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  • Alon Samuel

October 10th Recap: Development's Double Edge


What are people saying about the opening session of D4’s equitable development event series? Here is just some of the praise we heard for Tuesday night’s event:

“Interesting and informative!”

“An important and timely discussion!

“A cinematic masterpiece!”

We’re a little confused about that last one, but we’re glad that whoever said it enjoyed themselves. In case you missed it, never fear! As promised last week, each event will be followed with a recap and discussion here on our blog, so you can rest assured to be caught up for next time. If you did join us, then this is your chance to relive that magical night.

And what better magic is there than discussing equitable development in Detroit? Perhaps it’s the magic of clunky segues, but Tuesday night’s speakers would have us believing differently. We heard from John Gallagher, a longtime business writer for the Detroit Free Press, who set the stage with a presentation on the increased pace of development in Detroit and the questions of equity that have arisen as a result. Chase Cantrell, founder of Building Community Value, tackled the intangible side of how development can affect community members, and what equitable or ethical development looks like in light of that. Jennifer Kanalos, of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, presented the basics of Tax Increment Financing, a commonly used financing tool that can be used to encourage equitable development.

In the last post we said that discussing equitable development meaningfully required asking certain fundamental questions, like what inequities exist in our built environment, and how development could address them. These question surfaced throughout the night on Tuesday, bringing forward tensions about how development, especially when as rapid as it has been in recent years, has both helped and hurt Detroit.

“We’re in a period of rapid change in Detroit today, and generally, it’s good, at least when we do the math economically, we see more jobs and more development in the city,” Gallagher said in his talk, setting an optimistic tone.

In his framing, there were serious issues to address with these changes, such as rising rents and the potential for displacement— some displacement, he said, has already begun in the greater downtown area. However, solutions can work alongside the development boom, and Gallagher pointed to affordable housing legislation, like the ordinance passed in September, or the work of community based nonprofits.

The first question in the Q&A following Gallagher’s talk addressed a common concern about development— who benefits? An attendee asked what Gallagher thought the goal was for an upcoming development in the Fitzgerald neighborhood— was it to attract new residents or to improve the conditions of current ones? Gallagher answered that if one were to ask the City, the answer would probably be both. The question is, what do current residents think? What things do they want to see in their neighborhood?

Cantwell’s presentation kicked off by “addressing some intangibles” about how communities interact with development happening around them.

“When we’re talking about development we’re talking about changing spaces, changing communities, we have to remember what the daily lives of those people really are,” he said. He listed recent statistics about Detroit: 35.7% of Detroiters live at or below the poverty line, 50% if they’re children; Infant mortality is twice as high in Detroit than in Michigan as a whole; rates of controllable diseases are higher, with HIV five times as high as the rest of the state. “If these are the things that plague them, psychologically, in their daily lives, what’s the impact of bringing something new into the community?”

How much do developers keep these concerns in mind? The consensus during panel discussion seemed to be that, sometimes, they don’t.

“Turmoil regarding development has been much messier than has been articulated here,” an attendee told the panel. “It could be said that there’s somewhat of a war taking place underneath the surface of Detroit, and it’s a battle for who is going to control this land and property.”

Gallagher agreed, noting that very often developers see themselves in opposition to community organizations, seeing them as an “enemy”. Kanalos echoed the sentiment, but added that as someone who works closely with developers, she has seen the tide turn somewhat, and also mentioned that financial tools such as brownfield TIFs could make projects more accessible for smaller developers, ones who would be more inclined to address community concerns.

Building Community Value, Cantwell’s organization, aims to bring such developers further into Detroit’s development landscape. “To me part of the solution in thinking about the cultural and emotional displacement was what happens if we give the community member the tools to actually do the development, does it look different,” Cantwell said.” And so far the answer seems to be yes.”

Still, there is a question of scale. Detroit is a large city, but it is made up of many communities with different needs. How do we address the needs many different communities while elevating a city that is still struggling as a whole? Could the answer come from government? Could it come from private developers, large and small? And how do we navigate the power dynamics that form, often in favor of developers?

This Wednesday, during our second event, we’ll be hearing from Detroit developers themselves, and even taking part in a simulation of what being a developer is like. We hope to see you there, and continue discussing these questions! Visit our event page for details.


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