Activist Investing in the Era of Mass Murder

I don’t usually write about gun control, but in this case I’ve found the nationwide response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Florida notable.

Blackrock recently announced demands that gun makers to respond to the Valentine’s Day shooting that left 17 dead and a nation again debating gun control. The massive asset manager, which effectively controls percentage points of the entire global economy, isn’t playing around. Nor were Delta, United, and others playing around when they ditched their respective NRA discount travel programs. It is perhaps unsurprising in this case, but nonetheless notable, for large companies to weigh in on such a controversial issue, but it’s telling in thinking about the distorted relationship an industry has with policymakers and with the broader market.

First off, follow the money.

The Trump era has been nothing short of a disaster for gun sales, with FBI NICS data released in January showing the largest ever year-over-year decline, sending shares of American Outdoor Brands tumbling (formerly Smith & Wesson before they rebranded to become more family-friendly and less associated with, ya know, their famous handguns).

The market is speaking in two ways– first, gun nuts aren’t buying as many guns because they’re no longer paranoid about That Muslim Slash Socialist Barack Obama taking their guns. (A salesman at Cabela’s once told me that he heard– on the internet- that Obama was training a Hitler Youth-like army to disarm Americans and that was the reason for the widely lamented circa 2016 shortage of .22 long rifle ammunition.)

The stock market is responding accordingly, and gun stocks are probably not a great buy these days. American Outdoor Brands (NASDAQ: AOBC) has lost more than three quarters of a billion dollars in market capitalization (i.e. total value of share price times shares outstanding) since the summer of 2017 and the slightly larger Sturm, Ruger & Co. (NYSE: RGR) lost less at $304.5 million. The larger and more diversified Vista Outdoor (NYSE: VSTO) lost more value  from its peak price last summer($1.82 billion, but peaked in the summer of 2016, since which time it has lost 65% of its value), and continues to lose money.

American Outdoor Brands (NASDAQ: AOBC) has taken a beating, losing more than half of its market capitalization in less than a year while the rest of the market has seen huge gains.

In the context of the broader market, these three gunmakers lost 39-68% of their capitalization while the S&P soared about 20% and Amazon shares are up 300% in two years (yes, you read that correctly, and it’s stupid, but the stock market is stupid). That’s pretty bad. But the gun fervor that punctuated the Obama era died away as soon as Trump took office, because the perception that Obama and the gun-grabbin’-libruls would come and take everyone’s guns away evaporated, as most nebulous conspiracy theories eventually do.

The second way the market is speaking is that investment managers like Blackrock and well-known consumer brands like United, Delta, banks, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Symantec, and others, are responding to widespread consumer demands to ditch the NRA. It is not in Blackrock’s interest for these stocks to lose most of their value, nor is it in the interests of these companies to lose millions of customers. Or tax breaks, which the Georgia state government has threatened to rescind on Delta, treading into dubious ethical territory, in response to Delta’s decision to break with the gun rights organization.

But sometimes it’s important to stand up to an industry that is tiny in comparison to its massive lobbying power. The NRA’s millions of dollars raised from donors paranoid about losing their second amendment rights are disproportionately powerful; similarly, the $15-20 billion gun industry in the United States is tiny in comparison to, say, the airline industry (Delta Airlines alone is twice the size in terms of its market capitalization). Everytown for Gun Safety recently took out a giant ad in the New York Times calling out lawmakers who have received millions from the NRA.

So, why now? No one really knows. After we decided, as one tweet once said with brutal but accurate cynicism, that America was okay with the murder of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook, it’s unclear why this specific school shooting has prompted such a backlash. Perhaps just fatigue over the bizarre chaos of the Trump era. But, in an increasingly interconnected global economy, the private sector wields an increasing amount of power. And, on this issue if on few others, it seems to be responding to the concerns of the popular majority more than certain members of the legislative majority are.

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Book Review: Nathan Bomey’s “Detroit Resurrected”

I’ve made it my mission to read all of the Detroit books. I started with Charlie LeDuff’s sensationalist Detroit: An American Autopsy, then moved onto fiction You Don’t Have To Live Like This, then David Maraniss’s Once In A Great City. Most recently it was Nathan Bomey’s Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back, which I just finished. I can’t quite stomach Amy Haimerl’s Detroit Hustle right now, but I do have a copy and will get to it at some point.

Bomey’s book, at 320 pages and replete with live-action, lawyerly, shit-talking dialogue, is a quick, comfortable read. It’s rich and vivid, but not verbose, dense, or packed with a crazy technical analysis. He covers the mechanics of bankruptcy, the basics of Detroit’s municipal finance, and the bankruptcy proceedings themselves, focusing principally on how the powers that be, among them Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, later-Mayor Mike Duggan, and various attorneys and judges, all butted heads to argue their points in figuring out what to do to fix Detroit’s balance sheet.


Much of Bomey’s analysis focuses on the central debate surrounding the proposed liquidation of the Detroit Institute of the Arts to settle debts to creditors and the Grand Bargain, as it was later named, a deal to settle a portion of debts by bringing in foundation capital to shore up numbers on a deep red balance sheet. He also traces the origins, though somewhat inadequately (more on this later), of the power triangle between Kevyn Orr, Rick Snyder, and Mike Duggan.

The Grand Bargain was, without doubt, one of the most interesting political resolutions to the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history– a resolution to certainly one of the most precarious situations in American urban history. Bomey captures a sort of constructivist, human element of the bankruptcy– referring back to said shit-talking lawyers- and how social interactions rather than purely quantified power structures or monetary systems defined “make-or-break” moments in the proceedings. Most major breakthroughs in the proceedings he brings back to pivotal phone calls or moments, usually involving profanity-laden phone calls between six figure salaried executives (as these things usually go). And, well, a lot of things were accomplished, even though some folks lost out.

Former Emergency Manager and Jones Day attorney Kevyn Orr, courtesy of Bridge Magazine.

This ranges from the millionaire Jones Day lawyers to the millionaire Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to the multi-millionaire governor Rick Snyder. Did you notice something about the preceding sentence? Possibly the fact that they’re all millionaires, and this is something that is often missed in the narrative about the bankruptcy.

This is sort of a product of Bomey’s limited depth in tracking of the origins of Detroit’s crisis. In his analysis, this is fairly limited to Kwame’s business dealings and some peripherally connected things involving historical something something. In comparison, Maraniss’s book paints a picture of a city on the edge, but he doesn’t get more than knee-deep into the origins of the urban crisis, as Thomas Sugrue does. LeDuff, problematic but a dedicated Detroiter, is sensationalist but really seems to capture the gritty “ground level” of Detroit that Bomey seems to remark upon in a passing way– the sort of New York attitude of, “Wow, it’s crazy that people actually live like this!”

These issues are less important in figuring out what to do next, but I mention the “millionaire” point because much of Detroit’s new narrative is problematized by the disproportionate control of the city that has been handed over, sold, or transferred in some carte blanche manner, to millionaires and billionaires.


I’ve noticed that white folk, especially suburbanites who refer to anything within the city limits as “downtown” and only come “downtown” to attend Red Wings games or hang out with Kid Rock or one of Gilitchville’s monumental, taxpayer-funded abominations, usually blame Coleman Young or the riots, one, for the single moment in the downfall of Detroit.

Usually, as the limit of a conversation with one of These People approaches about two minutes, the probability approaches one that they will make some reference to “the blacks.” To those who live here, it’s fairly apparent. Detroit’s legacies of racism are deep and foundational in the city’s problems. Maraniss’s book gets into this– sort of- but Detroit Resurrected leaves it on the sidelines. Kind of like the bazillionaire players in the bankruptcy narratives left it on the sidelines.

At issue in the Kwame era was the city’s attempt to kick the debt-can down the road by raising basically investment capital on public bonds through a couple of maybe-semi-illegal-if-not-totally-shady shell corporations. No one seems to really debate that Kwame was corrupt, never mind that the origins of his era’s problems find their roots many decades prior.

But Bomey isn’t interested in academically problematizing the idea that a municipal entity, which exists by virtue of and for the preservation of human beings in a human community, could be effectively sold off to greedy Wall Street interests. Orr and the Jones Day club certainly weren’t interested in this, either, and, although Orr is often painted by Bomey as an enormously pragmatic, human thinker who was able to accomplish a monumental feat against crazy odds (certainly an arguable point), discussion is almost totally absent about how utterly problematic the Emergency Management system imposed by a white Republican quarter-billionaire governor onto a majority of black Michiganders was. Rick Snyder is painted as a pragmatic, benign technocrat whose affinity for Detroit is at odds with a [racist, but Bomey avoids saying it] red state constituency that, along with the likes of L. Brooks Patterson, kind of hates Detroit.

Beyond Emergency Management, the most interesting thing to me about the bankruptcy is the move in the era of muncipal austerity toward replacing public services and expenditure with private foundation money. I’ve often found it ironic that Kresge is such a huge player in Detroit as K-Mart, the originator of the Kresge fortune, made its money by championing a new era of offshoring (and thereby indirectly contributing to the demise of urban economies in the so-called post-industrial era). Foundations are mandated to spend their money on philanthropic stuff, but so much is obvious– Bomey doesn’t get into this very much except to say that it’s notable. What is interesting to me is the fact that it is being done.

There is debate about the efficacy of private philanthropic expenditure, but one thing that is for sure is that foundations are 1) private, and 2) not mandated to distribute funding evenly across cities. Kresge underwriting Detroit’s QLine streetcar in a city where buses don’t run on time– or at all- was a good example and certainly carried a dubious value proposition.


Bomey’s conclusion, where he actually goes so far as to invoke the “what about the schools,” which, along with “what about the parking,” is totally the “what about her e-mails” of urban revitalization. He does mention that the state’s appointed emergency managers basically made a bad situation worse, but he doesn’t trace that back to Snyder, which I view as pretty problematic. Snyder is a venture capitalist who has done a great job of transferring public resources to private interests in a state that struggles with poverty and unemployment that aren’t really getting better. Emergency Management is a tried-and-true way to strip citizens of democratic process, and the bankruptcy wouldn’t have been possible without it.

Darnell Earley was clearly a disaster in Detroit and in Flint. Kevyn Orr perhaps wasn’t a complete disaster, and the bankruptcy perhaps wasn’t the be-all, end-all of disasters, but the Emergency Management system is definitely a disaster for democracy– and in terms of the precedents it has set with regard to wealth and race disparity in Michigan’s cities.

These problems mitigate the credibility of the total narrative, but they don’t detract from the readability of it, and it isn’t as though Bomey is making grossly inappropriate conclusions or factually untrue statements. Overall, I’d offer three and a half out of five stars or so, but I will say that Detroit Resurrected is great story and totally worth the read.

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Tschö, Detroit!

Today I’m headed off on a multi-modal transit odyssey that will eventually land me in the Ruhrgebiet, in Nordrhein-Westfalen, as the first stop on a mobility study trip sponsored by the German-American Chambers of Commerce (GACC South in Atlanta, or, AHK in German).

To pregame, I will be seeing how well or how badly intermodal transportation works across three international borders: Tuesday morning, I’ll take the tunnel bus or get a ride from Detroit to Windsor, where I’ll take the Via Rail to Toronto, then a train to Pearson, flight to Frankfurt, then a train to Dortmund. Then I’m headed to Wuppertal and will be hanging out in the Ruhr for a couple of days, hopefully hitting up the crazy paragons of adaptive reuse and public space in Duisburg or the Zeche Zollverein, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before heading back to Frankfurt– then onward with the AHK crew.

Stay tuned for live updates!

Also, Happy Halloween. Also, in observance of All Souls Day, a.k.a. the benign, German corollary to our spooky holiday, kick it to these deep cuts from Franz Schubert.

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Detroit Climate Action Plan Released

The Detroit Climate Action Plan is released, announced in Detroit’s North End.

At the North End Christian CDC, outside a hoophouse in Detroit’s North End, Kimberly Hill-Knott recounted the origins of the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative, or DCAC, in 2011. At the time, the dialogue surrounding sustainability was eclipsed by bigger questions about the future of the city itself.

“Bankruptcy was looming, the threat of the appointment of an emergency manager was hanging over our heads, and of course, both of those events happened,” Hill-Knott, DCAC project director, and president and CEO of Future Insight Consulting, recalled. “We asked ourselves, ‘Does it even make sense to forge ahead with developing a climate action plan?’ We concluded that we had no other choice.”

In line with Detroit’s legacy of participatory community action, the collaborative, a program of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, or DWEJ, soldiered on.

“We didn’t have time to wait on the Federal government,” Hill-Knott said. “We didn’t have time to wait on state government.”

Today, the collaborative’s Climate Action Plan was released to the general public.

DCAC brought together 26 businesses, community groups, universities, environmental groups, and public agencies to develop a framework to guide the development of a Detroit that is resilient in the face of more extreme temperatures and weather conditions, and a city that is greener and more equitable.

Leila Mekias (left), Environmental Health Fellow with the Detroit Health Department and former program coordinator at DCAC and Kimberly Hill-Knott, DCAC Program Director, are helping lead the charge for more sustainable neighborhoods. Photo by Nat M. Zorach.

“The report has 25 specific actions that can be taken by various individuals and groups,” Hill-Knott said, urging audience members to familiarize themselves with the guide and understand what role each of them can play in improving the city. One goal includes reducing 2012 baseline greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent by 2022 and 30 percent by 2032.

Hill-Knott was joined by Dominic DiCicco, Manager of Environmental Policy and Fuel Quality for Ford Motor Company, climatologist Omar Gates, City of Detroit Director of Sustainability Joel Howrani-Heeres, and DWEJ Executive Director Guy Williams, as well as Roslyn Ogburn, a DCAC community organizer.

Dr. Natalie Sampson, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan, also spoke.

“The prevalence of asthma is 29 percent higher in the city of Detroit than in the rest of Michigan,” she said. “[Detroit has] three times the amounts of hospitalizations for asthma than in the state of Michigan… This is just one health issue, and we know that there are more.”

Asked whether she had any pilot projects in mind, Kimberly Hill-Knott said she looks forward to working with the city’s new director of sustainability, Joel Howrani-Heeres, and pointed toward the completion of successful projects like the Detroit Smart Neighborhoods pilot, which trained Detroit Housing Commission residents in energy retrofits and residential energy modeling.

DWEJ organized the trainings with advisor and instructor Kevin McNeely, and subsequently partnered with Southwest Housing Solutions (and, incidentally, the author of this article) to work on a few homes in the Marygrove neighborhood. DWEJ Executive Director Guy Williams explained how five of those trainees went on to work with Detroit builder Brian Duell, with whom DWEJ has partnered on a construction company focused on energy and sustainability.

Williams saw the training program as having natural synergy, one where Detroiters are put to work improving their own community.

“If they could become employed in a trade that’s also making the community and housing healthier, there would be multiple wins,” he said.

Such inventive opportunities pairing economic development with sustainable innovation are critical for the success of the Climate Action Plan, and Hill-Knott looks forward to collaborating with the City of Detroit for future implementation.

“We’ve got all of these wonderful recommendations and goals, it’s just a matter of getting everybody together,” she said.

DWEJ, founded in 1994, cites itself as the oldest environmental justice organization in the state of Michigan.

This article was also published on TheHUB Detroit.

Posted in Energy Poverty, Environment, Environmental Justice, Michigan, Urban energy, Urban Planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bike The Bridge: Fleeting Dreams of International Bike Transit

On Sunday, for the first and possibly the last time, I rode my bike across the Detroit River on the Ambassador Bridge. It was a lot of fun, but also a reminder of how badly in need of a revamp our border crossing is, both regarding international transit modality and the culture and processes of border security.

The ride was fun, but brief– we were not afforded the opportunity to actually ride around Windsor at all, which was kind of lame, and instead just had to turn around at the base of the bridge. An army of well-armed CBP officers made sure we didn’t stop to take pictures, stop, or slow down too much, because terrorism.

I’ve probably crossed the Windsor-Detroit border hundreds of times. I dated a Canadian for about a year, and even though we broke up, I got to keep the trivia team, which I visit every Monday night (we pretty much always win 4th place).

Plenty of Detroiters don’t visit Windsor, complaining about how they used to go there, but then 9/11 happened, and you had to have a passport to cross (you don’t), but they do point out that it is much more of a pain in the ass, especially coming back into the United States, where I’ve been asked why on earth I would ever move to Detroit (I asked, “why would you ever move to Macomb County?”, why I feel the need to spend money at a bar in a foreign country when I could spend it in the United States, why I have a bike rack on my car, why I had a Bernie Sanders sticker on my old car.

It’s a messed up culture of fear and paranoia– Canada is our biggest trading partner and, as such, we share many common cultural and economic narratives. But I can’t fix that issue short of dismantling nearly a generation-long era of post-Cold War paranoia that has come to define the law enforcement officials who commute in from the distant suburbs every shift to interrogate American and Canadian citizens alike about what on earth they might be doing, going about their daily business.

So, getting past the problem of a perpetually inadequate number of lanes open on either side, which means wait times, we have to also think about alternatives for crossing. The only way to cross without a personal vehicle is with a taxi (expensive) or on the tunnel bus, a Windsor Transit-operated line, which has an extremely unreliable schedule and route. The tunnel bus is a good option during major sporting events, but Detroiters and Windsorites, headed, respectively, to Caesar’s Windsor or one of Detroit’s publicly-funded sportsball arenas, are still reliant on the automobile, so forget a bus– especially one jammed to capacity that runs behind schedule because the tunnel is so clogged up during these major events.

What about a bike? It takes up way less space than a car, it imposes less wear on infrastructure, and it’s affordable to operate. The Gordie Howe Bridge will supposedly include bike lanes, but that’s a solid few miles from downtown– it isn’t exactly a direct link between our two great nations. We do, however, remember that unsung hero, Windsorite Kyle Colasanti, who biked through the tunnel to get to a Steely Dan concert, much to the chagrin of Customs and Border Patrol officers, who really were pissed that he wasn’t driving an F250 Super Duty and detained him for hours for no reason (go figure).

Kyle acted on what most of us are thinking– that we need better bike transport.

Looking east from the Ambassador Bridge toward Mt. Doom and the Eye of Sauron atop it, a.k.a. the Renaissance Center, and Belle Isle.

And why we need a better border crossing– not just in terms of international transit modes but also the ownership and fees. Joann Mueller wrote an excellent article about why the Ambassador’s situation is so utterly screwed up– how the monopolistic ownership has resulted in the doubling or even quadrupling of tolls, how delays in truck traffic cost the US-Canadian trade economy hundreds of millions of dollars a year (and, frankly, result in clouds of heavy particulate diesel exhaust stinking up Southwest Detroit, which is already not exactly an atmospheric paradise owing to the heavy industry around the Rouge River and Zug Island).

It is unclear how much this will change with the Gordie Howe Bridge, either in terms of air pollution, reduction of traffic on the Ambassador Bridge, or potential future uses of the old Ambassador Bridge once Moroun finally gets his way and gets a new span built. But one thing is for certain– demand for bike infrastructure is increasing at the same time that even the auto industry is shifting away from internal combustion vehicles. Examples include GM’s shocker that it will introduce a bazillion electric cars by 2023, or diesel engine heavyweight Cummins, which announced an all-electric semi under development for sale starting in 2019.

Posted in Cycling, Detroit, Michigan, Ontario, Public transit, Transit infrastructure, Urban Planning, Walking, Windsor | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will Jeff Bezos Be The Next Billionaire to “save” Detroit?

The water cooler topic du jour in Detroit is the grumbling about why Amazon won’t move here because the region lacks adequate public transportation infrastructure, one of the primary demands of the online retailer in its site selection criteria. For this I blame Macomb County, Heimat of the Reagan Democrats, for this, as I do for most things, following the spectacular failure of an admittedly imperfect regional transit proposal that made it to the ballot last fall. This isn’t stopping the city from cobbling something together, though, and this has demanded all hands on deck, as I was reminded in recently trying to schedule a meeting with a department head in the city administration who had to postpone for a whole month because everyone was going balls to the wall on Amazon.

The New York Times described Detroit as a “sentimental” pick and instead suggested Denver, not an unreasonable suggestion as it is growing, isn’t clogged with obscene amounts of traffic, is still reasonably affordable, and has a burgeoning tech scene with smart people and skilled workers.

Now Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, who cuts a somewhat tepid public persona juxtaposed against the chummy and unapologetic suit filled by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, is trying to get on board with the idea of an international hub. I say “tepid” because for all of our problems here in the D, Dilkens has, against all planning logic and advice, turned his efforts toward creating more parking spaces downtown, which is really going to save the that mixture of shwarma shops and strip clubs that comprise downtown Windsor.

Detroit-Windsor is a huge trade portal, with Matty Moroun’s Ambassador Bridge serving about a quarter of all US-Canada trade (!), so it makes sense to consider the international aspect of the headquarters project– especially considering the possibility of expanding the access to the Canadian consumer market. Canadians always complain to me about how their consumer choice is severely limited on products ranging from Chobani to phone chargers, and specifically frequently complain about online shopping, since shipping to Canada from the United States often involves an arcane and expensive series of fees.

That plus the fact that the Quebec-Windsor corridor has 18 million people in it, with a third of those in the Greater Toronto area and over a million between Windsor-Essex and London.

I actually don’t have a major budget to produce a pretty video. I don’t think anyone should be home to the second Amazon HQ, unless we can all sign onto some sort of compact that says that we’re not going to give them a dime of taxpayer money. Eric Greitens, douchenozzle supreme governor of Missouri, proposed building an untested, unproven, and yet non-existent space-age transportation network between Kansas City and St. Louis via Columbia. “Why not build them a goddamn Stargate, while we’re at it?” Daniel Hill of the Riverfront Times asks.

Hell, Gary is even going for it. Similar to Detroit’s bid, Gary admitted to the far-fetched notion of their hosting HQ2, but, they say, “‘far-fetched’ is what we do in America. It was far-fetched for 13 scrawny American colonies to succeed against the might of the British Empire. Far-fetched to land a man on the moon. Far-fetched for a business selling books out of a garage to succeed in business and philanthropy.” (Realistically, Gary has a better shot than plenty of places. It offers low costs, plus its own grossly underutilized international airport that really fucking needs to start competing with too-big-to-fail O’Hare, a giant rail yard, and intermodal connections out the wazoo).

Amazon’s biodomes at the company’s multi-billion dollar downtown Seattle campus, but with a little bit less Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin.

There are plenty of problems with this, as Alex Baca noted in a recent article castigating the Corporate Urbanism in America’s Heartland, and it’s been well-studied (and well-examined) that these mega-deals may indeed never pan out for how much they cost in subsidy. We’ve noted in Detroit that the Pistons opener was poorly attended in a new billion dollar stadium whose construction– but not exorbitant ticket prices- was heavily subsidized by hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, but to the Gores, the Ilitches, and the Gilberts who pushed for the “public-private” (N.B.: “taxpayer subsidy”) deal, the money was “necessary.”

So, yes– Jeff Bezos will not be the savior of Detroit, just as Dan Gilbert isn’t the savior of Detroit, just as Michael Kelly isn’t the savior of Detroit, just as Mike Ilitch isn’t the savior of Detroit, et cetera. But Detroit’s a cool town, and, if it wouldn’t actually cost an arm and a leg and would result in actual, real-life, real-city transit options and an aggressive effort to build new housing and even maybe some affordable housing, God forbid (I want four-story mixed-use, zero lot-line buildings the whole way from I-96 to downtown along Grand River, gol-darnit!), I would take it. Heck, I might even be able to get me a real job!

I did, however, dig around to see what kinds of space we could use for the project:


Amazon says they need eight million square feet. That’s pretty larger than, say the Pentagon or the Willis (née Sears) Tower. Fortunately for us, we’re Detroit, so there are plenty of abandoned warehouses, which often have adjacent vacant spaces that are prime for redevelopment.

In the neighborhood that is, pending the advent of a cold-pressed organic juice bar, eventually going to be known as SoMiJo, for South of Milwaukee Junction, the iconic, abandoned Fisher Body plant. The abandoned plant is top center and the adjacent lots are highlighted in orange.

The multi-million square foot Packard Plant is perfect, or, if that site doesn’t allow sufficient space for additional new construction, there’s always Fisher Body Plant #21, one of the most iconic abandoned factories that can easily be seen from I-75 (probably about half a million square feet plus about 70k s.f. along Piquette, an adjacent 144k s.f. block ), or the 1928 Grand Trunk Cold Storage warehouse, which offers a roughly 50,000 square foot floor plate times about ten floors, or the let’s-be-real-it’s-probably-a-brownfield vacant sites adjacent and across the street, which is just over nine acres between the mostly-defunct Roby St. and St. Aubin.

The Detroit Port building, which is really large and really, really vacant.

Highlighted major vacant space adjacent to and part of the Port of Detroit, which occupies 80 acres of riverfront. “There’s a whole harvest of vacancy under our feet! Nobody can get at it except for me!” – Daniel Day Lewis, in the film There Will Be Blight, probably

The 1925 Detroit Harbor Terminal— which offers about 750,000 square feet over ten floors plus a couple of adjacent buildings, warehouses, and well over a million square feet of immediately adjacent vacant land ranging from completely vacant to grossly underutilized. These are the largest and most iconic ones, but there are many, many more. At even weak floor area ratios (NB: Lots of Surface Parking!), these comprise tens of millions of square feet of potential.

Of MCM’s 376,000 properties surveyed, almost a full third are vacant lots. At an average of 4,000 square feet per residential lot (it’s usually just under a tenth of an acre), that’s a full 10,000 acres of space for potential development (with plenty left over for green space).


Don’t get me wrong– Amazon is an enormously problematic company. They’ve been accused of poor labor practices at their distribution facilities in the United States and the UK, a toxic culture at their corporate headquarters, they continue to lobby for a combination of reasonable and nefarious goals ranging from FAA-deregulated delivery drones to massive government procurement contracts, and I frankly don’t believe that a billionaire who runs a company that continues to demonstrate aggressive and even potentially illegal anticompetitive practices really has anyone’s best interests in mind other than his own.

But if it has to go anywhere, and if it can be done without a broke city writing a blank check to a major corporation, there is plenty of vacant land and vacant space in this town that I think we could do with seeing redeveloped.

Of course, that last bit– writing a blank check to a major corporation- is sort of the dealbreaker for me, and I don’t mean to add it in as an aside. This is certainly more of a thought experiment in wondering whether it’s possible to have a city not subsidize a bazillion dollar company, get beyond the era of “corporate urbanism,” as Alex Baca has called it, and actually start building equitable cities based on their attractiveness for investment rather than how much public subsidy they dole out. Rather than desperately chasing billion-dollar companies around like fanatical supplicants of a cult, we need some sort of compact to sign onto that says, “pick us– but we’re not going to pay for it.”

Posted in Cities & Urban Planning, Detroit, Investment, Michigan, Missouri, Real Estate | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DX’s EDIT Festival in Toronto

On a last-minute weekend trip to Toronto with a friend, I accidentally happened upon the EDIT Festival. Billing itself as the Festival of the Future and produced by the Toronto Design Exchange museum in conjunction with the United Nations Development Programme, EDIT offered exhibits, speakers, and workshops, spread across six floors of a vacant, 150,000 square foot former soap factory east of downtown Toronto.

We toured a net-zero, modular Passive House designed by a collaborative team from Ryerson University and the Endeavour Centre, which boasted 18 pounds of construction waste– mostly, docents told us, styrofoam packing.

The high thermal mass of the reinforced concrete structure kept the inside cool even on an uncharacteristically sticky hot October day, and we were able to tour an impressive array of design projects. Bruce Mau produced the first floor exhibit, comprising an expansive series of novel infographics addressing everything from the polarization of partisan voting to visualizations of corporate carbon footprint reduction covered floor-to-ceiling displays on the first floor, with stark, black-and-white humanitarian images filling the versos (by Paolo Pellegrin). Design projects ranged from the highly practical (a giant machine designed to capture and process plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean) to the design-topheavy (a ring made of compressed air pollution particles that are collected in a novel filtration machine).

I remembered ExtraSchicht in the Ruhr, which populated vacant spaces around the industrial region of western Germany for a celebration of industry and culture, and thought about the giant factory building being demolished down the street from me at Trumbull and Grand River here in Detroit, since it seems we would rather erase than reimagine. DX president and CEO, Shauna Levy, chose this location specifically as “the kind of site that wouldn’t carry any preconceived baggage about who belongs and who doesn’t,” according to the Globe and Mail.

We’ve got some abandoned factories in Detroit. Maybe we can use them for something other than black tie events for rich people?

Posted in Art & Design, Cities & Urban Planning, Poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Expanded Affordability Ordinance Passes in Detroit

This morning I attended a public hearing for a proposed city ordinance that would require any development project receiving public subsidy to include expanded affordability requirements. The ordinance passed, and the city will also create and fund a housing trust fund to be used for the creation of affordable housing.

Multifamily developers in Detroit currently operate informally under the 80/20 rule in Councilmember Mary Sheffield‘s original incarnation of the ordinance (which provides for 80% area median income “affordability” standards for 20% of the units) and have lobbied against efforts to promote increased affordability in Detroit as values in the urban core have risen to “insane” levels in the past two years, pricing out longtime residents. Alongside the ongoing crisis of expropriation resulting from tax foreclosures, decades of bad tax assessment policy, and water bills, rising real estate prices are bringing the “G” word to the fore.


Proponents of expanding the 80/20 standard observe that the AMI requirements are for the entire Detroit metro area, which has a household income about three times that of the city proper– we are, outside of the People’s Republic of Gilbertistan and various and sundry neighborhoods, a poor city. So, realistically, 100% AMI for the city itself would be about 30% AMI for the metro, which sounds to a funder or developer like super low-income housing. Of course, 80% AMI still sounds pretty exorbitant in a city where wages are stagnant and car insurance costs as much as a house— Fortune highlighted Chase Bank’s ongoing investment in the Motor City and toured an “affordable” unit to be rented for $944 per month.

Proponent, community advocate Aaron Handelsman, who pushed for the ordinance with the Detroit People’s Platform, offered a critique that “developers they are speaking as though is a building issue, a profit issue, a market issue, but affordable housing is a people issue.” It is a profit issue to some degree, but it’s definitely erroneously painted as a fundamental limitation on profit. In addition to the plethora of resources out there for developers working with LIHTC or CDFI dollars, the market for affordable units is always strong. As I’m looking for an apartment, I’ve noticed that the units close to $2 per square foot remain open for weeks, while apartments at $1.25 a foot or less are leased out within days– simple supply and demand, and the market is getting saturated at the higher end.


Affordability requirements may reduce margins by reducing cash flows, but it also should go without saying that this is an excellent opportunity to consider tradeoffs for increased affordability alongside increased density.

Density bonuses are a tried-and-true way to gain developer buy-in. It’s pretty simple math– you balance a less profitable unit with increasing the number of more profitable ones. I realize that I am in the minority of people in Detroit that wants to see neighborhoods that boast 15,000 or 30,000 people per square mile (like, Chicago or New York or Philly densities), but this is a great opportunity to explore that discussion.

Especially in areas where it is easy to satisfy lots and lots of demand at the crazy high price point, like Corktown, it is easy to imagine upzoning or densifying to create affordability. As I observed in my examination of the Tiger Stadium site redevelopment, a full half of the frontage along Michigan Avenue remains pretty much undeveloped– parking lots and set back buildings. I posed the question of what it would look to pack the entire area between Michigan and the freeway with apartments within the B4-zoned area at a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 2.00:

“…this would work out to about 1,607 new units. Fortunately, the byzantine B4 classification, which allows pretty much anything and covers most of the district, permits FAR of up to 2.00 (even if it has preposterous setback requirements)– so let’s go up to 2.00, which brings us to 2,570 apartments… At the conservative FAR = 1.25 and no variances required under the B4 classification […] we would increase Corktown’s population by 135%. Is Detroit ready for the resulting 20,000 people per square mile who would at that point occupy the 0.08 sq. mi. space between I-75 and Michigan Avenue?”

If the city offered a 15% density bonus to include affordable housing, that wouldn’t even require rocket science (or LIHTC, really) to squeeze some bucks out of any dense project. I’m optimistic about what has been accomplished today.

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Detroit Park City, No. 2: West Larned (2/52)

Any effort to address the Motor City’s glut of surface parking might well start, ironically, downtown.

At the risk of becoming a broken record, I’ve often tried to explore the economic and geographic realities that negate the oft-repeated tropes of “Downtown: It’s Coming Back!” or, as a young man at the Shinola store told me the other day, “Now, with the QLINE, you don’t need to own a car anymore!” Downtown’s population density is low, Midtown’s population density is low, and inner ring midcentury suburbs Eastpointe (formerly East Detroit before they rebranded in 1992), Harper Woods, Lincoln Park, and St. Clair Shores have a higher population density than both. (I know- yada, yada, yada, density something something.)

We’ve got an Apple advertisement that occupies the side of a parking garage! Quelle progrés!

Looking south from Congress, representing an uninterrupted, 270′ (82.3m) run to the next street.

In particular, the corner of Shelby and Larned stands out as a crater of parking in the center of a canyon of buildings. I thus bring you Detroit Park City No. 2.


In my first post, I spent some time thinking about one particular assumption of Donald Shoup about the monetary value of a parking space: While average car prices have been climbing in recent years, the actual value of the average car that is parking in the average parking space may often be, Shoup suggests, less than the cost of the parking space itself. This is going to be more financially problematic than in my previous post about the Mexican Village lots, where prices are stable and rapidly increasing, but density is still quite a bit lower. Downtown, prices are high, so there is no such thing as a free parking-lunch.

A particularly large, but nonetheless single, parking space in New York City, for example, made headlines after it was offered for sale in a new luxury condo building for– wait for it- $1 million. (If a bank would allow you to tack that onto a loan, that’d add about $4,000-4,500 a month for your mortgage P&I, so, get a second full-time professional job to pay for the parking space.)

Since New York breaks all rules, as the self-described center of the cosmos around which all of us aspirationally orbit, how to actually quantify the value of parking in, well, real places? From an appraisal standpoint, the easiest way would be to compare comparable sales or appraisals of two identical units, one with parking and one without. Outside of the frankly rare opportunity to compare two units that, aside from parking, are identical, Detroit demonstrates that the notion of appraisals, which should theoretically mirror market value because they ostensibly justify financeability, are kind of bogus because they do not at all equate to market value. But, in the rare event that you could find identical units, you could definitely answer this question (for one limited “comparable”).

PARDUCCI NATION (slash Epitome Lounge).

On the other hand, this value model doesn’t work in aggregate or for large lots serving as event parking rather than, say, apartment parking, so maybe we can look at revenue-generating potential. It’s difficult to develop something like a cash flow estimate for something with such a heavily-tiered structure whose tiering is dependent upon somewhat unpredictable demand, and whose ownership is tightly controlled (and therefore whose information is also tightly controlled). If pricing isn’t real-time, how do the owners determine demand?

Ted Anglyn from Parking Today (yes, that’s a real thing) explains:

“For a parking structure income analysis, an appraiser has to forecast the revenue to be generated by the facility, the likely supply/demand (occupancy), the cost to operate the property, and how the market will convert that property’s income stream into a supportable value indication.”

Sounds sufficiently vague, Ted! The likely supply/demand? Anglyn continues:

“Most appraisers will request three years’ operating statements, the profit-and-loss summary for the current year, copies of lease contracts, lists of parking rates, a budget and a capital improvement summary. The appraiser also will need to survey market conditions to support revenue and expenses.”

So, essentially, someone built on someone else’s lessons as far as how much money they knew they could make, and they came up with… (drum roll)… a six-tiered pricing system. This kind of pricing scheme is rare in business. Markets for most mass-produced goods are well-defined based on labor inputs and demand, and it is generally fairly easy to approximate the market value of, say, durable goods, or everyday consumable products– whether water heaters or bags of chips. Airline price discrimination, for example, exists, but it is opaque– you never really know when or why your price went from $467 on Monday morning to $643 Monday afternoon.

(The owners of record for these lots did not respond to a request for comment.)


This intersection features three parking lots over five lots which are all privately owned, interestingly, by separate owners. Are the lots leased to a common parking operator? Two appear to be operated by the same owner. Based on photographic records I looked at, these sites have been without buildings since the mid-1960’s or earlier but were likely (at some point) occupied, so it stands to reason that the foundation upon which the pricing model I referred to in Anglyn’s quote above has been well-developed over decades. Parking lots designed for high-demand areas with rigid 9-5 commuters often allow for increased efficiency, because operators can park cars tighter (think– no “in-out” privileges because it’s not spatially possible). The theoretical spatial maximum of this site (square footage divided by 162 square feet) would yield 271 spots, not much more than the 239 I counted, so, nearly double the efficiency of the Mexican Village lots. I can’t really call this “optimization” so much as I can call it “smooshing cars in since the operator knows that the driver will only be coming out to claim the car at, say, 5-6pm, but it is notable.

“Yeah, so, nuts to these cool old buildings, let’s just build a bunch of parking lots.” (2 Woodward at Jefferson, looking northwest, in 1966. The edge of our site is visible at the extreme top left of the picture).

While not only betraying an understanding of these parking lots as proud monuments to strained stormwater infrastructure, the surroundings bear some glorious architectural gems. The Banker’s Trust Building at the southwest corner of Shelby and Congress, built in 1925 and designed by Wirt Rowland (with Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, the great-grandfather firm of SmithGroupJJR), has variously hosted a bank (shocking, I know), various office tenants, and even a McDonald’s, once upon a time. The building, sold at auction in 2015, currently hosts a venue, Epitome Lounge, that could be perhaps aptly described as “da club.” A façade designed by then-25-year old Corrado Parducci, an Italian architect and Robin to Wirt Rowland’s Batman, remains largely intact. Though at that time firmly chillin’ in the Beaux-Arts style, Parducci would in the next few years go on to design the Art Deco masterpieces of the Penobscot Building (1928), the Guardian (1929), and the Theodore J. Levin U.S. Courthouse (1934), sometimes even merging the styles in a tremendous, Beaux-Arts-Deco Mashup, all within a couple of blocks of this location, west of Woodward Avenue and South of Michigan Avenue.


As the average height of high-rise buildings in the surrounding block is 17-18 stories,  I proposed roughly matching these building heights if not pushing that density higher. As we’re getting fairly tall there, that allows us some more room to play around with what we need to meet some general parking requirements, whatever they are: I’ve proposed building an underground parking garage that actually goes under the street, occupying the majority of both lots. Rare is it that a development project will come along allowing full, ground-up development of two parcels of downtown real estate, so, let’s go the whole hog.

Densifying a real estate development project is, of course, a no-brainer (within reason). Your land acquisition costs are the same regardless of whether the finished product will be a strip mall or a skyscraper (illustration below). This may be a “duh” moment, but it’s not surprising that single-story homes dominate low land value areas (the distant burbs, or, much of Detroit), while the highest density areas are often the highest-priced. (Exceptions are few but notable– a handful of extremely wealthy suburbs in most major metropolitan areas, and much of the Bay Area, which, in the spirit of traditional Californian paradox, has crazily low density and crazily high demand, borne of the suburban Silicon Valley ethos.)

Residential construction techniques for a building that is one to maybe four stories will all generally be the same and, in these parts, rely on stick framing, while higher-rises will invariably switch to steel (steel, so, why Arthur Jemison claimed Dan Gilbert could readily be exempted from the 20% affordable guidelines for his Hudson’s Site redevelopment project and so it was totally cool for him to charge $3 a square foot for residential). By the time you’ve made that leap, there is some added cost, so, you know, the sky is the limit.

Taller only begins to generate problems at very large heights, when 1) structural sway begins to require large and expensive mass dampers, 2) elevators begin to take up more and more space and become more expensive, and 3) the large massing of the structure begins to create daylighting  and viewshed problems (see “New York, Back In The Day, And Why Massing Setbacks Were Invented”). Also, even though tall buildings are castigated by many urbanists (Vancouverism, or, say, Torontoism), high-rise construction is clearly viable from a market standpoint.


Larned East – Some sort of apartment building, employing a playful design aesthetic that combines large sections of glazing with staggered, brightly-colored panels between glazing panels.

Larned West – Another sort of apartment building. This one, per the illustration, has some ugly rainscreen or cladding going on– the high-rise equivalent of a McMansion. (I’m just being pragmatic here– ugly buildings get built!)

Congress St. – This is the smallest of the buildings, so, maybe a mixed-use building or maybe retail space. I wanted something that would fit with the massing of the bank building on the corner while not continuing to crowd what is already a very high-density street. Even though it’s north-facing, fitting with the massing of the bank building would allow for some sort

The author may have mentioned that he did not go to school to learn how to design buildings but did play a lot of SimTower and things.


I designed (NB: “SketchUp”) a parking garage and figured that, accounting for stairwells, ramps at either end with entrances on Larned, and– the major coup- building the parking garage partially under Larned and Shelby streets, we should be able to achieve about a 60% spatial efficiency, enough, with three underground stories, to park up to 601 cars.

I’ve considered the cost of building a street on top of the finished product as negligible because the entire thing would have to have a “roof” of structural concrete built on it anyway given these cost estimates.

Current scheme: 15 spaces (street) + 224 spaces (lots) = 239 spaces

Required by zoning, and preserving existing spaces: 993 spaces

Proposed scheme: 13 spaces (Street) + 601 spaces (underground) = 614 spaces

So, while we’re gaining 375 parking spaces, we are also adding 602 apartments. The site also has a large, several-story garage directly to the east (I estimated at maybe 400-450 spaces based on the number of stories and the footprint), and numerous other parking garages within a stone’s throw, serving the Cobo Center and the Joe Louis Arena.

Let’s just imagine that not everyone in that building is going to own a car, but I have to keep These People placated, given the divine mandate of plentiful parking in Southeast Michigan. I would argue that the sportsball fans who want to come downtown and demand plentiful surface parking will probably be outvoted by the folks who will pay for the market rate rentals in these buildings.

Orange (sites slated for redevelopment) and green (parking garage underneath the streets). Note how the cars are so tightly smooshed– without which they wouldn’t have been able to achieve a circa 88% spatial efficiency.


The assessment data suggest that the five lots are taxed steeply at a rate of over $200,000 per year, which either works out to a data inaccuracy, a special tax exemption, or a highly profitable parking operator. I’ve landed on the last one: Each parking space would have to make $900.58 per year to break even with the cost of taxes and drainage, so, $3.46 in profit per workday. Assuming the $12-per-day “rate in effect,” that’s totally doable. If they consistently maintain 50% occupancy for exclusively weekdays, that’s three times the tax bill and then some. If visitor parkers paid $12 a day, special events parkers paid as much as a few times that rate, and subscription parkers got a discount, even at a 50% occupancy for 250 days, you’re bringing in some serious cash money.

A 601-space, secure parking garage wouldn’t need to necessarily compete with those price points, whether for tenants or commuters– but it might even be able to. Interest and principal on an underground parking space ($25,000) would cost $224.71 a month at a 7.00% rate at 15 years– $12 per weekday for a month would yield $259.99 a month. It’s still profitable, and now we have a pair of giant buildings atop it.

Sticking with my original pricing methodologies, the three buildings would be estimated to cost the following:

Larned East – $46.047m; 302 residential units and 15,500 square feet of commercial.

Larned West – $42.411m; 278 units, 14,280 square feet of commercial.

Congress St. – $4.384m; 22 residential units, 7,500 square feet of commercial .

Parking garage: $15.025m; 601 spaces.

Assuming the new (=landvalue) tax assessment comes in exactly at project cost, this would add $2.309m new tax revenue to the city coffers per annum, enough to hire:

-62 new cops

-41 new schoolteachers, or

-17 “Innovation Specialists,” highly-trained technocrats with masters degrees from the University of Michigan.

If we assume that the old parking operators would want to operate this garage, we’d work with an easy number of $25,000 to add to the cost of each housing unit if that housing unit wanted a parking space. To compare the cost of financing parking as part of housing, my previous figure of $224.71 per month for a parking space would actually be reduced to $119.35 a month at 4% interest on a 30-year mortgage.


Operations of paid lots might actually be really profitable. But what’s far more profitable is developing those parking lots into potentially very profitable parking garages underground and building tall buildings over them. Or, you know, skip the parking and just keep the tall buildings.

Stay tuned for more!

Posted in Cities & Urban Planning, Density, Housing, Mixed-use, Parking, Real Estate, Residential, Urban development, Urban Planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


This week, I am riding RAGBRAI, Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, after talking about doing it for the better part of a decade. The 430 mile adventure travels from Orange City in the far northwest of the state to Lansing on the Mississippi River, with 20,000 riders and innumerable alcoholic beverages.

I’m traveling with an architect co-conspirator from Detroit along with Team Pilderwasser, founded by fellow Grinnell College alumnus Mark Pilder.

I will thus be a bit behind in posting for Detroit Park City, but I promise to resume these when I return!

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