Detroit Park City No. 6 – Eastern Parket District

Detroit’s Eastern Market checks all of the boxes. Art spaces, artsy murals, loft apartments, and even the occasional slaughterhouse.

Market districts are kind of a fun thing. The idea is that instead of having a single building dedicated to a market, you have an entire neighborhood. In a single building, one runs the risk of losing what I’ll call the “primary food production” element of the commercial mix. If rents rise, a market can become bougified. This can push out smaller businesses, say, a mom-and-pop butcher, in favor of what I call “secondary food production,” a.k.a. a business owned by suburban college graduates who live in a McMansion and sell organic wheat grass made in a suburban commercial kitchen. You know, Macron’s Macarons, or something. $6 each– but honey, they’re USDA certified organic! 

The mega-lot at the southern end of the district.

In comparison, a district can be managed to include and preserve a mixture of uses focusing on one specific one. Historically, this was a matter of economic clusters being built around specific background infrastructure or competencies. Manhattan typified this in days of yore: think “meatpacking district” or “garment district.”

DISTRICT MANAGEMENT

Having a nonprofit or quasi-non-governmental organization to help guide development can help maintain the primary food production focus and can also encourage new business growth while managing some semblance of equitable or pluralistic economic development.

In contrast to, say, the Soulard Market in St. Louis (since roughly 1779), which operates solely as a market but enjoys proximal related businesses, or, in my hometown, the Lancaster Central Market (1730), the idea of a “market district” is not new. But clever management of it is important. Nonprofit organization Strip District Neighbors in Pittsburgh does this for the eponymous market district along the Allegheny River. But this district only developed into the food/market economy relatively recently in its roughly two century life. Detroit’s Eastern Market has been operating in its present location for about 130 years, when the city’s major market function relocated from an increasingly crowded downtown, and the past half century has seen the growth of an expansive economic cluster around food production.

Near the now-vacant Busy Bee Hardware store, a perennially understocked store owned by old-timers from Deep Macomb who retired when they sold the business to some folks I used to do some work for.

Locally, Detroit’s Eastern Market Corporation exists to guide development activities and support business growth in the district. A recently released implementation plan highlights future plans for the district including infill and revisions to how parking is managed. As the district thrives overall, one is left with the impression of effective guidance and management by EMC. Exceptions might include allowing the bungled management by suburban rich kid Sanford Nelson as he jacks up rents and expropriates long-time tenants, like the iconic Russell Street Deli, whose soups, sandwiches, and breakfast plates were renowned throughout the land. But, overall, the Eastern Market, as long as I’ve been hanging out in Detroit, remains a diverse, vibrant, and thriving mini-conomy.

It remains, however, unfortunately addicted to the automobile. Though this may be changing, the district is heavily dominated by surface parking.

There are five principal parkingscapes in the district that serve customers and businesses alike. Virtually all of the parking is free. There is also a parking structure. (By odd coincidence, the parking structure is, eerily, nearly identical in dimensions to the parking lot serving the Eastern Market offices).

Like the Post Office lots, these lots do not pay taxes because they are publicly owned. They do, however, pay drainage fees. The drainage fee, maligned as a “rain tax,” is being phased in over several years to fund stormwater infrastructure improvements in an aging system. It has not been popular, though it is crucial to disincentivize the development of land into parking– and, rather, incentivize its development into productive uses.

David Tobar, ASLA, President of Eastern Market Development Corporation, suggested that there was a strong possibility that the city would implement paid street parking in the near future. He did not indicate that the off-street lots would become paid parking, but rather that it was likely that the city would begin metering street parking in order to better regulate what has been used and abused as a (heavily subsidized) public good.

“You’ve got 200 food businesses that employ thousands [of workers], and they may park in front of a retail area because it’s close to work,” he said, “but there’s no incentive to move their car after a few hours. That impacts retailers.”

He noted, in agreement with what I learned from APTA in Tampa, that retailers who are reliant on foot traffic are far more likely to be in favor of paid parking in front of their business because turnover of spaces is good for bringing in prospective customers. The Shoup has also noted this in Parking and the City, as the idea of regulating parking spaces as a perishable commodity rather than a public good allows more of us to get what we want as far as mobility in general, and parking spaces, more specifically.

Tobar did not know of any conversations around connectivity with DDOT’s nearby bus route (Gratiot). A representative of the city’s urban design team working on the project said that transit connectivity would likely be revisited in future iterations of the plan, especially as part of considerations of denser residential development. One notes that Gratiot is less than 1/4 of a mile walk from the southernmost Shed at the market, putting the market well within the walkshed of the bus line. It is nearly a half mile from Wilkins St., on which our largest parking lots sit, to Gratiot.

The implementation plan calls for residential development along the Dequindre Cut and Gratiot, but no residential infill on the interior of the market, unless you’re counting the pink category (vertical addition to historic building), which would allow for beaucoup residential units.

THE SITES

With the exception of one parcel that is county-owned, the rest are city-owned. The parcels are a bit of a patchwork, though, because the boundaries don’t exactly correspond with a street grid that has changed over time. Along with the non-taxable nature of the city-owned parcels, this makes the sites unsuitable for apples-to-apples comparisons.

South lot: 2440 Russell (99 spaces on the southern lot and an additional 175 throughout the rest of the market area on this same lot, separate from the office lot (below).

Eastern Market office lot: 2934 Russell (about 140 spaces). 

Northeast lot: 3101 Orleans, 3085 Orleans, and 1580 Wilkins (about 500 spaces– a whole city block).

Northwest lot: 3033 Russell (about 180 spaces).

Parking structure: 2727 Riopelle. This has about 300 parking spaces.

So, the entirety of Eastern Market’s central lots that are publicly owned and operated ostensibly for the benefit of marketgoers occupies about 16 acres and includes about 1400 off-street parking spaces, to say nothing of street parking spaces.

Because none of this land is taxed, the parking lots effectively amount to a massively publicly subsidized resource. Tobar confirmed that Eastern Market Corporation was paying drainage fees as part of its water bill assessments, which, based on my calculations, will come up to a cool $12,000 per month by the time the drainage fee is fully phased in. That’s a chunk of change. But Tobar notes that new development has the opportunity to incorporate pervious surfaces and water-retentive plantings that could substantially reduce this fee.

TRADEOFF ILLUSTRATION

1400 parking spaces, then, represents the equivalent of about 799 apartments built one story tall. Or 2,038 units built three stories tall. That represents somewhere in the vicinity of $8-40 million per year in rental revenue, depending on how you’re calculating. In other words, that’s tens of millions of dollars of economic product that the city is missing out on, instead having this land occupied by parking.

We should at least expect the Market to recoup the cost of drainage. This means that each parking space has to provide $102.85 in net revenue per year. That’s not much money. Napkin math: ($0.25/hour) * (3 hrs. / day) * 365 = $273.75 per year. At $2 per hour, that’s $2190 per space per year. Should taxpayers be annoyed that Eastern Market is forgoing $3.07 million per year by subsidizing that amount in free parking?

I mean, I certainly think so.

Parking pricing should be set– possibly dynamically- to ensure that, even in high demand times, drivers can find parking, but so as to maximize occupancy of paid parking. In other words, you don’t want there to be too many empty spaces, but you want there to be some spaces available at any given time. Eastern Market parking is always pretty easy to find. Making parking harder to find is a good way to incentivize alternative modes of transport. Like, I don’t know. Maybe one of the multiple bus lines that go there.

The pink areas, mostly surface parking lots, represent enough area to build about 1500 housing units (3-story building with a combined total of over half a million square feet of first floor retail). The southernmost lot is perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit for development as it is closest to the Gratiot transit Corridor. At 0.88 acres, it represents the opportunity to build hundreds of thousands of square feet of space.

THE PROJECT

First, refer back to the implementation report. Infill is mentioned. Parking is also mentioned. What is not mentioned, interestingly, is transit connectivity. The Gratiot bus line is one of the most trafficked transit routes in the state of Michigan and is only two blocks south of the southernmost parking lot. But it mysteriously has evaded mention in the entire planning document. A representative of the urban design team working on this project said that he imagined that mention of transit connectivity would be included in future reports, but referred questions to the city’s mobility office, which had not responded to a request for comment as of the time of this article’s publication.

We have a whole collection of lots to work with, so I don’t need to think about every space. The image below is a proposed design for the southernmost lot. We’ve noticed again that I’m not an architect. But, indeed, this design turns 99 spaces into a hundred some apartments.

A 0.88 acre parking lot thus becomes a 190,000 square foot building with 170 apartments. Unfortunately, given current parking requirements, this building would then require its own parking lot that would be more than two acres (see below). Recall the post office example, where it became fairly clear that building so densely without addressing parking minimums would make development unfeasible unless one wanted to pave over, quite literally, the entire riverfront.

Interesting will be to see how fast development can tap into the implementation plan’s proposal to build above existing structures. This is not the type of adaptive reuse that typically happens in postindustrial Midwestern settings. But it could add a ton of housing to a neighborhood that utterly lacks it beyond a handful of lofts.

A building of this configuration– first floor retail with a few stories on top- would require a two-acre parking lot under current ordinances.

Not to mention that it’d be a great excuse to replace the leaky roof of my favorite antique store. Disirregardless, as it were, more density within an important transit corridor wouldn’t necessarily strain Eastern Market’s parking demand. It just needs to be priced correctly. At present, priced around the affordable zero dollars, that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about their reliance on their automobile.

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Alleys: The Back Road To Sustainable Development

Take a stroll down an alley in Detroit and it’s apparent that these spaces are among the city’s most neglected. Even though my block, for example, only has four or five vacant housing units– a low percentage in a city whose highest density neighborhoods sometimes have double digit vacancy rates- the alley is just pretty gross. Trash is strewn about, agéd concrete spits aggregate at passersby, and weeds grow through cracks of pavement not touched since the age of Coleman The Greater. But alleys might be the back road to the kind of sustainable development that the city needs.

On a morning walk last fall, I marveled at just how overgrown the alley actually was. Dew glistened on leaves that hung low enough to touch the old bricks, invariably hand-laid more than a century ago. Invasive vines climbed chain link fences and grappled with native grasses and flowers in a veritable rainbow of ecology. I felt as though I had stumbled into Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reachthis fecund, alternate universe of sparkly things, nature reclaiming the city.

In this case, an alley could encompass the good, the bad, the ugly– and the opportunity for meaningful synthesis. It comprises the built environment by connecting houses and the walls that enclose their yards. It hosts public infrastructure– as a roadway, but also, usually, some sort of underground infrastructure- sewer lines in Detroit’s case.

It also can host green space.

Wild, I know. So, I started thinking about some ways we could address this. There’s been a lot of lip service paid to the idea of a green alley, which was implemented, to my knowledge, exactly twice– at the Green Garage in Midtown and between 2nd and Cass. Model D media charitably painted the issue as a revolution of sorts. But I don’t think a one-off, or two-off, solution counts as a revolution until it’s effectively scaled.

This article is about charting a path toward that scale.

I. ALLEY AS GREEN-BLUE INFRASTRUCTURE

Let’s first look at this question of general dilapidation and grossness. Trash pickup is easy and cheap. People usually litter either because 1) they’re just bad people, or 2) because they’re in part low-key bad people but, more significantly, are ultimately able to rationalize it with the fact that the space is already gross and broken, so, who cares? People are wont to continue to trash spaces that are already trashed.

What’s more expensive than picking up trash? Digging an entire alleyway up and rebuilding it from scratch. But not rocket science, certainly.

I used as an example my back alley because it’s what I know, but because it also evidences a number of design problems that will accompany most alley redesigns. Some lots have rear frontage. Some have cinder block walls with footings that may be intact or completely to’ up. We are lucky to have a hideous, though largely intact, cinder block wall. Neighbors have everything ranging from ratty old chain link fences (our front yard) to stately ones with powder-coated steel bars.

So, this diversity of borders makes pervious paving a bit trickier, but the principal costs here are really just digging up concrete and bringing in a shit ton of gravel. Various grades of gravel, too! My experimental and, I’m proud to say, thus far successful, backyard stormwater retention area swallowed up a few cubic yards of broken concrete as a base. And then six cubic yards of gravel. Finally, we then needed another cubic yard of marble chips on top of that. Except in one rainstorm that dumped about 30 mils of rain in less than a day, we have not gotten a drop of water in the basement. And even that was a serious improvement over what it had been before– that is, standing water in the basement any time there was more than a drizzle.

There are plenty of unresolved design questions, of course.

The author’s backyard drainage pit. Large “pavers” provide stepping stones across the “pond,” which is a roughly four-foot deep trench that can theoretically hold thousands of gallons of rainwater. The idea is to reduce infiltration of water in the basement and therefore ambient moisture and humidity, reduce ambient summer temperature, and create a native habitat restoration that can be home to all manner of plants and wingéd creatures.

DRAINAGE

My stormwater retention installation doesn’t have a drain in it. If it ever fills up, I’m screwed. But I’m also confident that it won’t ever fill up, because it’s designed to hold something like a four-inch rainfall. Is a drain absolutely necessary? Water moves with a terribly minimal grade (thanks, gravity!). This is how virtually all municipal sewer systems work. And essentially why western civilization was able to advance by way of urban growth in the first place, right?

A schematic of the author’s first stormwater retention area, which is essentially a large pit filled with gravel. The layers include 1) woven, impervious geotextile on a layer of clay soil, 2) a layer of broken (waste) concrete to hold down the geotex, which continues up the fairly steeply sloped sides of the pit, 3) washed pebbles (about 3/8″ to 1/2″ diameter), and 4) a top layer of crushed marble. The edges of the geotextile are sort of tucked into the dirt and staked down to hold them in place, and native tallgrasses with strong root systems have been planted on both sides of the pit to mitigate erosion.

The problem with *not* having a drain is that a torrential rainfall will pool toward the lower-graded end of the pervious installation. An alley-sized installation would necessarily require a drain. But engineers often over-engineer systems, evidenced in the cases in which a street can be designed to drain surface water quite well, but very few cities have really cracked the code of expansive GSI built into the urban fabric itself. In other words, the idea of using the built environment to manage the retention, rather than the expulsion, of stormwater is fairly new– but our ability to move beyond simply smooshing a mixture of hot rocks and oil into an older mixture of hot rocks and oil has been limited by a lack of engineering creativity.

DURABILITY

Most of the looser pervious paving stones (like the “grass grate stones,” which have their own word in German, ‘Rasengittersteine,’ because of course they do) I’ve seen don’t look great after several years. Even the best so-called interlocking blocks separate from each other through freeze-thaw. Anecdotally, I’ve heard– though I have yet to see much evidence of this- that the biggest remedy to this is the ability to dig deeper to allow better settling of precipitation before it freezes.

There’s no single standard for depth, though. There are different kinds of aggregate (the fancy name for “pebbles”). Many sources will say “a minimum of 8” with a hand-waving vagueness. When I spoke to folks from Unilock, they told me that I should plan on 19″ of depth for parkable space. 19″ deep isn’t spatially feasible with the skinny driveways of Detroit’s 1920’s neighborhoods, which were designed with the narrow Model T in mind. The Model T was only 56″ wide, while the Ford F250 Super Duty is about 80″.

Wear would be further antagonized by traffic from Detroit’s unrelenting love for ultra-heavy vehicles. As the F150 is the state animal of Michigan, sparkling white Cadillac Escalades are the flagship vehicle of southwest Detroit, and the neighborhood also features a wealth of stinky, semi truck traffic from the Moroun Clan and many more industrial interests around the neighborhood, any prospective permeable installations in Southwest Detroit have a lot of auto-traffic-related wear to look forward to.  I’m hoping that someone has thought about this. Intuitively, tighter masonry installations with less pervious joints drain less water more slowly. But, as mentioned before, it’s as much about what’s underneath, not just what’s on top. Fortunately, semis don’t travel through alleys very often. But one would also think that they don’t drive down residential streets– and yet.

The State Animal of Michigan occupies a 12′ section of alley in this model. There are 2′ buffers on either side, because it’s somewhat unclear to me without looking at a plat map where the property lines end, but this makes for an elegant border with bricks. Aggregate of various sizes goes down a few feet, and the sewer line is somewhere underneath all of this. The idea is that an alley would form a large stormwater retention basin for the length of the block and could channel runoff or overflow from drains in back yards.

I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on GSI. There’s been a lot of good stuff written, most of it recent, and most of it easily accessible online. In the course of writing this article, I found some great documentation from Wake County, North Carolina, Delaware‘s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and a wealth of information from manufacturers of paving products eager to get the word out about whatever new thing they’ve developed. Interestingly, permeable is not a new idea, but it’s a relatively new development in how we manage the built environment, so the market is expansive, fragmented, and evolving.

The City of Detroit’s DWSD has been notoriously difficult to pin down on the subject, and neither the city of Detroit nor the DWSD media department responded to multiple requests for information for this article. But they’re allegedly working on it.

I hope to highlight more stories about GSI. For me, I admit that much of the appeal is getting past the idea that the best way to build roads is to quite literally smoosh a hot mixture of tar and rocks into the ground.

Another potential design for grass-grate stone installation, which involves various layers. I’ve never worked with these, so I’m not really sure how they work, but I’ve seen them installed poorly a number of times, probably because of an insufficiently deep bed of aggregate.

II. ALLEY AS PRIME REAL ESTATE

The second part of the alley conversation is about considering its liminal real estate. A few years ago, when I was managing a housing development program in Northwest Detroit, I came up with a plan to create Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) as part of an idea of broadly boosting a local market. ADU’s are also known as “in-law suites” or the more pleasantly iambic “granny flats.”

The genesis of the idea was fairly simple. We had been discussing whether it would be worth it to rebuild aging garages. The major challenge of the program was not accessibility of capital but rather what we called the “appraisal gap.” Appraisers, tepid on housing markets in the hood after in the mid 2000’s sanctioning six figure loans to houses that ended up selling for $345 as tax foreclosures, were not playing ball. (This is why the Detroit Home Mortgage was invented– and continues its valiant crusade at an albeit testudine pace).

Irrespective of Detroiters obsession with cars, imbued by decades of underdeveloped public transit, garages add value from an appraisal standpoint. But why not add a standalone housing unit as part of the garage? It would create value for homeowners as a rental unit or in-law suite. It would create density, foot traffic, occupancy. Neighbors look out for each other, more neighbors are better at looking out for more neighbors. This neighborhood was bounded by a street notorious for gang violence in the 90’s and 2000’s, but retained a lot of awesome housing stock. Our objective was to try and make the math more equitable for new and old Detroiters who frankly deserved better housing– and better capital structures behind it.

What about the zoning approval?” I was asked. I was a cocky young man. I reasoned that if they could give Dan Gilbert billions of dollars, they could let a broke housing developer get away with adding a couple of brand new apartment units. It was perhaps less cocky than pragmatic.

Unsurprisingly, the bankers did not buy it. It would admittedly have been a bit of a moonshot, given that we were already struggling with Detroit’s preposterous, so-called appraisal gap– between assessed value and development cost. It would have been a stretch from a financial standpoint to take an $80,000 renovation that did not include a garage to, say, $150,000, to include a garage and an ADU. Of course, bureaucratic bloat and delays ended up adding nearly that much cost after the bank decided to fire the original builders and hire a new team, which threw out the rule book, painted everything grey, and replaced the historic 1920’s solid wood veneered doors with new hollow-core doors. Management lesson: Create and manage ironclad construction scopes from the get-go. And don’t let bankers run the show. But I digress.

III. MERGING HOUSING + INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENT

Beyond this fanciful idea of ADU’s, old Detroit neighborhoods suffered from disinvested infrastructure. Alleys were full of garbage and streets flooded, mostly from clogged storm drains. Basements flooded on the regular. The average home was getting visible moisture from any major rainfall event (let’s say an inch or more), and I would say that having the better part of an inch of standing water in any basement was an annual occurrence.

If we had to dig up and redo a driveway, what if we could redo it with pervious paving?

To make a long story short, it didn’t happen. Too expensive, blah blah blah. But the case was instructive in understanding how we can better think about ways to approach issues that are multifaceted– with multifaceted solutions.

The ADU should be a key development goal for neighborhoods with modest but stable values. In Southwest Detroit, demand for housing is through the roof, no pun intended. When I worked at Southwest Solutions, we routinely had an effective occupancy rate of 100%. If you counted units that needed some basic updates or repairs before they could be occupied, that number was still in the upper 90’s. This was mostly in the “naturally occurring affordable housing” space, or NOAH. The “naturally occurring” is subject to some debate, but it refers to housing that has been made affordable by virtue of depreciation over time rather than by LIHTC or some other financing mechanism. It is relatively unleveraged and is usually older, given that new housing is built with sky-high labor costs, because capitalism. A newer term considered more accurate is CUBA, or “Currently Unsubsidized, But Affordable.”

I’ve often lamented that Detroit’s market is bifurcated into, on the one hand, NOAH in the $300-500 range that is typically barely livable if not flat-out illegal, and, on the other, an ugly loft apartment for $1500 a month with granite countertops and a $187 dishwasher. The Frigidaire Slumlord Special– although a quick peek at Home Despot’s website will indicate that tariffs have driven up prices egregiously in the past couple of years.

But with the advent of the Tiny House era, promoting a challenge to consumer culture and its drive toward ever more McMansionous living, we are afforded some novel ideas about how to think about smaller, more manageable models of space. To be clear, I think Tiny House is kind of a stupid thing. I don’t think it’s going to stick around. But it raises some very interesting ideas about the question of how to finance and build more affordably.

When some random woman you went to high school with, who studied accounting, is instagramming her Tiny House that she is building with her charming but dull looking boyfriend in their backyard, without formal construction skills beyond YouTube credit hours, that’s intriguing– from an academic standpoint, if nothing else. When they’re doing it without the multiple layers of financing and soft costs that invariably accompany a “real” home construction project, that’s downright… inspirational. This must lead us to better conversations about what is between the 2,700 square foot McMansion built by D.R. Horton and the 115 square foot Tiny House that would almost certainly result in mutual mariticide.

IV. EQUITY, COST, AND MAINTENANCE 

One of my favorite non-things of the Duggan Administration is the reviled, so-called “rain tax” scandal. The drainage charge, as it is formally known, charges a monthly parcel-assessed stormwater fee based on area of impervious surfaces. During my brief tenure at BSEED, I met an eccentric junkyard slumlord who lived in the suburbs and owned several acres of property in the city. He bragged about being a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city for the so-called “rain tax.” Their bill went from $100 a month to several thousand dollars a month. Let’s look at that for a minute. $100 a month in sewerage charges for about nine acres of all impervious property.

At any level, it’s obviously messed up to imagine this stark, night-and-day shift.
But there is so much land in Southwest Detroit. I intend to eventually demonstrate that the drainage assessments are wildly inaccurate and not equitably distributed. (After a FOIA request, the Water Department’s head counsel told me that I’m not the first person to try and investigate this issue, nor will I be the first person to fail to demonstrate any malfeasance. I countered that if that were true, they’d make their records publicly accessible. She wanted to charge me hundreds of dollars to access records.)

Opponents of pervious installations say that they’re too expensive and require maintenance. But what else requires maintenance? Basements flooding. Yards flooding. Streets flooding and becoming impassable. Repeated freeze-thaw catastrophically damages hardscaping.

Wouldn’t it be preferable to have maintenance-required surfaces that hold up for a longer period of time? Instead of roads that require repaving every couple of years?

Equity, ever a big part of the conversation du jour, has come to represent an apparently nebulous descriptor of residents’ possible access or benefits from a project like GSI implementation. Residents don’t own the GSI, but would directly benefit from its installation. GSI would lower the externalized cost of flooding from combined sewer overflow or otherwise heavy rainfall. Maintenance seems like a relatively small price to pay for a cleaner, greener, less flood-prone neighborhood.

A city block with an area of just a hair over three acres. As built, this has 24 dwelling units (pink) and one orange garage (possibly an ADU). 8 dwelling units per acre (considering area as gross lot area as opposed to also including street area) is considered pretty low density.

ADU’s take this “equity” question into firmly financial territory, because people then own a physical building that generates revenue. In cases of Southwest Detroit, where the average garage is a ramshackle, centenarian shed, lenders or equity providers could easily help provide access to affordable capital to build new ones.

If we go by my Detroit Park City estimates, we can essentially think of a $165 per square foot cost as creating a new, small apartment unit above a 1-3 car garage for $60,000-80,000. It might be possible to include a couple of apartment units. If we assume a tax freeze, rents at $500 per month ($1 per square foot on the low end) would work out to a net operating income of about 20% for the homeowner. New housing units, better quality alleys, and we all go home happy.

In this case, we’ve doubled the density by adding an additional dwelling unit to each lot– 24 units (8 d.u./ac.) to 48 units (16 d.u./ac.).

IMPLEMENTATION GOALS

One of my goals in 2020 is to formalize this “GSI+ADU” framework into a toolkit that can be used in Southwest Detroit. The relative density, diversity of uses, diversity of citizens, and broad base of community organizations working in the neighborhood make this the time and the place to do it.

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RTA: Intercity Bus Service between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Coming To A Southeast Michigan Near You

Often discussed in conversations about regional transit expansion in Southeast Michigan is the idea of a high-speed rail connection between Ann Arbor and Detroit. At face value, it seems like a slam dunk: Ann Arbor has over 120,000 residents and Detroit roughly 650,000, and there’s a large amount of movement between the two. Both cities have major employers– including ones that draw from a huge commuter base.

But, as a nonprofit transit advocate pointed out to me recently, costs for rail are staggeringly high. The cost of a rail connection between the two cities could eat up much of the yet-hypothetical RTA millage revenues. That is, unless these funds were further leveraged by, say, grants from a federal administration that has been pretty hostile to transit. So, meanwhile, the RTA yesterday held two hearings about a pilot program for fast, frequent, commuter bus service between the two cities. RTA hopes that this can demonstrate strong commuter demand in building the case for transit expansion.

“BUSES! BUT WE WANTED A TRAIN!”

Indeed. A bit of background may be useful. The “rail vs. bus” debate is a lively one in urbanist circles. Advocates of bus rapid transit, or BRT, argue that BRT is cheaper to build and operate than rail. Advocates of light rail transit, or LRT, say that, well, trains are just better! In the cases of poorly executed streetcars, this comes out as an obvious and egregious fallacy. Look at the Loop Trolley in St. Louis, a heritage streetcar that duplicates transit routes and is shutting down after about, you know, 45 minutes of operation. He built it, and they didn’t come.

The QLINE isn’t much different. B0th the QLINE and the Loop Trolley in St. Louis were, in no small part, pet projects of rich people who refused to heed professional planning advice– are we noticing a trend here?

In contrast, the most-ridden light rail systems in the United States, beyond the ancient and honorable ones (like San Francisco), include newer systems like Seattle’s Red Line / Central Link (3rd highest ridership, opened 2009), Minneapolis-St. Paul (4th, opened 2004) and Kansas City (8th, opened 2016, and has made headlines recently because it’s free, and free transit is gaining traction as a vehicle for infrastructure investment and congestion mitigation).

IT CAN HAPPEN HERE– RIGHT?

Personally, I love trains. I grew up around trains– Amtrak, SEPTA, and NJ Transit, and, later, the Acela. Another point for trains for me: I am heavily susceptible to motion sickness, which, for whatever reason, affects me sometimes on buses and almost always while riding in cars, but not while riding on trains or planes or while driving, weirdly enough. I recall the unique East Warren bus’ scent of latent pot smoke and uncombusted diesel exhaust perfuming the cabin of the bus on a subzero day in February.

But I digress.

Advocates of rail development often argue that rail might cost as little as $1-2 million per mile. Compare that with the cost of New York City’s notorious Second Avenue line, which is coming in at around $2.5 billion per mile. CityLab looked at costs across a number of cities and found prices not lower than $170 million per mile to build even freeway median rail. This sounds high until you realize that widening a freeway costs a comparable amount. Advocates of highways similarly claim speciously low numbers that are at odds with the realistic costs of highway construction or expansion.

What drives the costs? According to the New York Times, which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the MTA case, quite a bit. For highways, land acquisition costs are outrageously high. Utility monopolies have a history of not playing nicely with others when it comes to reworking infrastructure. Class I railroads don’t play nicely with anyone.

From a more functional perspective, though, and one more local to home, cash-strapped governments can’t invest in things unless they have an ironclad guarantee of a revenue stream. We do not build monumental things anymore in the United States, because governments don’t have money or credit capacity. Thanks, austerity.

Traffic got you down? Just Build More Lanes! This image represents the traffic that could be carried by a couple of buses. (Robert Zsombori)

BUS TIME, IN THE MEAN TIME

So, while we may one day enjoy rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor, we now have a proposed bus. And as proposed, it would have buses every half hour leaving Ann Arbor (Blake Transit Center) and Detroit (Grand Circus Park was proposed, though many attendees suggested CAYMC or Rosa Parks Transit Center as an alternative) from around 6am to 11pm on weekdays and 9:45am until 11pm on weekends. The objective is a nonstop trip leaving every 15m that can compete with cars for speed and can be dynamically routed based on traffic. RTA plans to offer $2 discount per ticket for advance reservations but said fares could be bought on board as well, and will offer discounts for multiple trip tickets. Buses would feature all modern amenities like wi-fi, usb charging ports, and would be wheelchair accessible.

Nithin Vejendla, with whom I participate in the Detroiters for Parking Reform group, mentioned that this service would overlap with existing services. Success, then, seems wholly dependent upon being able to corner this market by providing better, more affordable service than competitors. Honestly, it’d probably be most effective to get rid of the U of M connector at that point. Duplicating service is never a good way to bolster access, though the big point that this service seems to miss is the airport connection. (The University of Michigan has not responded to a request for comment and declined to participate in the transit and mobility survey that I completed previously).

Attendees of the public hearing yesterday raised questions about the cost and the costing methodology. RTA dubiously included Uber fare in their calculation– but did not include the cost of driving that distance. The roughly 84-mile round trip is about $9.61 at 24.9mpg average and $2.85 per gallon of gasoline. Greyhound, RTA says, costs $12, the U of M Connector bus costs $6, and Amtrak $21.

So, I’m not really sure that $10 (after the advance purchase) is outrageous, given that car ownership costs an estimated average of $27 per day. But, as the transiterati pointed out on Twitter, high fares are not a good way to get high ridership numbers. It’s a strange catch-22, and one we have to at some point confront head-on if we’re serious about addressing congestion and affordability of transportation.

So. Can the RTA’s plan work?

The DDOT Vernor bus picks up in downtown Detroit (December 2019).

NUTS AND BOLTS

Let’s look at some traffic figures. I’ll get more into these in other articles, but there’s a great map from MDOT that shows traffic counts from all over the state. I took two of the most heavily trafficked points, according to this map, between Detroit and Ann Arbor on the east-west routes that carry most of the commuter traffic. For the uninitiated, Detroit and Ann Arbor are connected via I-94 on the south, which goes by the airport, the hulking, former Adoba Ecotel, the giant Uniroyal tire, and more, and by I-96 and M-14 on the north, which passes through Michigan’s second-finest strip mall suburb (after Warren) before connecting to the city’s West Side. M-14 is the “scenic” route, going through largely undeveloped woodland on the approach to the Arbz (and I-96 is sunken for much of the journey between I-275 and downtown Detroit), while I-94 is elevated and bordered by signs for motels and car dealerships.

Per MDOT, traffic numbers are as follows:

I-94, just east of Ypsilanti: 107,512 vehicles per day (AADT)

M-14, just west of I-275 in Plymouth; 108,389 vehicles per day (AADT)

With the disclaimer that I’m not a traffic engineer, I’m taking an educated guess that there is little to no overlap between traffic on these two segments because they are more or less parallel and therefore duplicative routes. In other words, I don’t think I’m double-counting any travelers through these two segments. That totals 215,901 cars per day.

Suppose one could shift just 2% of these travelers to a rail or bus alternative going the whole way between Detroit and Ann Arbor. That’s 4,318 passengers per day. At $12 per day, that’s $51,816. I’m unclear on costing methodologies, so I can’t speculate about farebox recovery ratio (how much of each dollar comes back to the transit agency from the fares). But that’s a lot of bucks.

Holy modeshare, Batman.

Two of the most heavily trafficked segments on M-14/I-96 (Plymouth, in the North) and I-94 (Ypsilanti, in the south) between Ann Arbor and Detroit. (Oh, you’ve also noticed that I’m not a graphic designer?)

THE TRAFFIC IS YOU! 

Following my favorite adage, every percentage point of cars represents more than two thousand cars that are not on the roads. I don’t even need to get onto my soapbox about clean air and carbon footprint– that’s a huge impact.

But success will be wholly dependent upon the RTA’s ability to rally support from employers with a large number of commuters as well as institutions like the University of Michigan. And it is still unclear what the funding looks like.

After that, maybe we could revisit a high speed rail link– perhaps with a separate connection to the airport. Best guess, this would cost somewhere in the vicinity of $6-10 billion. That doesn’t exactly pencil out if you’re going for affordable fares of $10 per trip– so it becomes a question of not just replacing single trips but rather eliminating the need for car ownership. At that point, we’re not talking about $10 per trip in revenue, we’re talking about saving $10,000 per person per year for car ownership.

As the multibillion dollar boondoggles of the I-75 and I-94 “modernization” prove, there’s plenty of money to be spent– it’s just a matter of allocating it to the important things.

I think we all agreed that, ongoing discussions of fare aside, this is the right step forward for a much-needed transit connection.

(Comments and clarifications were requested from Amtrak, the RTA, and the University of Michigan for some additional details on this story, but responses had not been received as of the time of publication. This story will be updated accordingly).

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Only In New York: Capital Mistakes in Density

In the past ten years, even the most idealistic planner has become inured to the rampant densification of already jam-packed areas in cities like New York. It’s been the trend du jour– nay, du décennie, even- to knock down even fully occupied, profitable, and serviceable buildings– and build slightly taller ones in their stead. I was reminded of this in a recent post by Jason Thorne on LinkedIn about JPMorgan Chase’s new building at 270 Park Avenue. Curbed New York made a map of these, which are mostly in Midtown Manhattan.

This sort of thing doesn’t really happen in other cities, of course– only in New York, people!

It may well be the undoing of their market, though I doubt most people are too worried. It’s a matter of economic efficiency or lack thereof.

Chase argued that this location was the only possible location given that other markets didn’t support the project. Whatever that even means. Stranger still to those of us in comparatively underdeveloped Midwestern markets is how zoning essentially becomes a layer cake in which the upper layers are accessible to those who want to dole out the big bucks to buy things like air rights, as came up in this project. YIMBY proponents of supertall structures is that they cram more graham per square foot, because density and floor-area-ratio are the only factor to ever consider, and cost is irrelevant, right?

Does it make financial sense? How much does supertall cost? Some napkin math here.

111 W. 57th St. comes out to about $3,100 per square foot.

225 W. 57th St., the Nordstrom Tower, replaced a couple of pretty, older buildings of far lower density, but still more than a few stories tall. About $2,334 per square foot.

1 Vanderbilt: $1,891 per square foot. A bargain! This replaced a bunch of historic buildings that were in the 6-12 story range near Grand Central Station. Denser? Yes. But a net positive gain for the economy? That Amazon speculation was able to drive up prices in the comparatively far-flung Long Island City, across the East River, one might think that it might make sense to diversify from the jam-packed enclave of Midtown. (People certainly will during the next recession.)

It’s hard to imagine exactly what it’d look like to be able to spend $3,000 per square foot on construction. Meanwhile, in markets where money goes literally ten times farther, we’re stuck wondering how we can so much as get access to that kind of capital. At least as far as transnational corporations and their capital are concerned, dollars spent in New York City mean dollars that have to come from somewhere else. And if Chase Bank is spending that money, it means that’s money they’re not investing in something else.

My Wharton friends would say something to the effect of, “wElL iF tHeY hAvE tHe mOnEy tHeN wHo cArEs?” Clearly, this is an oversimplification. It’s not just a matter of having the money. It is– or at least should be- a matter of return on investment. Companies investing in New York at a price of $3,000 per square foot are far less likely to see that money come back to them. Even the highest price office real estate is renting for, what, $30, $50, or more per square foot? Do the math.

This becomes a problem when publicly traded corporations are building these supertall skyscrapers at enormous cost, much of it in land acquisition in a complex and large real estate bubble, no less, while other markets struggle with the ability to access capital for profitable ends. Budgeting your project based on a 50 or 100-year lease seems like a pretty ass-backwards profit model for a company whose obligation is to its shareholders. (While the same argument has been used against investment in sustainability praxis, there is heavier irony in how profitable plenty of sustainability products are). In Detroit, Chase, among others, have actively restricted the amount of capital being lent for things like  real estate development.

We’ve seen this all over, of course.

But in a market where sometimes land is worth literally nothing in the “free” market, it’s even more of a testament to why affordable housing developers have a greater opportunity to build better, build denser, build greener on these sites, as a way of redeveloping areas that have been decimated by population loss– but still enjoy close proximity to well-developed infrastructure, being in a city.

I will never fail to understand how YIMBY’s continue to defend this sort of extreme densification as opposed to setting their sights on far lower hanging fruits– like, say, densifying the areas of even places like New York City that remain super low density. Ain’t y’all been to Staten fricking Island? Queens? How about the suburbs that extend endlessly in perpetual, twinned states of stagnation, congestion, and low density? Come on, people.

A skyscraper under construction. (CCL)

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AI Fail

AI’s a funny thing. I was shopping for some stock images, and I happened upon an illustration of cutaway a window frame. Double-glazed, no less! “You might also enjoy,” the site said, and showed me a picture of… a plate of churros.

What is this magic?

Is it because the churros have a ridged profile, like the window frame?

I know energy savings are tasty, but cinnamon sugar on fried dough…

We may never know.

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What About Rochester: Toward More Geographical Diversity in a New Year

One of the missions for Handbuilt is to get people to think outside the box. I got into this “career” field accidentally because I was curious about why things were done a certain way– badly, in my opinion- and it took me a long time and a lot of dumb mistakes to understand how to do things better.

In Handbuilt’s inaugural entry, which hasn’t aged entirely well, I alluded to the need to fight against what I’ve since termed coastal chauvinism— the drive toward the Coasts and that everything is great in the far east or the far west. We think of economy purely in terms of statistics, resources, and capital, but it’s also about perception. Manifest Destiny wasn’t just about homesteading in the (genocide-adjacent) pursuit of a better life by white settlers. It was also about the perception of there being better than here.

Contrary to Frederick Jackson Turner, if you’ll indulge me for going full Midwestern academic, the frontier was not closed when white settlers reached the West Coast. The frontier mentality never ended. If we deconstruct the Turner thesis, we can come up with the more modern maxim that The Real Frontier Is Within!

On the way back to Detroit after Christmas, we stopped in Rochester, New York, a noble, winter citadel of Great Lakes gloom. Rochester evades those lists of cities that have suffered a spectacular collapse– and rebirth, perhaps- as well as lists of those cities that are considered top tier by virtue of how enormous their economies are. You aren’t reading ruin porn about Rochester or Syracuse or Buffalo every week in the New York Times. In contrast, the Times seems obsessed with Detroit. (Rochester has lost about 1/3 of its 1950 peak population. While it appears stable enough from outward appearances, its skyline doesn’t exactly host dozens of cranes).

(Rochester, New York; December 2019).

(Rochester, New York; December 2019).

When I was graduating college, everyone was moving to New York, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, Seattle, or, within the greater Midwest, Minneapolis or Chicago. No one was moving to St. Louis (2010 for me). No one was moving to Gary (started working there in 2012, though I didn’t officially live there). No one was moving to Detroit (my 2015).

But now, as I celebrate my fifth year in the Motor City (in less than two weeks), it’s interesting to trace the path of discourse surrounding this death and life of great American urbanist discourses.

It’s easy to pick out the success stories because everyone wants to move to those cities. Chicago! Austin! New York City! And, of course, San Francisco! Even Oakland, Berkeley! And, surely, those nameless, endless Bay Area suburbs that no one can afford to live in but mysteriously have millions of residents. L.A. is hardly any different, although California’s struggle with blue state blues these days seems to be alluding to the need for a more sustainable, less car-driven built environment. I’m hoping to cover some success stories of this when I visit in February.

Upstate New York has got some good’uns. Buffalo, home to the ur-wing. Rochester. Syracuse. There are also oodles of dense and small towns that may even attain national fame through things like schools or art scenes– think Hudson or Troy. Ohio has not only Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, but also Toledo, Youngstown, and Dayton. Ohio has many strong small towns, but none quite as dense as eastern ones. Pennsylvania has Allentown, Reading, or my native Lancaster.

New Jersey has a number of cities oft-overlooked in the trendiest discourse of urban reinvention, interesting in part because they are usually far denser than cities in other parts of the country. Paterson is more than three times denser than Detroit and is 50% denser than Hamtramck, the densest city in Michigan. Elizabeth is similarly twice as dense as Detroit. Jersey City and Newark have collectively lost “only” a quarter million people in the past 90 years, but appear to be on a population rebound (thanks to spillover from unaffordable New York City).

Both cities have more than double the density of Detroit.

(Rochester, New York; December 2019).

(Rochester, New York; December 2019).

So, one of my main goals in 2019 is to highlight some more of these places that evade the most mainstream urbanist discourse. I met a lot of great people at APTA in Tampa last month. Florida’s success stories of growth and sprawl, as I alluded to, are perilously close in many areas to becoming narratives of decline. It’s important to recognize value where value exists and be able to tell many stories, not just sound the trumpets of Detroit’s vaunted rebirth or whatever the hell is happening in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

The iconic Midwestern courthouse square, a symbolic and architectural symbol of state power,  is one I’d love to look at in narratives of urban redevelopment. Who’s doing what in these places and how do we promote their stories alongside those of the hackneyed, tired tropes of “how bad things are here,” or “how great things are there“?

I’m hoping that my network can bring me more of these stories, but I’m certainly looking for many of them in 2020.

A fun little courtyard between some adaptively reused industrial buildings. (Rochester, New York; December 2019).

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Day 1: Happy 2020!

I hope everyone had a grand old New Year’s Eve. I did, and I hope you, like me, are looking forward to getting this darn ballot measure passed to bring prosperity to our people– one day in the distant future. A week back on the East Coast was a refreshing reminder of the things that are possible through infrastructure. Done with this austerity nonsense. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get some work done, people!

(This post is part of a series on transit and mobility in Southeast Michigan).

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2019 in review: books

Wrapping up this year, I figured I’d make a list of all of the books I read in both fiction and nonfiction. I try to periodically take a break from reading about things like parking lots to read books about, you know, dragons or whatever. But a balance is quite useful.

Nonfiction:

City of Quartz (Mike Davis) – ★★★★★ – A bleak, yet magically captivating narrative about the past, present, and future of Los Angeles. Davis engages an interdisciplinary approach to reading history through a Marxist lens, examining the city’s history of neoliberal paradoxes, its shining Meccas of capitalist success, and its downtrodden, warrens of depravity, and how they all came to be. The “interdisciplinary” approach is a matter of analyzing not only power and money but also, specifically, the use of land in the process of building a city and its wealthy. Think Howard Zinn’s People’s History but focused on urban planning in L.A.

Parking and the City (Donald Shoup) – ★★★★★ – I mean, duh. Still haven’t finished this one, either, but I’m well on my way and hope to finish before my trip to LA in February, along with City of Quartz and a few other books on the illustrious history and future of America’s favorite dystopian metropolis.

Fentanyl, Inc. (Ben Westhoff) – ★★★★ 1/2 –  I’m working on a piece about this, so I won’t give away too much, but Westhoff has done it again! He chronicles the rise of novel psychoactive substances, or NPS, and examines how dangerous it is for drugs like fentanyl to exist in completely unregulated states. He also tracks it back to the source– usually from China these days- and proposes some solutions to how we might address the burgeoning opioid crisis.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyou) – ★★★★★ – Carreyou’s book isn’t quite as much of a wild ride as Bethany McLean’s chronicle of Enron, but it’s a good read. His chronicle of the spectacular rise and fall of Theranos is as much investigative journalism as it is a profile of the company’s crazypants CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. An impressive story of how one woman and her right-hand man and lover, Sunny Balwani, duped some of the most famous names in the United States into investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a company that couldn’t actually do a whole lot right. Pair with the documentary!

The Burnout Generation (Anne Helen Petersen) – ★★ – This was a quick read from my Audible freebies list. It wasn’t terribly memorable. I find it also pretty sloppy when books attempt to critique work culture without critiquing capitalism. At least adopt some Andrew Yang-esque, centrist, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too, corporatist centrism. Next!

Thick (Tressie McMillan Cottom) – ★★★★★ – Cottom’s book, chronicling her experiences as a writer, an academic, a mother, and, generally, a black woman in an increasingly less white society, manages to cover the full range of human emotions, moving from being coolly insightful to hilarious to heartwrenchingly tragic. I particularly enjoy the sense of humor and cool introspection that she maintains when writing about even those most difficult subjects. In comparison to other leading black intellectuals who shape not only black intellectual discourse but, increasingly, American discourse as a whole, Cottom is neither a neoliberal nor, perhaps, an “Afro-pessimist” (Ta-Nehisi Coates has been called both). Rather, she is wholly immersed in discussions of blackness and oppression while recognizing the importance of contradictions, Marxist dialectics, and critical interpretations of multiple true narratives. In other words, Cottom is not myopically preoccupied with the idea of blackness, but rather focused on the connectivity between blackness, perception, social rules and convention, oppression, and, hopefully, progress. Thick is really a must-read.

Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap (Ben Westhoff) – ★★★★★ – I’ve never been a huge fan of gangsta rap, but Westhoff’s history of its origins is a fascinating one. Westhoff traces the rise of rap as a cultural phenomenon and also digs deep into the individual histories of the artist who made the genre. I’ve always said that I enjoy many of the corollary stories and events more than a lot of the actual music in the nascent genre of gangsta rap– as well as the products of it. I’ve always been more of a fan of, say, Belle and Sebastian than of the Smiths, but you can hear the influence of the latter in the music of the former, and the same is true with a lot of hip hop that derived lessons from early NWA which, on its own, honestly has not aged well, along with a lot of other early rap. Original Gangstas is at times as much about L.A. as it is about the music itself and the community that begat it. It’s also an expansive story– a must-read.

The Smartest Guys In The Room (Bethany McLean) – ★★★★★ – The epic chronicle of the rise and fall of Enron. A spectacular tale! 

Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) – ★★★★★ – Gladwell is very popular. I started reading him in high school but it took me a long time to get back into his newer stuff. This book is a good read for anyone, really, but it deals with human behavior, learning and cognitive processes, behavioral economics and how people make decisions. This was super useful when complementing Carreyou’s book on Theranos and other readings on behavioral economics.

Knocking The Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics (Lester K. Spence) – ★★★★★ – Spence’s book critiques popular ideas about respectability politics among black Americans and the idea that black Americans must simply “hustle harder” in order to succeed against historical structures of racism and oppression. Spence instead adopts a more fundamental, Marxist critique that castigates not only neoliberal institutions in American society but also blacks who embrace them. He looks at examples throughout the American economy including banking, jails, policing, and incarceration, as well as churches and schools. Spence is not riding a high horse when he issues critiques of the likes of Tavis Smiley, Cornell West, Barack Obama, or even going back to America’s O.G. black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois– but rather seeking a deeper truth in the form of critical and structural resolution of what he views as an intellectually deficient discourse in black America. A short book but a dense read.

Lands of Lost Borders (Kate Harris) – ★★★★ – I heard Kate Harris interviewed on CBC Radio 1 Windsor and was pretty floored– about the narrative of a pair of young women who rode their bikes across the largest continent in the world along perhaps the oldest historical trade route in the world. It’s a great piece of travel writing, but sometimes frustrating in Harris’ seeming unwillingness to connect the dots, either in her own experience as a repeat-dropout of haute academia, or in the places she visits. Seems like there are some stories that could be told as part of this that aren’t, but it’s ultimately an enjoyable read of a truly incredible sequence of places and people.

My Years with General Motors (Alfred P. Sloan) – ★★ 1/2 – This is, unquestionably, the most boring book I’ve ever read in my entire life. (For this dubious honor, it beat out Men and Meridians, a painfully-detailed, two-volume history of Canadian land surveying, which I’ve attempted to read over the past decade). I picked it up after it came up a number of times in my strategy class. The second star is for the value in understanding Sloan’s characterization of the birth of GM as a horizontally integrated firm, rather than vertically integrated company like Ford. GM grew by aligning and then acquiring competing firms, while Ford sourced most of its bits internally– from the lump of coal that fired the furnaces that melted the ore to the parts that went into the steel frames of the cars. There are some interesting stories, too– like that of Billy Durant, who essentially leveraged his company-furnished equity to borrow a bunch of money to fund a lavish lifestyle and risky investments and loss his ass in the process, requiring the board to bail him out in a behind-closed-doors negotiation that Sloan discusses with minimal detail. It’s amazing to consider what people used to get away with until you realized that the CEO’s in the telecom frauds of 2000-2002 did the exact same thing. (Hmm emoji). Finally, you learn a lot of interesting tidbits, like the fact that Charles Kettering, who served as chief of something at GM for nearly three decades (1920-1947), and after whom, along with Mr. Sloan, Sloan-Kettering is named, devised the use of tetraethyl lead as an antiknock additive in engines. Yes– one of the most toxic substances known to man helped fund a long-established cancer research institute.

Sloan displays a sociopathic level of emotional detachment from his workforce, and he only breaks this character once to talk about how much he hates unions.

The more things change, etc.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Cathy O’Neil) – ★★★★ – A quick read. Instructive for understanding the value of things like big data and such analytical methods– and how they can, inadvertently or intentionally, restrict democratic access, due process, and competitive markets.

Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Dan Fagin) – ★★★★★ – I read this before I went to North Jersey for a wedding in the spring. It’s a really great read, and I wrote about it when I finished it.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Andrea Wulf) – ★★★★ – A wonderful history of one of the more important figures in American naturalism– who should be discussed alongside more prevalent, US-born names. Unbeknownst to many Americans, Humboldt was historically honored as a leading voice of naturalism in the United States (Humboldt Park, Chicago?). I file this under my longstanding interest in the whole “machine in the garden” construct– of man vs. nature, the will to master nature, and the will to seek to understand it. 

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Mark Blyth) – ★★★★  – Anyone who knows me– or, indeed, has read this blog- knows that I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of austerity. It’s perhaps the least talked about subject but the most important one in understanding why a lot of things in our society are so dysfunctional these days. Blyth isn’t necessarily the most engaging writer, but he sets up a lot of good illustrations to help the reader understand the history of austerity, how it has played out in recent years (“Too Big To Fail” in the US vs. “Too Big To Bail” in the Eurozone, for example), and where it might be going in the future.

Nationalism and the politics of culture in Quebec (Richard Handler) – ★★★★★ – I read this for my study program in Québéc, which I wrote about in September. It’s a great read, though it’s probably less relevant if you aren’t interested in, living in, or doing business in Canada. 

Fiction:

Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan) – ★★★ – I was really skeptical of this book because the idea of rich people scheming and blowing money on dumb stuff for a whole novel seemed like a frustratingly awful subject matter. But I found it in the Detroit Public Library and so I checked it out. It takes awhile to get started, but it does move. What is frustrating about Crazy Rich Asians is how the book plods through scene after scene of just really awful people hating each other, while our generally quite likable protagonist, oft blown off, maligned, insulted, and beaten down by a myriad of awful characters, remains woefully underdeveloped. Kwan does deliver some lovely imagery, though, and often weaves in plenty of humor and absurdity. We are left believing that he does, though not exactly taking a radical, Marxist angle, have some serious critiques of the lifestyles of Singapore billionaires, and we’re able to enjoy the 

Borne (Jeff Vandermeer) – ★★★★ 1/2 – I loved the Southern Reach trilogy. I even enjoyed the film of Annihilation, which received some mixed reviews, but was visually spectacular. So, I figured I’d try this one. Borne is a really weird book, so it won’t be for everyone. The plot is hard to describe, but is basically about this weird, shapeshifting creature alongside the struggle for existence of a beaten-down pair of lovers in a postapocalyptic city. Our protagonists are a mixed bag, not particularly likable or deep. Borne is likable, but weird. Following the shattering– though not unexpected- conclusion of the novel, we’re left thinking that maybe he’s really more of a metaphor than a creature whose shapeshifting properties are as relevant as his allegorical meaning. Vandermeer, who loves birds and nature and stuff, is obsessed with the mutability and flux of living things, and this is evident in both Borne and the Southern Reach. Borne is also, subtly, a cautionary tale about the limits of human technological innovation, as it portrays a stark world decimated by both tech and disaster.

A Winter’s Promise (Christelle Dabos, first in the Mirror Visitor series) – ★★★★★ – I typically avoid fantasy because most of the time I don’t know what to do with it. But I greatly enjoy things that are fantasy or sci-fi but where the intrigue is more in the depth of storytelling than in the fantastical elements as a backdrop– think Star Trek Deep Space Nine, which feels more like West Wing in space than it does like Treknobabble-laden high sci-fi. A Winter’s Promise, which came across my radar purely virtue of AI-led marketing, is set a wonderful and clever world of high magic, schemes, and intrigue.

I don’t need to rehash the whole plot, but protagonist Ophelia departs her Ark, one of many that float in the firmament and house all of humanity (following the destruction of the “old world,” which, it is hinted, is the one in which we currently live), for one in the frigid North, where she is to be wed to a weird dude who is both revered for his position as Treasurer and hated because he’s both a bastard but also kind of a jerk (he’s portrayed as one of those brooding, giant-chested, supertall anime characters, I thought, kind of like Squall). The book’s plot is relatively straightforward, but its backdrop is wonderfully rich, laden with a cast of loyal servants, treacherous rogues, and, of course, the family Ancestors, who are immortal beings that carry the bloodline of each Ark. We can’t decide who to be more in awe of– perhaps the wealthy cad Archibald, who enjoys bedding married, older women, and owns this huge estate, or perhaps the stocky butler, who saves Ophelia in a pinch and trafficks in these weird, coveted, but rare devices that are sort of the Mirror Visitor equivalent of a porno Viewmaster. It’s certainly a weird world, but a lovely one, and one you will sink right into if you can dig this kind of fantasy. I’m well into the second book and can’t wait to finish.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloane) – ★★★ – Chronicling millennial and young gen-Xer malaise in the daily grind of the big city while also delving into a cleverly concocted melange of historical esoterica and high fantasy hijinks, Penumbra is a fun, quick read, though not a particularly deep one. There’s a lot of wishful thinking that Sloane conveys into the narrative. This is fun– and welcome- but the execution of a plot that meanders to a relatively unimpressive climax is somewhat plodding.

How Long Until Black Future Month (N.K. Jemisen) – ★★★★ – I had no idea what to expect from this, but it was largely a delightful set of stories. Jemisen’s introduction, illustrating her own struggles in starting as a writer, is instantly relatable. Her stories are no different, and cover a range of everything from high fantasy or sci-fi to more magical realism. The art of brilliant storytelling is that stories exist in a compact package and can be picked up or put down in between them. But the gesamt element of the whole here is just as powerful, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

The Help (Kathryn Stockett) – ★★★★ 1/2 – This was a relatively quick and enjoyable read that I audiobooked in Montanner and Idaho. It looks at race relations in the midcentury Southern United States through the lens of black maids in the homes of wealthy white folks– and through the eyes of the young progeny of one such family. It’s funny. It’s a brilliant mixture of subtle and stark. It’s at times dark, vicious, and brutal, and at times painfully human, hopeful, and optimistic. Plenty has been written about this and they even made a film (which I have yet to see), so I don’t need to add too much more, but it’s worth the read.

The Hazel Wood (Melissa Albert) – ★★★ – I liked this book until I didn’t like it. It’s excellent in its blending of realistic fiction and fantasy. But moving toward the story’s climax involves a long, plodding section of wandering to and fro that I just wasn’t about– felt haphazard and it kind of threw off the rest of the book for me. Much like the “wandering in the desert” section of the final Harry Potter book that I thought was sort of J.K. Rowling’s literary way of saying, “fuck y’all, I’ve made it.” But it’s very well-written overall and gets good reviews, so you, dear reader, must decide for yourself.

Embassytown (China Mieville):  – ★★★★ – I group China Mieville into the same category as comic Sarah Silverman or Cartoon Network’s Rick and Morty– great, but almost too weird for me- but I have become a huge fan in recent years. I started with the Bas-Lag trilogy last year, which is a complete acid trip in and of itself. Embassytown is similar. It cannot be described so much as it must be experienced. The novel chronicles the experiences of a woman who returns to her home on a distant consular outpost. It is not science fiction so much as it takes place in a sci-fi setting. (This is just as Bas-Lag is equal parts George Orwell, Final Fantasy, and Charles Dickens, but not necessarily any one genre). In classically Mieville style, he occludes established conventions of social structures to try and bend reality toward his artistic will. He’ll write stuff like, “on the sixteenth moonday of Septembruary,” and you’re like, “lol whut?” It isn’t quite the masterpiece of Bas-Lag as it stretches even Mievillian parameters of weirdness sometimes, but it comes together.

Cat’s Eye (Margaret Atwood): ★★★★★ – Atwood chronicles, in what the reader can only imagine is at least a partially autobiographical work, the return of an established artist to her increasingly trendy hometown of Toronto to reflect on her upbringing in what was previously an extraordinarily stodgy, conservative town. The artist struggles with old friendships and against the tide of a rampantly misogynistic art world– which, indeed, even permeates her own romances- as she seeks to reconcile her place in the world. The story is rife with clever musings on the meanings of family and friends, love and sex, loyalty and betrayal, and takes some unexpected turns as Atwood deftly maneuvers the plot through the decades.

An Object of Beauty (Steve Martin): ★★★★★ – Who knew Steve Martin was a novelist?! And a bit of a renaissance man, to boot. I started this in 2015 but never finished it and read the whole thing through this summer over a weekend. It’s an enjoyable chronicle narrated by an effectively omniscient narrator who is the supporting role, covering in almost journalistic passivity the life and times of aspiring art world doyen Lacey Yeager, his lifelong crush– and a diabolically conniving operator to boot. This takes the reader across the globe as Yeager scours the world for precious art, and back to her various galleries of association in New York and beyond, following the hijinks of weird rich people along the way. An enjoyable and quick read with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

Shipbreaker (Paolo Bacigalupi): ★★★★★- Young adult– often grouped with the Hunger Games and similar, fantastical thrillers. A wonderfully narrated, though dark glance into the dystopian future of climate change. Crews of lithe, young, disposable labor work to strip old ships of their valuable parts in the postdiluvian Gulf Coast. The major plot motivator is the shipwrecking of a space-age craft owned by some rich people. Nailer, our protagonist, makes the decision to save the life of a radiant, young maiden instead of killing her and taking her stuff, which arouses the ire of some of his ship-scrapper cohort. But this sends our two young protagonists onto an adventure toward flooded New Orleans to discover some uncanny truths, finding new friends and enemies along the way.

(These links are routed through Amazon Associates, so if you buy stuff I get like ten cents. But if you buy stuff through your local bookstore, more of that money will stay in the local economy.)

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Merry Christmas from the Handbuilt City!

Merry Christmas! Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, cozy holiday.

It is honestly unclear to me how Santa Claus is able to make it down the chimney when so many traditional fireplaces and draft vented combustion appliances have been replaced with mechanically vented exhaust pipes. But presents are still appearing under trees, so I suspect Mr. Claus has figured this out.

Illustration by Ernest Akayeu.

I asked Santa for regional transit in 2020, but I’m informed that the north pole elves typically maintain a policy of noninterference when it comes to local politics.

Looking forward to a 2020 filled with possibility. And to all a good night!

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Burgerbanism: The Twelve Dishes Of Detroit Christmas

At the risk of seeming like all I do is think about parking lots and protected bike lanes (which, admittedly, is a large portion of what I think about), I wanted to deviate from this in the spirit of the holiday season. I’ve been thinking about a series on Burgurbanism where we go around and eat a bunch of food and think about restaurants in the context of urban economy.

After all, most restaurants are small businesses, and small businesses are where economic growth happens. Restaurants alone contribute to hundreds of billions of dollars of economic product. They’re also, in my opinion as an avid traveler, probably the best way to really get to know a city. You don’t discover a city through its Applebee’s. You discover it through locally-owned businesses.

At a recent dinner at the vaunted, new Smith & Co. that I characterized as mediocre at best, I started thinking about this question of the best dishes in all of Detroit. Here’s what we came up with:

12.  Kuzzo’s Shrimp and Grits (Kuzzo’s, 19345 Livernois, Detroit, MI 48221, $$): If you’ve got a few hours to kill (i.e. don’t mind a train wreck of kitchen production), Kuzzo’s has some of the best chicken in Detroit. I know this dish in particular isn’t chicken. But I’m a sucker for shrimp and grits. And I’m not paying $26 for it in Midtown. A close runner-up (possibly tied) is the red velvet waffle with chicken– doused in hot sauce, no less. It is like a chocolate donut– a perfect, mouthwatering melange of everything I don’t need to lower my combined cholesterol count. Support black-owned business in the Livernois corridor, which has struggled with an interminable street-re-scaping project. (Yelp link).

Kuzzo’s Shrimp and Grits. (Photo from Yelp user).

11. Korean short rib pizza (Jolly Pumpkin, 441 W Canfield St #9, Detroit, MI 48201, $$). Jolly Pumpkin makes some delicious beer. Food is far more hit or miss. I’ve had a charred fried chicken sandwich that managed to be both inedibly crispy while also greasy. Mysterious. I’ve never gone wrong with this pizza, though, which has a mountain of arugula on top of a sweet and sour sauce and exquisitely marinated beef. (pizza runner-up: La Lanterna on Capitol Park). (Yelp link).

(Photo by Yelp user).

10. Rasgulla (Kabob House and Mouchak Sweets, 11405 Conant St, Hamtramck, MI 48212, $) – I’ve traveled across the land trying to track down rasgulla. I would ask every time I came into Kabob House, a Bangladeshi joint in what I’m pretty sure is a converted, old funeral home in Hamtramck. We are usually the only people in the restaurant. But they do a good takeout business, too, and also cater. Every time they’d tell me, “sorry, not today,” until I finally demanded to the backstory. “Our pastry chef moved back to Bangladesh,” the guy explained, sheepishly. (Oh. You coulda said!) But they have apparently returned. And they’re delish. Anything else from Kabob House is pretty reliable, including the saag, butter chicken, dal, and goat or lamb anything. However, if you really want some amazing Bangladeshi food that you’ve probably never had before, keep an eye out for the Bandhu Gardens pop-up. (Yelp link).

(photo from Cook, Click, & Devour). 

09. Som tam (papaya salad; Takoi, 2520 Michigan Ave, Detroit, MI 48216, $$$): Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the restaurant formerly known as Katoi. While I appreciate the music, the moody lighting, and the industrial-chic vibe, the menu is a lot of “the lights are on but no one’s home.” I suppose, the lights are off, actually, because it’s super dark in here. It’s a lot of the right flavors, but the execution ranges from inconsistent to sometimes bizarre. The papaya salad, however, is worth the trip on its own. (runner-up: the Thai place as Detroit Shipping Co., which has a great som tam as well, if you like a more broey, lively, less swanky vibe). (Yelp link).

08. Camarones con rajas (Peso Bar, 547 Bagley St, Detroit, MI 48216, $$): Rajas (literally slices or strips– of roasted poblano pepper, in a creamy sauce) is something I was introduced to by a Mexican cook in Northwest Indiana. I had never had it before, and it’s hard to find in the Jalisciense cuisine of Southwest Detroit. I’ve met a few Mexicans who have told me they have no idea what I was talking about. Layer this atop fried shrimp and arugula and smoosh it down onto a sandwich, and that’s Peso’s offering. Peso is the third iteration of the space at the corner of Bagley and 18th street, following the short-lived Huron Room and the shorter-lived-yet Fist of Curry. Which I never visited, but heard was quite good. Peso also offers some amazing elote. Wash it down with a fancy paloma made with delicious, lightly smoky mezcal, or any other of a range of next-level cocktails. Support Latino-owned business! (Tie: Detroit Vegan Soul, DVS millet burger). (Yelp link).

07. Korean bulgogi sandwich (Dime Store, Chrysler House, 719 Griswold St #180, Detroit, MI 48226, $$): Dime Store has been a mainstay of downtown brunch and lunch since it opened in 2014. Service is great and it’s one of the few places in New Detroit proper that consistently manages an unpretentious vibe, though it is heavily populated by the downtown business scene. The Korean bulgogi sandwich has perfectly marinated meat, julienne vegetables, and you can get it with a side salad of dank salad greens. Support black-owned business! (Yelp link).

06. Prosciutto, arugula, and egg pizza (Ottava Via, a.k.a. Eighth Street, 1400 Michigan Ave, Detroit, MI 48216, $$): My partner and I are both from the Northeast. We lament whatever this bizarre, smooshy cheesy bread is that they call “pizza” in Detroit, so far from our native lands. For in New Jersey, pizza actually grows on trees, and the streets are paved with good food. That’s Italiano! *chef’s kiss* But I digress. This thin crust pizza is fairly straightforward, but it’s got a runny egg on top of a bed of arugula with some prosciutto thrown in. Ottava Via is also a great spot either as a neighborhood bar or for date night. (Yelp link).

Ottava Via. (Yelp photo).

05. Forest bowl (Ima, Michigan Avenue, $$): Ima’s minimalist interior is complemented by a straightforward menu, fast service, and a satisfyingly simple menu. The forest bowl and the spicy pork bowl are both great, but the forest bowl offers a bit more depth. Support black-owned business! (Runner-up: Shoyu bowl from JNK, which is the only bowl on JNK’s menu that I like, but I love it). (Yelp link).

04. Salteh (Yemeni lamb stew, Sheeba, 13919 Michigan Ave,
Dearborn, MI 48126, $). I was introduced to Sheeba by a friend who assured me that it is the real deal. The bread is perfectly toasted and slightly more interesting than your average pita. But the stew bowls are where it’s at, and you can get a few different varieties to suit your dietary and gastronomic objectives. They come in a range of spicyness. They’re not going to win any awards for elegance or presentation, but a range of rich flavors come through in this well-balanced dish. (Yelp link).

Sheeba in Dearborn. (Photo by Yelp user).

03. Tofu banh mi slider (Green Dot Stables, 2200 W Lafayette Blvd, Detroit, MI 48216, $): Green Dot is one of a few remaining restaurants left in New Detroit that’s both affordable, serves a diverse clientele, and is unapologetically unpretentious. The demise of the chimichurri quinoa slider, a perfectly fried, perfectly cylindrical patty of lightly crispy whole grain, was a sad day, indeed. But I settled for it given the arrival of a new sandwich. Marinated, fried tofu with julienne veggies on a regular old potato bun. Our New Jersey native friend insists that it’s also the closest he’s come to finding a place that feels like home. ($3) Wash it down with a Zug Island Iced Tea for another $3. (Yelp link).

02. Goat barbacoa (La Noria, 5517 Michigan Ave, Detroit, MI 48210, $$): The much newer, sister restaurant to El Barzon, across the alley, La Noria similarly boasts the unusual Mexican-Italian menu. You can get a few stellar pasta dishes. You can also get the goat barbacoa, a perfectly brined meat that melts off the bone. (Yelp link).

01. Korean bowl (Rock City Eatery, 4216 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201, $$): RCE has come a long way from its humble, spatially-limited venue in Hamtramck on the main drag. It used to be my go-to when I was in the mood for something classy but didn’t want to leave Hamtramck. It was also one of the first places I discovered in Detroit when some former employers wined and dined me here. So, this is perhaps my all-time favorite Detroit dish, boasting an umami tsunami with a variety of fishies, veggies, tteok (deliciously gummy slices of rice cake), and noodles. I wanted to put the roasted Brussels sprouts on here (which feature Thai basil and a sweet chili sauce), but I was told that “everyone has Brussels sprouts these days.” It is not untrue. (Yelp link).

Photo by Yelp user.

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