Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Heavy IndustryReal Estate

Diesel Exhaust, Potholes, and A Vision of Better Commercial Corridors in Southwest Detroit

Greg Mangan, real estate advocate for the Southwest Detroit Business Association, picks me up at the northwest corner of West Vernor and Livernois. Much as I’d love to tell you I was out there to survey the disused public works facility, which a brief-lived proposal during the Maurice Cox era once imagined reinvigorating as a creative satellite office space for the dreamers and schemers of CAYMC a couple of miles to the east. Rather, I was hitching a ride after the No. 2 Vernor bus didn’t show up after a full 45 minutes. (Two buses had been scheduled during this time period). Greg and I are meeting to talk about a project on which I’m lending some assistance to SDBA, and I ask him what is up with all of the freight traffic coming down Vernor in both directions.

Greg Mangan (right) and Juan Gutiérrez (left) at the offices of the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA), where a new initiative, built off a philanthropic grant and continuing with the support of the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department and IRA funding, will help property owners along a few corridors in the neighborhood renovate and rent out second-floor apartment units in mixed-use buildings.

He relates a story from some time ago in which the south-facing gate of the facility– which opens out onto Vernor Highway, at the little notch in the highlighted satellite image below- was at some point meant to be closed permanently in favor of other exits onto Livernois and/or John Kronk Street. Efforts to make this happen stalled, for whatever reason, and so the neighborhood is left with a surfeit of stinky truck traffic going every which way out of the south gate. Vernor Highway is the major east-west thoroughfare connecting Corktown (and, by association with terminal direction, downtown Detroit), and it is bounded by primarily residential neighborhoods for most of its length.

An older proposal to refit the DIFT appears to have at least made mention of the issue of diesel exhaust. It isn’t clear what actually happened, but Greg tells me it’s been a minor hassle since the trucks frequently collide into things like the expensive streetscaping whose installation the neighborhood association self-funded several years ago. I had spent some time prowling the facility when I was working for the city in 2019. I found the politics of competing jurisdictions somewhat alluring– I found it a challenge to try and indicate that no one was immune from city regulations about basic things. As it turns out, some people were immune from city regulations, although not just the Morouns or the Ilitches, but also people like the postal service. Or, well, certain railroad facilities.

A gentleman from Conrail– an entity I had previously been thoroughly convinced was entirely defunct- fed me a line referencing some obscure law that isolates interstate railroad infrastructure from certain municipal regulation. While Conrail got out of the freight business at the end of the century, it apparently still exists in the form of a joint operation of Norfolk Southern and CSX, which operates, well, something, in this freight yard. The complexity is as much of an issue as the opacity. Multi-billion dollar companies are already only minimally accountable to their shareholders, let alone the communities in which they operate large, often very stinky and noisy, industrial facilities.

(Not so shockingly, I didn’t hear back from CSX when I reached out to them to ask about it!)

As the geographic intermediary between Downtown Detroit and Dearborn, Southwest Detroit has had a long legacy of industrial development. One need not go as far as Delray, a mostly-depopulated neighborhood that stretches from the Rouge River and Zug Island along the riverfront, and where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge will deposit oodles of truck traffic into a new, under-construction border facility. The area still has plenty of trucking terminals, making use of quick access to interstate highways and the international border, as well as some heavier industry including a concrete plant, a few metallurgical plants, and even a few factories.

Having industry within a neighborhood is great from a standpoint of labor market accessibility. It’s not as great when these are facilities that generate a ton of diesel particulates or a ton of noise. I can barely handle the car traffic on my street, let alone the heavy truck traffic that plies the larger streets of the neighborhood, unfettered by, well, any kind of regulation.

Relatively architecturally stable housing stock also means it’s a great destination for workers employed by these facilities, although the inelegant industrial-residential mix can majorly hamper livability standards (N.B.: asthma rates far higher than the national average). An ongoing effort to promote rezoning along legacy industrial corridors began under former Detroit City Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-Lopez, but such efforts always back into the interests of what I call the city’s “business-friendly regulatory environment,” which is a sort of Wild West of regulation and enforcement that seems to always favor the interests of, well, you-know-who. As the t-shirt says, styled after a similar one from Supreme: “Illegal Business Controls Detroit.”

Observed Brian Allnutt in a recent article about a proposed rezoning for a new Moroun trucking facility, which amply illustrates the absurdity of how business gets done in these parts:

[Neighborhood residents] say the situation has escalated since 2019, when the city transferred parcels it owned off Toledo to Crown in exchange for properties needed for the Stellantis expansion on Detroit’s east side. This was part of a larger package of deals that benefited several property owners, including Crown, who walked away with $43.5 million in cash and $10.5 million in land. 

Heavy Trucks Vs. Crumbling Roadways

Even if we avoid the environmental impact question, there’s the infrastructure impact question. A shipping container plus a truck– a.k.a. intermodal freight once it leaves the train- have a combined gross weight of up to 80,000 lbs. (36,200kg). That means that every truck traveling this corridor– and there are plenty, believe you me- incurs the same wear on this section of roadway as around twenty passenger vehicles (even in Southwest Detroit, which has a mixture of older, smaller passenger vehicles, and the neighborhood’s unofficial flagship vehicle, a shiny white, older-model Cadillac Escalade SUV, which weighs in at over 5,000 lbs).

The intermodal yard at Inland Port Greer, South Carolina. File photo by Alan Stoddard.

Combine that with the fact that older roadways are typically not even built for this weight. You’ve got old brick streets that are just continually paved over with new asphalt. A brutal freeze-thaw cycle plus continual, heavy truck traffic means that this isn’t going to get better for drivers or cyclists without radically reworking the infrastructure through which these trucks and their cargo move through the city streets. And that no one wants to regulate truck traffic tells us a lot about who has the power in the neighborhood.

Downward, Upward Spirals

Southwest Detroit is uniquely positioned to benefit from this kind of investment because it has a high density of relatively contiguous building stock and a high population density in comparison to farther-flung neighborhoods. However, in a state where most environmental disasters are explained away with much hand-waving over our “business-friendly regulatory environment,” we must ask tough questions about how industry can peacefully coexist with elements that make for a walkable, livable urban environment.

This is not to say that we should get rid of industry in cities, by any means. The drive to push “undesirable” uses out of cities did contribute to suburbanization to some degree. But so, too, did it contribute to industrial innovation. What this would look like in Southwest Detroit, an impoverished neighborhood in an impoverished city, in a shrinking state? Neither state nor city government seem terribly interested in subsidizing much other than cars and car companies.

Thus, the grant program is a good first step to promote housing. Cleaning up the corridor’s industrial dysfunction is perhaps a taller order that will necessitate bringing together large, finicky stakeholders that are notoriously difficult to work with, like MDOT or CSX. But housing means more market demand, and market demand for housing can drive innovation to solve problems like these as well.

Not at all shockingly, we did not hear back from MDOT or CSX after inquiring about this issue. The author’s viewpoints do not in any way represent those of Southwest Detroit Business Association or his employer or other clients. This article was mostly written earlier this year and tabled for various reasons.

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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