Monday, December 29, 2008

Detroit - Part II

I visited some of the newer suburbs of Detroit today. The camera is off line for the day so no pictures but I do have plenty to recount. For readers outside Michigan, it is important to note that the housing market crashed in Michigan well before it did in the rest of the country. This gives me the strong feeling that the behavior of (sub)urban areas in Michigan--and Detroit in particular--is leading those of the rest of the country.

Suburban designs are remarkably predictable and try terribly hard to offer any surprises. I had business at a particular strip mall that was a bit unusual in that it was oriented perpendicular to the main road that it fronted. Even stranger, it was sandwiched in between a housing project with what must have been well over 100 units and a collection of run down looking two story condos. Could this be an aberration in suburban design? Could this be mixed use?

Looking more closely...

The entire back side of the strip mall was walled off. The condo dwellers, lacking a sidewalk, would need to drive from their homes around the corner to visit the various services offered at the strip mall, parking literally 200 feet from where they had left. The front side of the strip mall faced an enormous parking lot close to the road, it was virtually empty when I was there. Farther in though, the large residential complex encroached upon the parking lot so that it was only one lane in width. Luckily another wall was constructed to prevent these hapless residents from being subjected to the scurrilous activities of those visiting the so-called "Doctor" or "Dentist" that had rented space in the strip mall.

Even more interesting was a small city park that had been placed opposite the strip mall on the road edge of the parking lot. The small pavilion there would have been an ideal place for lunch if any patrons of the strip mall eateries would be willing to cross the hundreds of feet of asphalt that divided them. The residential project had decided to do some landscaping as well, a paved sidewalk meandered out from the parking lot in front of the project terminating in a grassy spot where a bench was situated facing the road. The designers chose not to continue the sidewalk on another 15 feet or so to connect it to the small city park.

Around half of the units in the strip mall were vacant, and a third of the condos had for sale signs in the windows. It was impossible to tell the occupancy of the residential project but only a small fraction had placed furniture or decoration on their outdoor patios.

All in all, it was a place designed without much thought of it being a place that people might like to use. Indeed, even the mall's closest neighbors needed to hop in their autos to visit instead of chancing a pleasant stroll. No potential for pleasant social interactions. No development of ties to the place, only to the auto. In short, this place will proceed down the path that all suburbs will eventually face: middle class replaced by poor, poor replaced by indigent, decay, condemnation, selective removal and finally agriculturalization.

Once the suburbs are no longer able to support the lavish subsidies that made their existence possible, they will slowly slide into nothingness. Only the communities that manage to retain a stable population will survive and in a country full of lures, the grass always looks greener on the other side.


  1. Jonathan --
    You surely have much more knowledge of this than I do, but from my experience (covering planning and zoning for 3-4 years), what you see there is pretty common. And it tends to be driven by residents who are afraid that the "riff-raff" visiting the dentist or doctor will use that sidewalk to come steal their car or sleep under their bench. The planners often try to compromise by reorienting buildings or adding greenspace where it simply doesn't fit -- so you get the mixed-use components, but no actual mixed-use projects. A lot of the cities/counties also don't have provisions in their zoning laws to allow for mixed-use projects, so the abutting uses is sometimes their best attempt to create a truly mixed development.
    Atlanta isn't on your list, but I know a ton of people there you could talk to, if you add it (or would just like to make some calls). Let me know. Hope you stop by Cleveland, too.

  2. The attempts at organized mixed use that I've seen generally end up terribly awkward and unusable. Atlanta just might be in our route, I'll write your about getting some names.