Detroit Park City

Detroit Park City is a design study focusing on parking and land use in the city of Detroit by proposing infill projects for specific sites.

At a design level, the objective of the study is to bring attention to the extraordinary amount of space in Detroit dedicated to parking, and illustrate the high opportunity cost that comes with dedicating such a large amount of space to a use far less productive than revenue-generating real estate. Part of this objective is to suggest alternatives to automotive transport in a city still heavily reliant upon it, even when that reliance has failed the city macroeconomically (disinvestment and loss of jobs from the volatility and transitions of a monolithic industrial sector), microeconomically (businesses and families heavily dependent upon very expensive cars), and environmentally (Detroit has horrific air pollution, in no small part from car traffic).

At a practical level, the objective is to produce a costing model to understand a bit more about the efficiency frontier of density. In Detroit, we often face a lack of nice things that would be afforded by density– the city is too spread out and as a result, certain amenities cannot be supported. How dense does development need to include things like, say, underground parking?

Aside from density, design tenets include increasing overall lot permeability (thinking about long-term sustainability and urban resiliency at large, reducing stormwater runoff that would be otherwise caused by hardscaped parking surfaces and will not only flood basements but also cost money with the GLWA/DWSD’s new drainage charge) while also building as densely as realistically possible. Developments will at a minimum include Detroit’s 20% affordable unit criterium (affordability defined by HUD’s 80% area median income). I will also explore cost options to build underground or above-ground parking.

Questions being asked: What used to be on the site, if we can find out? What did the neighborhood used to look like before the dark times, before the Empire (where “dark times” may literally refer to the low-albedo asphalt as well as the hegemony of the parking space)?


My first post proposes general cost ranges for how much it costs, based on a number of studies and comparisons, to build parking spaces (surface, above-ground structures, and below-ground structures). Economies of scale help enormously for surface lots, but land value is often difficult to factor in.


In order to ensure uniformity across these design studies, I had to define what made a “normal” apartment in addition to what made a normal parking space. The average apartment size has been shrinking in recent years, which I’d attribute to the process of urban densification after the 2008 market crash (people want smaller spaces and real estate developers can squeeze more units into less space, guiding the market). While studio apartments took the biggest ten-year hit at an 18% decrease to a cozy 504 square feet (rapidly approaching, or even snugly situated, in “micro” apartment territory), the average size is a comfortable 934 square feet. (Puzzingly, and this is perhaps a question for another day, the average home size has in the meanwhiles been increasing from about 1,500 square feet in 1975 to over 2,500 in 2013).

The below “model” unit (whose envelope is sort of irrelevant until the final design comes together) is pretty average based on these shrinking apartment trends, including 872 square feet of living space, three closets and a space allocated for mechanicals (if an unimaginative contractor can’t figure out how to design common systems for the whole building or small, high-efficiency systems based on those well-insulated, foot-thick exterior walls). I’m going to use this as an average based on the above data given that some apartments will be smaller and some will be larger.

Cost was difficult to estimate, too. A range of $130-180 for multi-family new construction is still too large of a range. Thinking about higher-end performance construction, Maine-based GOLogic, a manufacturer of prefab Passive House components, can get its per square foot price down to $227, while the original pilot GOHome actually cost under $150 per square foot.

Commercial soft costs may run 6-12% as a general rule of thumb. But as a well-trained budget hawk who has spent his career trying to make math work in the Rust Belt, where math doesn’t work, I’ve noticed that there is a Grand Canyon of disparity between dollars spent on 2×4’s and nails and profit going here or there: Factoring in a 40% net to the environmental engineers, a 40% margin to the HVAC contractor, a 15% net to the GC, etc., you can easily see how a $125,000 budget realistically comprises, say, 30-40% soft costs. (Obviously this decreases in commercial construction, but that 6-12% is misleadingly small, because it excludes the margins within margins of contractors and subcontractors.)

Careful management alongside integrative and stringent design allows for reduction of some of this bloat. So, I’ve settled on total costs of $165 a foot, which accounts for reduction of some soft costs but also doesn’t put us at the lowest end of the range, and accounts for actually following building code, which most contractors in Michigan do not.


The study, which originally aimed to produce one entry per week before I scaled that goal back because the city’s data files sometimes mysteriously disappear for weeks at a time and also #life, is currently examining the following sites (intersections or more precise location in parentheses):

No. 1: Mexican Village (Bagley Ave. & 18th St., Corktown, Detroit), July, 2017

No. 2: Downtown Detroit (Larned & Shelby St.), August, 2017

No. 3: West Village (Kercheval & Van Dyke), coming fall 2017

No. 4: Gillitchville (Grand River & Columbia), coming fall 2017

No. 5: Corktown (Rosa Parks and Dalzelle), coming fall 2017

These will be posted in the blog and will then be linked here, and the additional sites will be added over time.

It should be noted that this is purely an academic design exercise and neither the author(s) nor Handbuilt City are working on behalf of any for-profit entity in the production of this project, nor with or on behalf of any public or nonprofit agency.


Chrest, Anthony, et al. Parking Structures: Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance, and Repair. 2001.

Long, Charles. Finance for Real Estate Development. Washington: Urban Land Institute, 2011.

Shoup, Donald. The High Cost of Free Parking. APA Planners Press, 2005.

Speck, Jeff. Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. North Point Press, 2012.

Suchman, Diane R. and Margaret B. Sowell. Developing Infill Housing in Inner-City Neighborhoods: Opportunities & Strategies. Washington: Urban Land Institute, 1997