PODCAST: Downtown Detroit’s Development Paradoxes With Retail & Urban Design Expert Conrad Kickert

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“If you open up a building next to a Dan Gilbert development that’s a good thing. There’s more people on the sidewalk, more crowd, more buzz, more Instagram pictures — If you open up a development next to an Ilitch development, that’s considered a bad thing because you’re leaking customers away from the concessions, from the theater, from the stadium, etc. That’s a model that’s more difficult to defend in the long term.” – Conrad Kickert

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Today’s show is a long-form conversation with author Conrad Kickert. He’s a retail and planning expert and professor at the University of Cincinnati.

His most recent book caught my eye, “Dream City: Creation, Destruction, and Reinvention in Downtown Detroit.”

Backed up by research and global experience, he busts some myths about downtown Detroit and its history. He adds perspective from his career from world-class cities and working on making urban design and retail planning that actually works.

He is very frank about the possibilities for the future. That there are real opportunities. But doing things as we did before isn’t a path forward.

One thing this left me thinking afterward was, “We have no idea what a real boom looks like.” Matching this with my travels even around the country, Detroit is woefully behind.

The things we talk about as “massive change” are everyday occurrences in much of the nation.

I thought about a recent visit to Charlotte, North Carolina that made my head spin with the number of cranes I saw out the window.

Think about the economic opportunity from bottom to top if the city of Detroit started adding about 15,000 people each year, every year, for two decades instead of debating Census numbers whether or not we’re going to see a tiny rise for public relations points. And regionally, staying about flat.

Or Atlanta, a city that’s been seeing growth since 2010.

The city at one point had more than double the people we have now. We have space. Why don’t we use something like that as a metric to shoot for instead of clawing onto not losing?

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Conrad Kickert is an interesting, long-form very podcasty conversation. We’ll try doing these on some Fridays.

Here are some highlights:

Why Conrad got interested in Detroit and downtown Detroit.

Because of shifting market forces that are beyond what’s happening locally, you probably won’t be able to buy a pepper grinder at a store unless it has an “authentic” “story” behind it. Why? Regular transactions are all moving online, and retail is transitioning to becoming 3D advertisements. They don’t have to sell as many goods, the point is experiential and as a billboard for the online experience.

Parking lot barons have been a problem for nearly a century, as when a skyscraper went up, flat parking lots got built instead of many other options.

80% of new construction in downtown Detroit is parking.

The city of Detroit mandates a lot of parking through ordinances, but parking minimums are out as development policy nationally. Cities that have them are “stuck in the last century.”

Downtown Detroit, though, is quite a bit smaller than comparative cities and has less going on. Just The Loop in Chicago alone is a multitude of downtown Detroit in a small area when it comes to offices and residential.

There’s not much in downtown Detroit for people in the neighborhoods, and it’s hard to get there, and that’s not good. You need strong connections.

Although many people are nostalgic for our old streetcar system, it was woefully inefficient (by land area Detroit and Metro Detroit is massive) as the city and region never made the jump to a heavier rail and/or subway system in the 1910s-30s like other cities when it should have (see this post about abandoned subway plans). By the time the conversion was made to buses, the city and region had sprawled too far to be practical and ridership had sunk.

The QLINE was a development tool, and helped replace infrastructure under Woodward, but is not a transit tool. But for economic development, amazingly, it’s worked as far as investment – as it has in other cities as well because developers put their money where rails are, even though it hasn’t functioned for everyday residents.

Sometimes the plans that aren’t sexy are the ones that work. Like bike-sharing. People use it here and in other cities and it works here. Detroit’s also a great biking city in warm months. You usually can get where you’re going by MoGo faster than transit within its service area.

And then we finish up with pros and cons, including the big difference between Ilitch and Gilbert’s development visions.

If this is the first time meeting our show, we’re on Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/daily-detroit/id1220563942

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/1Yhv8nSylVWxlZilRhi4X9

And although the show will always be free, our members help make it available for everyone else. Become a member on Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/dailydetroit

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