One Perspective: Is this the downsizing Detroit needs?

By Paul Kersey

Mackinac Center for Public Policy

There is little doubt that the city of Detroit is in dire straits, and that drastic actions will need to be taken. Still, one cannot help but be troubled by reports that Mayor Dave Bing is undertaking a plan to downsize the city.

From early discussions, the “downsizing” that Bing has in mind is largely geographical; neighborhoods where half or more of existing homes are empty or essentially wrecked will be abandoned, with residents encouraged — or perhaps forced — to relocate to other sections of the city. In the process, city government hopes it will be able to save funds by focusing its services on areas that it considers stable or salvageable. That’s the theory at least.

The conundrum facing the city can be summed up as follows. As of today, Detroit covers 143 square miles. After this downsizing is complete, the city will still cover 143 square miles. Blight is not scattered in patches throughout the city, it is concentrated. The Detroit Residential Parcel Survey reveals that the worst areas of the city, where houses and commercial buildings are in the worst condition, are found in a very rough arc that starts near the Detroit River on the east side, stretches north of the enclaves of Highland Park and Hamtramck, then turns south along the near west side toward downriver.

Generally speaking, the sections of the city that are in the best condition are in three clusters: one encompasses a stretch of the riverfront, downtown, and the New Center up toward the Wayne State University campus; a second is on the far east bordering the Grosse Pointes; and the largest is the far west side. All three of these sections are separated from each other by miles of severely blighted terrain.

The city of Detroit has miles of water and sewage lines that run beneath the most blighted sections of the city. These will need to be maintained in order to provide service to the remaining residents as well as numerous suburbs that contract with the city for water and sewer. In addition, utility lines that run through blighted areas will need to be kept functioning. Downtown in particular cannot survive as an island; roads connecting it with the rest of the city and the suburbs will still run through distressed sections. These roads will need to be maintained and policed if downtown is to be viable.

In short, while city government might be able to limit services in certain areas, it cannot withdraw completely from any part of the 143 square miles in its jurisdiction. The services it will need to maintain will be substantial enough that it is not clear the city will save much in the process of writing off neighborhoods.

The geographical downsizing plan has the virtue of acknowledging, for maybe the first time within the confines of City Hall, the severity of economic and social conditions in Detroit. But it still places an as-yet unjustified faith in the ability of the city government to plan in detail the city’s economic future. The People Mover was supposed to reinvigorate downtown. The construction of a GM plant in Poletown (which saw the city evict residents and raze a low-income neighborhood) was supposed to create new auto jobs. Neither has worked as intended. It remains to be seen if the city can plan decline any better than it can plan growth.

Speaking very broadly, what the city needs above all else is jobs and investment. The real source for both is to be found among entrepreneurs and investors whose efforts are more likely to be stymied than aided by detailed government planning. In the short-term the city may or may not benefit by writing off its worst sections and downsizing geographically. But if Detroit is to recover, the downsizing that will need to be done long-term is a withdrawal of city government from the issuance of detailed plans and regulations. By downsizing the ambitions of city bureaucrats, the city will give small businesses the flexibility they need to function, earn profits and create jobs for Detroiters, which is the key to the city’s eventual recovery.

Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.