Saturday, July 13, 2024
Cities & Urban PlanningDetroitMichiganMissouriReal Estate

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.”

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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