Airport City.

It may, as Birru insists, be new and radical, but Airport City also encompasses the essential need for Detroit and the state to establish new markets with global reach and to build the sustainable and energy-efficient communities to serve them. "It's a big project and it will take a lot of consensus, a lot of cooperation and a lot of imagination to make it work. But it's all possible," he said.

There is precedence in Michigan for envisioning big planning ideas that truly alter the world. Take Norman Bel Geddes, raised poor and fatherless in Adrian, who grew up to become one of the most famous industrial designers ever, the man credited with developing "streamlining." Bel Geddes' other historical hook is the Magic Motorways exhibit he designed and built for the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

The exhibit, the most popular at the fair, was a vast scale model of multilane highways, expansive bridges, sleek office campuses and spread-out cities that General Motors envisioned for the last half of the 20th century. People toured the exhibit seated on a moving conveyor. Black-and-white photographs of Magic Motorways portray a vision of the American landscape that was astonishingly accurate in its conception of the car-centered, highway-dependent, energy-intensive, isolating suburban society that actually resulted.

If Mulu Birru is playing the General Motors role in promoting Airport City, the designer playing Bel Geddes is Douglas Kelbaugh, the energetic dean of the University of Michigan's Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning. Every year since 1998, Kelbaugh has invited 50 or so planning students and a squadron of technical experts to lock themselves in a Detroit region hotel for three or four days. Their goal: Carefully evaluate a particularly interesting and difficult problem of urban deficiency — like how to attract investment, jobs and new housing to Detroit's riverfront — and propose solutions that developers and city officials actually accept and execute.

This year, at Birru's request, Kelbaugh, his students and experts gathered in January at the Ypsilanti Mariott near Willow Run to consider how Airport City should look and function. Three days later they emerged with maps and computers graphics illustrating a place of commerce, jobs, entertainment, transport and homeownership as exciting and appealing in this day as Bel Gedde's Magic Motorways was in his.

Students envisioned a place to live and work that features air, light, open space and recreation. Architecturally distinguished homes and offices, boulevards and neighborhood streets, markets and other gathering places are designed to use less natural resources, lower energy demand, improve environmental conservation, stress affordability and reawaken human connections and neighborliness. Airport City, most importantly, promotes Alvin Toffler's 21st century idea of accessibility. People and goods will find their way in, around and out on uncongested roads and fast commuter rail, light rail and rapid buses.

In order to the put pieces of this vision into effect, southeast Michigan will need to rethink several of its old rules of engagement. Among them:

 

• Airport City, for one, will need to look and feel great. Birru says that means the entire city will need a regional master land-use plan, common architectural design standards and regional zoning that describe what will be built where and how it looks. The five existing cities and three townships in the area, along with the county and the state, will need to lay aside their rivalries to decide on a common agenda.

• Airport City will need ample public investment to leverage private cash. Tax-resistant conservatives will be a big impediment.

• The region's ugly race barrier and economic segregation, a major turnoff for private companies and their young talented employees in the global economy, need to be addressed. The potential closing of the Detroit Zoo, which involved a chain of inept decisions and caustic racial rhetoric, is one of the latest examples.

• In order for Airport City to work efficiently it must, in Birru's words, "discourage cars." In other words, to keep highways and streets clear and road maintenance costs down, the city will be interlaced with transit lines and routes that are close by job, home, shopping, school and other destinations. The point is not lost on Birru that a commuter rail line has not operated in southeast Michigan since the early 1980s, and that Detroit and its suburbs turned back a $600 million federal mass transit grant in 1976. It's also not lost that the Detroit region has the worst transit system of any major metropolitan region in the nation. "Speed," says Birru, echoing Toffler's guiding 21st century rules of economic engagement, "is the economic asset that will make Airport City competitive."

Taken as a whole, Airport City reflects features, particularly the emphasis on rapid transit, that are genuinely foreign to Michigan's cities. That's not true, though, for the state's competitors. Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Phoenix and Portland, among others, are building their new century economies around new regional rapid transit systems. Stations and transit stops serve as catalysts for housing and business nearby. In Denver, half of the 1 million new residents expected over the next generation will live and work within walking distance of a transit stop on the region's 150-mile, seven-county rapid transit system approved two years ago.

When reminded of this, Birru smiles and responds with this sentiment. "Good things that happen begin with an idea. This is the idea, an Airport City, that serves our new economy."

By no means, though, is building Airport City out of the realm of reason. The most important assets that make it possible are already in place. Willow Run Airport is a modern air freight hub that contributes $85 million to the regional economy. Some 1,500 people work at the airport, on a fleet of more than 400 aircraft based there, moving 3.5 million passengers and 250,000 tons of cargo annually.

Seven miles east is Metro Airport, the nation's sixth largest, where 18,000 people work and which supports 71,000 jobs across southeast Michigan. In the new economic geography of the 21st century, where pace and global networking are changing the rules of competition and business location, Metro Airport has potential to become one of the premier international gateways in the world. Metro handles 36 million passengers annually and 350,000 tons of cargo, with nonstop flights connecting Detroit to the world. And Metro's $1.2 billion McNamara Terminal, which opened two years ago, sits midway between Detroit and Ann Arbor, and between three important research universities, the University of Michigan and Wayne State and Eastern Michigan universities.

A second feature of Airport City, rapid transit, also has a chance of falling into place. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is set to complete a feasibility study by June for establishing new commuter routes between Detroit and Ann Arbor, with possible links to Metro and Willow Run. Five options — two bus rapid transit routes, two commuter rail routes and one light rail option — are under study.

The potential to revive commuter service between the two cities — the last train stopped running in 1983 — has generated considerable support. Last summer Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and other members of the Michigan congressional delegation convinced Congress to commit $100 million for design, engineering and possibly some construction of the preferred option. The proposed line stems from a five-year-old rapid transit study by the agency, one of at least nine published by the agency in the last two decades, that identified the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit corridor as a particularly hot prospect for service in the region.

The Wayne County Airport Authority, which manages Metro and Willow Run, issued a statement saying it "supports mass transit in the greater Detroit area and also supports linking [Metro] to a future Ann Arbor-Detroit system."

One of the ideas promoted by the University of Michigan's student design symposium was fast commuter trains using existing Amtrak tracks between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and building a new station near Wayne that could serve Metro Airport with rapid buses, or, eventually, a light rail system.

The students also envisioned a separate light rail line from downtown Detroit to Metro Airport, using existing right of way owned by railroad freight haulers.

A hybrid of commuter rail and light rail is promoted by Transportation Riders United, based in Detroit, the region's premier transit advocacy organization. TRU's proposal combines a commuter rail stopping in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Metro, Dearborn and Detroit's New Center, with a light rail from the Dearborn stop along Michigan Avenue to downtown Detroit, then north on Woodward to New Center — and, in the future, beyond. At the Dearborn station and the New Center station, TRU suggested that the light rail and commuter rail lines share a platform so that riders could transfer from one train to the other for rides in and out of downtown Detroit.

TRU's technical analysis for the proposed hybrid system was so sound that SEMCOG included the idea as one of the five options it would subject to its feasibility evaluation. "It makes a lot of sense," said Megan Owens, the group's executive director. "Commuter rail offers the fastest service between Detroit Metro and Ann Arbor, which is critical to the line's success. Light rail reaches more people, including downtown Detroit. And it will promote jobs and housing and businesses at every station stop."

Birru insists that Airport City "won't work well and won't attract the economic development that we envision without very good public transit."

Just how vital rapid transit systems are to a metropolitan region was the focus of a study in the 1990s by the Transportation Research Board, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences. Economists looked at the Philadelphia region — similar in size to the Detroit area — where conservative critics asserted, as they do in Detroit, that the commuter rail network was a waste of taxpayer funds. Economists analyzed the effects of shutting the system down and concluded that business sales would decline $2 billion annually in 1990 dollars, 26,000 people in the metropolitan region would lose their jobs, personal income would decline by $1 billion annually and that 58,000 people would leave the city.

Even with those kinds of numbers, Detroit's progressive political leadership has not risen to either promote or defend the Ann Arbor-Detroit transit line. That's probably because advocating for public transit is the infrastructure equivalent of coaching the Detroit Lions. Good men and women of wisdom and energy have tried and then disappeared ... forever.

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, aware of the history of the issue, goes so far in an interview as to say he "likes the idea of a new Ann Arbor to Detroit line," but in nearly the same breath acknowledges that he won't publicly advocate for it because he's "waiting for the business plan."

The region's conservative leaders are far less demure. The usual suspects, among them Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche of Novi and the editorial page of The Detroit News, have all come out strong against a new regional line.

They ask who will pay for it. And, without any supporting documents and ignoring evidence from every city that has built new transit capacity in the last 30 years, conclude that nobody would ride the new line and that money used to build it would be better spent on highway construction.

Both points are refutable. Since 1981, when San Diego built the new light rail line that started its remarkable downtown resurgence, 39 other cities have opened new streetcar and light rail systems, among them Kenosha, Wis. (2000), St. Louis (1993), Minneapolis (2004), Baltimore (1985) and Dallas (1996). In every case, critics said residents wouldn't ride, yet ridership vastly exceeded projections. Minneapolis' Hiawatha line transports nearly a million passengers a month.

In addition, 40 other major commuter and light rail projects are in various stages of planning, engineering, design and construction, according to the Light Rail Transit Association, a Texas-based research group.

And if highway construction were the secret to success how come the Detroit region doesn't look, function, feel or come close to Paris?

At the moment, the most influential critic of rapid transit in southeast Michigan is DeRoche, who is leading a charge in the state House to block any southeastern Michigan city from qualifying for any more federal funding for new rapid transit, an initiative that could doom the Ann Arbor-Detroit line. Matt Resch, the spokesman for DeRoche, said that the speaker feels he is justified in his attack because he lives in Oakland County where he sees buses every day that he asserts are ineffective, inefficient and a waste. "Southeast Michigan needs infrastructure improvements," Mr. Resch said in the same month that bus ridership in suburban Detroit reached a new record high. "The speaker's priorities are filling potholes and expanding roads and bridges to relieve the traffic congestion problem."

Paul Tait, SEMCOG's normally cautious executive director, was apparently so irritated by such sentiments that he rose uncharacteristically in February to publicly defend his agency's transit studies. "A downtown Detroit to Ann Arbor corridor can and should be an incremental piece of an overall regional system," Tait said. "The corridor includes four of the region's 10 most populous cities, three of the top five employment centers, 103 large retail centers and 135,000 students at 10 universities and colleges — all factors in projected ridership."

Once during a book tour following publication of The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler told an interviewer that the common bond that would link failing communities and struggling regions in the 21st century was a dearth of statesmanship. He put it this way: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

Toffler could have been thinking about southeast Michigan. As Super Bowl week proved again, ingenuity, discipline and persistence are natural resources in Detroit. This is the place, after all, that produced two of the towering entrepreneurs of the 20th century — Henry Ford and Berry Gordy Jr.

Ford's tiny manufacturing center on what is now Mack Avenue, like an experimental greenhouse, produced the seed corn for a new industrial age and an economy based on easy mobility. Gordy's similarly cramped Motown studio in the basement of a house on West Grand Boulevard was a creative hive attended by a blazingly talented staff of African-American artists, musicians and producers who turned out enduring hits that transcended race, class and generations.

Ford and Gordy reflect the region's ability to innovate and thrive. Birru's concept of an Airport City is part of that tradition. But Ford and Gordy's legacies also are emblematic of Michigan's central vulnerability. It's no accident that during Super Bowl week out-of-town writers used the two men to frame prominent articles about Michigan's shallow reservoir of resilience.

Ford's successors, after all, announced days before the game that they had misjudged the market so badly that 30,000 people were being run out of the company's factories, including 1,200 at the Wixom Plant just beyond the city. And the Dunham Building, an old vacant masonry and glass high-rise, which for a short time served as extra downtown office space for Motown Records before Gordy left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, was demolished for Super Bowl parking. Scraping the Dunham from a site big enough to warehouse 70 vehicles was seen as symbolic of urban abandonment and Detroit's seemingly endless desire to rub out its past for nothing better.

At its heart, Airport City represents a classic Michigan entrepreneurial and creative response to an extraordinarily difficult problem: how to thrive in a new century. The issue is whether southeast Michigan will allow such an important idea, a vision of a globally significant community, to just fade away. Do Detroit and its suburbs have the capacity to relearn how to innovate and prosper?

This article is part of "Roads Not Working," a continuing series about transportation issues in southeast Michigan.

Keith Schneider is the editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. See the Web site and Schneider’s other articles at www.mluimlui.org. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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