Francis Grunow: Digging Detroit


Detroit is at war with its own legacy. The automobile capital of the world, most of which was built in the years before World War II on the concept that cities should cater to the needs of people, has been reconfigured in the years since on a very different premise: cater to the car.

This is evidenced not only by the highways that divide the city from itself, but in the amount of land devoted to parking. The car culture's need for space has laid waste to many of the areas that make our cities special. One becomes keenly aware of how much space is devoted to vehicles in Detroit's main entertainment districts: Greektown, Bricktown, Foxtown - these "towns" are largely a mix of lots and decks among a few buildings that make up the entertainment.

Despite the fact that a recent University of Michigan study determined that Detroit already has more than enough spaces to handle downtown parking needs, no downtown project can make it past the first review stage without making additional accommodations for cars.

The new Compuware headquarters in Detroit will house several thousand workers, which should be good news for downtown. But, with the same bunker mentality that infected the development of the fortress-like Renaissance Center, the company is also constructing a ten-story parking structure to house 3,500 of its employees' vehicles - despite the fact that the "Premiere" parking garage, with its several thousand parking spaces, sits unused a block away.

How likely are Compuware employees to stick around after 5pm, and how much street traffic (I mean crowded sidewalks, not congested roadways) will they generate when their offices are connected to their parking deck by an enclosed walkway?

Compuware was good to take a chance on Detroit - tax incentives and all - but imagine if the people in charge of the project had gone the extra mile and created a more progressive, holistic development - perhaps developing housing nearby instead of parking, or encouraging creative commuting, or at least working with the existing parking options.

Don't get me wrong. While mass transit is a common denominator among most vibrant cities, I know the car will continue to be a ubiquitous mode of transportation. It's not as if New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and Portland don't have cars on their streets. Yet these cities and others have found ways to encourage less car dependency.

Parking decks in Boston and Chicago that are reserved for businesses during the day stay open for dinner and clubbing at night. In Portland, Oregon, the city has a coordinated parking strategy with its downtown decks and provides incentives for shopping at local establishments - thus getting people out of their cars and offices and on to the streets.

In Pittsburgh, properties used for parking are taxed at higher rates than properties put to more active use, while taxes go down for every story a building is built up, encouraging denser development downtown. In many cities, carpooling is encouraged with High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on freeways, which give multi-passenger vehicles the right of way and express lane privileges.

Detroiters would profit from all of these measures: We can also investigate the responsibility each of us has in creating a healthy community. We could make a point of riding the bus on a nice day - just to see what it's like - and maybe we'd do it more often once we found we had finished that novel that we'd been trying to get through for the past year. We could try biking or walking to work when possible, too. Imagine: Detroit's next incarnation could be as the world's bike capital. No hills!

When Gertrude Stein disparaged her hometown of Oakland, California with the quip, "…there's no there there," she couldn't have known how prophetic her words would turn out to be all across the country she eventually left behind. The equation is simple: The more space you devote to parking, the less space there is for people. The less space there is for people, the less of a city there is- and the less "there" there is.

If, as an enlightened populace we demand a higher standard for our cities, from our government and from corporations, and change a few of our own bad habits, we'd soon find ourselves living in a place more like the city of Detroit and less like a parking field in the middle of nowhere. Take your pick.//

©2003 thedetroiter.com