Note: Link to petition to City Council is here. This piece was updated 4/11/16 with a few minor corrections. City planning staff previously stated this would be the largest rezoning in Detroit’s history, but they have since checked their records, and in fact, a prior rezoning of the west riverfront area (in advance of proposed casinos) was larger.
Detroit City Council is considering a major rezoning in the heart of Midtown -specifically, in the old Cass Corridor, extending from Charlotte Street north to the Wayne State University campus, between Woodward and the Lodge Expressway. It would be the
largest second-largest rezoning proposal in Detroit’s history, according to Detroit city planning staff.
For those unfamiliar with city planning, zoning refers to the complex set of restrictions that determine what you can and can’t do with a piece of real estate – that is, land. It’s what shapes a city in a whole host of ways – from what buildings look like, to who gets to use them. Given Midtown’s status as a focus for massive investment, what happens to zoning in Midtown has profound import for the rest of the city as well.
Mixed Uses: Back to the Future
Most of Detroit’s current zoning classifications are many decades old, and follow the traditional pattern of separating out different uses, like residential, commercial, and industrial functions. (Those who have played SimCity 2000 may recall that these were green, blue, and yellow in that edition of that game.)
The rezoning proposal would replace old “residential” and “business” zoning in this district with two brand-new, mixed-use zoning classifications with the mellifluous names of “Special Development District: Small Scale/ Mixed-Use” and “Special Development District: Commercial/Residential,” or, more concisely, SD1 and SD2.
It’s widely recognized that the old planning standard of strict divisions between uses was not such a good idea. In fact, it effectively made traditional downtowns illegal. No longer could new development easily incorporate both shops on the ground floor, and apartments above, as was common when Detroit’s Cass Corridor was initially constructed.
The proposed rezoning would fix that. It would also loosen the parking requirements for new development in this major public transit corridor, and prevent new developments from opening drive-throughs, or constructing parking lots between the sidewalk and the building, in the fashion of a suburban strip mall.
That’s the good part. Unfortunately, the rezoning proposal also contains provisions that would sideline the social service institutions that have long been part of the soul of the Cass Corridor, and still provide critically needed care for our region’s neediest people.
Who’s Not In the Mix
In a lot of ways, zoning makes sense. You probably don’t want a massive refinery right next to a residential area, for example, for reasons of public health – although Detroit’s current zoning policies have not prevented that from happening.
Unfortunately, zoning has also been abused to buttress social inequality. One of the earliest uses of zoning in the United States, in fact, was the City of San Francisco’s 1885 attempt to bar commercial laundries from most of its area – and, in so doing, shut out their Chinese immigrant workers and owners. Southern cities zoned areas by race, and to this day, the residential zoning in many suburban jurisdictions only allows single-family homes on large lots, effectively keeping out poor and working-class families.
And, sadly, the proposed new zoning districts also appear targeted to exclude institutions that serve poor people – and that have often been located in the old Cass Corridor.
The new zoning categories, as written, would place severe restrictions on a variety of charitable social service institutions, including nursing homes, emergency shelters, and other group living facilities – at the same time as they ease restrictions on various commercial uses, such as brewpubs and pet shops.
For example, under the rezoning, commercial kennels would become a “conditional use” throughout the area – that is, allowed to open, subject to
Planning Commission Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department staff approval. They are currently prohibited in the portions of the neighborhood zoned residential (generally, the lots fronting the east-west streets in the neighborhood).
However, nursing homes, which are currently a “by-right” use throughout the neighborhood – that is, automatically allowed – would become a “conditional use” in both new zoning categories. Emergency shelters, pre-release adjustment centers and residential substance abuse treatment centers, which are currently conditional uses throughout the area, would both be prohibited entirely under the new zoning categories.
In other words, the rezoning would restrict the opening of shelter facilities for humans, while making it easier to open shelter facilities for dogs.
Download the full comparison table between the existing and proposed zoning categories at this link. “R” means “by right,” “C” means “conditional,” and blank spaces mean “prohibited.”
Being Nice in the New Detroit
To be honest, it’s hard to say how much the proposed zoning changes would, in themselves, affect the trajectory of the old Cass Corridor. Existing social services in the area would be “grandfathered in” in the rezoning, so they would not be forced to move, though their ability to expand would be limited. It’s not exactly as if a host of new shelters and nursing homes are clamoring to open in the area, where real estate prices have skyrocketed so much as to make that nearly impossible.
Already, many of the social services that used to define the lower Corridor have been pushed to the margins – not through zoning, but through other means. An example is the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light residential substance abuse treatment center, which used to be in the old Park Avenue Hotel recently demolished for the new Red Wings arena. The Salvation Army vacated that near-downtown location in 2003 for a new site at MLK and I-96, a full mile to the west.
However, this naked attempt to exclude the neediest people from the greater downtown area by action of the City itself goes against the principles of democracy and equality that Detroit has, at its best, embodied. How sad that a city that’s been down and out for so long would treat its most vulnerable residents just as badly.
The rezoning also sets a troubling principle for the rest of the city. It’s almost certain that the new zoning categories will also be applied to other areas of the city viewed as ripe for redevelopment, from Southwest Detroit to the Villages to the Avenue of Fashion.
This isn’t the first time that Detroit has tried to push social services to the margins of the downtown. Detroit’s old Skid Row used to occupy the west side of downtown, along Michigan Avenue near First and Second Avenues. (This low-rent area was also the first point of entry for Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans in Detroit.)
In the 1950s, the city demolished that area for “urban renewal.” (A half-century later, the place is still fairly dead to pedestrian activity, dominated by the giant superblocks of the McNamara Federal Building and the MGM Grand Casino.) The social services simply moved a half-mile north, creating the Cass Corridor that would later become so notorious.
It’s not too late, however, to learn from the lessons of the past, instead of repeating its injustices time and time again. Detroit’s redevelopment need not create two cities, separate and unequal. Yet we need to muster the courage to tell our elected officials that we cannot countenance our own government – the institution that’s charged with protecting its citizens – using its powers to push our most vulnerable people to the wayside in favor of trendy restaurants and bars.
The future of Midtown Detroit must be a future that is truly mixed use, a future where everyone is welcome,not a future as a luxury entertainment enclave for the metropolitan elite.
If you’ve read this far, please sign this petition to City Council asking them to amend the proposed rezoning.