A Trip To Detroit: Land Policy and the Community Investment System

Marygrove College

Detroit’s impressive economic revitalization and recovery in recent years owes a great deal to land practices and policies. This is consistent with what we at the Center for Community Investment see across our programs: thoughtful land use and land policy are essential components of a strategy to achieve community priorities. A recent trip to Detroit with the Lincoln Institute gave us the opportunity to highlight this fundamental connection by visiting three different areas of the city—Marygrove College, Midtown, and Detroit’s east side.

At Marygrove College, located in the Livernois neighborhood northwest of Detroit’s core, Aaron Seybert from The Kresge Foundation shared Kresge’s role in stabilizing the college’s financial operations to prevent it from closing and threatening the vitality of one of the city’s more robust centers of African-American homeownership. Unlike a typical anchor strategy, where an institution invests in its surrounding community, Kresge invested in the campus itself. The investment will make Marygrove the centerpiece of an effort to provide quality education critical to retaining the young people who want to make Detroit their home and helping Detroiters meet the increasing demand for skilled labor accompanying the city’s recovery. Kresge has committed $50 million to develop a "cradle-to-career center" at Marygrove, including an early childhood center developed with support from IFF organized by CCI’s Fulcrum Fellow Ja’Net DeFell; a new neighborhood-based public school; and a University of Michigan-led teachers college that will train teachers onsite in the new schools.

Straight down Woodward Avenue is Midtown, a neighborhood that has already benefitted from the presence of local anchor institutions. Sue Mosey from Midtown Detroit, Inc. explained Midtown’s renaissance project-by-project. At a time when investment in Detroit was virtually frozen, civic leaders chose to build on local anchors’ strength and concentrate early revitalization efforts on Midtown. Over five years, Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center, and the Henry Ford Health System contributed $10 million in down payment and rental assistance to encourage employees to live in Midtown. More than 2,000 employees took advantage of this incentive, reducing residential vacancy rates in the neighborhood. The Woodward Corridor Investment Fund, a $30.25 million pool to finance dense, mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-oriented development in Midtown, brought together financial and philanthropic investors to offer loans with longer than usual terms (fifteen years vs. seven to ten). Under the leadership of Capital Impact Partners, the Fund jumpstarted a batch of projects and demonstrated the feasibility of providing credit in a city where lending had been frozen.

On Detroit’s east side, the Wilkins Street Plaza is a critical intersection between Eastern Market and the Dequindre Cut greenway, which connects to Detroit’s riverfront. Dan Carmody from the Eastern Market Corporation, Abir Ali of The Platform Group, and Mark Wallace from The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy discussed the challenges and opportunities for creating and preserving spaces for all Detroiters. A Detroit landmark for more than a century, Eastern Market has played a unifying role in the city’s redevelopment by focusing on economic democracy; it remains a place where people can buy everything from high-end morel mushrooms to tomato seconds. As it expands, Eastern Market is intentionally planning to retain its position as a place where all Detroiters can shop, controlling its tenant mix to ensure it serves all types of vendors and businesses, from start-ups needing pop-up spaces to rapidly growing food processing businesses and wholesalers. Despite an abundance of vacant land, a key barrier to expanding community spaces like Eastern Market and Detroit’s Riverfront is fragmented ownership and title issues that make site assembly difficult. Ongoing high-touch engagement will be key to putting vacant land to productive use.

Across all three neighborhoods, we saw that the economic recovery in Detroit is built on community investment projects that are sensitive to local context and needs. To achieve the greatest scale and impact, the community investment system must harness all available resources. Although people often focus on attracting dollars and capturing subsidies, the way land use is structured can accelerate or impede the success of an effort to create a city that works for all its residents. Detroit still has a long way to go in achieving a recovery that works for everyone, but it has made significant progress since 2010. As the birthplace of some of CCI’s ideas about capital absorption, the city stands as an example of what determination and creativity can achieve.

Photo of Marygrove College by Kate Dykgraaf

Transforming investment in communities

The Center for Community Investment at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation.

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