Detroit: Post Bankruptcy

The city’s historical ward system produced mostly corruption and inefficiencies. An at-large city council wasn’t much better. Now comes a city split into seven districts. Welcome to the brave new world of Detroit.

Detroit has acquired many nicknames in its more than 300 years of existence — Rock City, Motor City, and Renaissance City. But there’s a new name looming on the horizon: District City. In November, for the first time in almost a century, Detroiters will elect council members based on a nonpartisan, seven-district system (in addition to two at-large seats).

The new districts are intended to establish a much higher degree of accountability for residents and local business owners. The representatives will need to quickly educate themselves on the present state of affairs and offer a vision of progress in their locality. In essence, each council member overseeing a district will become the ultimate block captain, answerable to every imaginable constituent.

To get up to speed, both during and post-bankruptcy, the representatives can tap Detroit Future City, a new master plan. Within its 350-plus pages is information about new employment districts, the most promising residential neighborhoods for reinvestment, more efficient transportation modes, and innovative ideas to make use of acres of vacant land.

As the city seeks to address more than $18 billion in liabilities, align city services with the most efficient number of workers, and create more public-private partnerships to boost operations, the way forward offers hope. Trouble is, without a roadmap, the new crop of leaders may succumb to the infighting and entitlement that saw the city file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in mid-July.    

So where is Detroit going?

While the city lacked any kind of formal government until 1802, it wasn’t until 1824 that the council replaced the board of trustees as the legislative body. The first council consisted of five aldermen, the mayor, and a recorder.

The system worked well, but as Detroit grew in population and the industrial age advanced, government operations became overwhelming.

By 1915, there were 42 council members representing 21 different wards. Corruption and factionalism ran rampant in a city where the population was more than 925,000. The new city charter of 1918 sought to change that by limiting the council to nine seats. The charter also switched to a nonpartisan, at-large format.

The system of at-large elections has continued — but it will end when the new city council system kicks off in January 2014. Although the early 20th century legislation may have ended the corruption of Detroit land barons, it did not permanently halt malfeasance and fraud. Over the years there have been calls for a revision to the at-large format to instill equity and responsiveness. Whether representation by district will streamline government operations, improve services, and spur development remains to be seen.


Earlier this year, the Detroit Works Project published urban planning recommendations for the city based on two years of study and community engagement. The resulting Detroit Future City Plan booklet follows in the footsteps (and, in some cases, the physical footprint) of Judge Augustus P. Woodward’s street grid plan that came about following the 1805 fire that leveled what was a collection of wood-framed structures. The new plan also draws upon the city’s 1951 master plan and other mapping efforts from several regional organizations such as the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

More recently, Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., which has located 10,000 workers downtown since 2010, released a master plan for the downtown area and the lower Woodward corridor that includes the renovation of existing buildings into office, residential, and retail uses; active streets with artists, merchants, and food carts; greater green space; and improved modes of transportation (M-1 Rail system).

Most of that activity will occur in Council District 6, which is home to most of downtown, roughly half of the Midtown area, several historic residential districts, southwest Detroit, and Corktown. Planners forecast that existing businesses and organizations in District 6 could create a combined 27,500 jobs over the next decade. The figure does not include Mike and Marian Ilitch’s development of a hockey arena and urban center at the northwest corner of I-75 and Woodward.

Despite the current and anticipated influx of jobs, there are still some problems that need to be resolved in the area.

“The first thing has to be safety, because I think public safety is a real concern,” says Leslie Lynn Smith, president and CEO of TechTown, a technology incubator on the campus of Wayne State University. “Transportation comes up pretty close after that, because a city this size absolutely has to be able to rely on transportation to create an independent economy for itself. The third thing is economic development, because some of the other underlying problems start to resolve themselves when you have a secure, safe neighborhood and a vibrant economy.”

While District 6 may gain the most new jobs created in the next few years, District 5 won’t be far behind. In addition to containing the remaining sections of downtown and Midtown, it is also home to the Dequindre/Eastern Market corridor, Indian Village, Belle Isle, Lafayette Park, and several large industrial areas including the I-94 Industrial Park and the Russell Industrial Center. It also contains the East Jefferson Avenue district, which is dominated by historic residential towers and retail centers.


The other east-side enclaves — District 3 and District 4 — consist of some established and promising businesses and operations, including Coleman A. Young International Airport, where air traffic has increased threefold since 2012; several automotive plants, including the Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant; Chandler Park; and several dozen riverfront homes. Moving to the west side of Woodward, the north central area, represented by District 2, includes the University of Detroit Mercy, Marygrove College, and the Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai Grace Hospital.

While some council areas, such as District 6, are teeming with infrastructure to support growth, there are some that are virtually vacant of employment, notably District 1 and District 7, both located on the far west side. The question is, are they doomed to be jobless zones of continued urban decay?

“All parts of the city are going to be in play, and all districts are going to be in play, but what we want to make sure is that where those investments are made capitalizes on those existing areas that can accommodate that growth — where the zoning is in place and is appropriate,” says Dan Kinkead, director of Detroit Future City.

Because the council districts were based on population counts, things will eventually change. Already, downtown and Midtown have residential occupancy rates that are above 90 percent, and there are several housing projects in the works. The population is inevitably going to increase in these areas, as more people decide to live in close proximity to work.

Each of the districts has its own intrinsic qualities that can be built on. “Even as these districts are strong, Detroit’s economy at large is anemic,” Kinkead says. “One of the key points we like to make all the time is that Detroit itself is not too big; its economy is too small. We need to grow the economy in this city, and we start growing it in these districts.” db