Jul 29

On my list of the top 40 urban anti-catalysts, by my count, 36 were activated in the City of Detroit giving it a catastrophe score of 90%. It could be the worst score anywhere even including cities that are caught up in war or civil war.

It seems unlikely that any real estate value or social value can be created in Detroit without first fixing the underlying issues which may prove to be a multi-generational challenge. Even though I usually recommend a counter-cyclical investing stance, this situation could simply take too long to get resolved.

Washington Post columnist George Will spoke about Detroit’s predicament recently. He said, “(You) can’t solve the problems because the problems are cultural. You have a city, 139 square miles. You can graze cattle in vast portions of it. Dangerous herds of feral dogs roam in there. You have 3 percent of fourth graders reading at the national math standards. Forty-seven percent of Detroit residents are functionally illiterate. Seventy-nine percent of Detroit children are born to unmarried mothers. They don’t have a fiscal problem… They have a cultural collapse.”



Here is my list of anti-catalysts followed by my list of catalysts and indicators of ruin.


· Corruption in city or state government· De-Industrialization· De-Population- flight to gated communities and suburbia· Property taxes levied on improved values instead of unimproved land values (a tax on renovation)· Racial, Social and Economic Segregation· Crime ("Value can only be created when social order prevails”)· Neglect- ‘holes’ in the urban fabric · Abandonment- land and buildings achieve negative value (rent curves are negative)· Tax sales- city repossessions for unpaid taxes· Obsolete, Oppresive and overly specific Zoning By-Laws · “Broken Windows Syndrome"· Rent Control· Homelessness· Neighborhood Pollution (i.e. litter, air, water, soil, etc.)· Suburban Exile/Suburban Apartheid · Lack of Adequate Public Transit System · N.I.M.B.Y. Mentality· Building OUT instead of UP· Social/Economic Dependence· Lack of Public Resonance, Concern or Civic Pride· Low Development Density· Shortage of Urban Infill· Dis-Investment by Public and Private Interests· Lack of Basic Social Programs (i.e. Health, Education, Sanitation, Day Care, Recreational Facilities etc.)· Tenements (a.k.a. "Towers In The Park”) and derelcit and abandoned buildings · Unemployment· Home invasions· Criminal and disruptive elements living in neighborhoods and the ‘next door’ apartment· absentee ownership· failed renovations· fraudlent speculators· mortgages in excess of FMV (fair market value)· shoddy workpersonship and incomplete work· mortgage defaults· tax liens and foreclosures· Family breakdown· Poor public schools· Lack of support for entrepreneurship· Lack of support for the arts· Degradation of public room

Catalysts For Urban Growth and Development- Promoting the Health of Cities

“Common traits found within cities, boroughs and communities that are experiencing prosperity.”

· Education
· Employment
· Honest City or State Government (a precondition for economic take-off)
· De-Regulation of Zoning By-Laws- use of ‘performance zoning’, reliance on building code, health code, fire safety and ‘do no harm’ rules
· Mixed Use Development (i.e. Commercial, Residential, Recreational, Educational, Markets, Cultural and Entertainment)
· Adequate Public Transit System- big time people movers allowing higher densities
· De-Segregation of Social Structure
· Distribution of populations- mixing of income groups and socio-economic strata, dispersal as opposed to concentration of ‘unwanted’ uses such as shelters, halfway houses, rooming houses, duplexes, triplexes, jails and other ‘less desirable’ development amongst many communities to create less threatening environments
· Mixing together of building forms to produce a variegated skyline and individuation of address
· Requirement for architectural intervention to give building forms individualized expression and design promoting civic pride and a sense of self worth while avoiding tract housing look and feel as well as inferior construction and materials
· Renewed Civic Presence
· A Visible Police Presence & (On-the-Beat) Interaction Within the Community
· A General Respect for Public and Private Property and quasi public spaces (the ‘public room’)
· Zero Tolerance Towards Acts of Vandalism, police on the beat and out of their police cruisers
· Investment by Public and Private Interests- encouagement of gentrification through tax holidays and other special assessments including reconstruction of public infrastructure including roadways as beacons (initiators) of economic development
· Strong Public Interest & Motivation
· Supportive Political Advocacy instilling a sense of hope and civic pride back into the community
· Land Growth Potential
· Establish and Maintain Basic Social Infrastructure (i.e. Health, Education, Sanitation, Day Care, Recreational Facilities etc.)
· Municipal and Collective action re. Funding and Tax Incentives with Respect to Civic Reform and Urban Renewal.
· Involvement of various Community and Urban Interest Groups (i.e. C.N.U. or Congress for New Urbanism etc.)
· Build UP not Out! (minimum densities not maximums!)
· Look to ‘Smart Growth’ Solutions and innovative design to exploit underdeveloped sites
· Home Ownership and belongingness (identification by the people with their surroundings giving them mental, physical, spiritual and, eventually, financial stake; a feeling of possession)
· Mixing of uses, variation in housing types and dispersion of ‘less desirable’ uses leaves a buffering role for the single family home
· Sense of ownership cause people to remain in the same neighborhood even as their financial situation improves
· Institutions (cultural, educational, …), domains of shared values and interests, neighborhood participation and programatic ideas and themes (festivals, street dances, mural art, …)
· Gardens, market gardens, urban farms 
· window-on-the-world architecture (retail and residential uses at grade emptying onto the street with zero frontyard setbacks)
· use of glazing and portals at grade
· presenting your buildings to the street (+.5 to 1 metre to road grades)
· o sideyard and frontyard setbacks
· traffic calming including on street parking, left turns permitted
· grided streets and connectedness between neighborhoods
· connected open space, conservation subdivision design
· parks need active recreation to act as a hub for the community- passive recreation is not sufficient to improve community safety
· uniform transition lines (eg., retail at grade with different treatment transitioning to offices and residential above at prescribed height above grade)
· parking underground or at rear or on-street
· vertical windows
· golden section design
· steep pitched roof lines with eaves
· complete roof treatment
· consistent street planting and uniform tree placement
· boulevard design instead of collector streets or freeways
· front porches
· granny flats, in-home apartments, above garage apartments, duplexes, triplexes, brownstones, row housing, rooming houses permitted
· work from home, in home businesses permitted with employees- increase in use of expensive infrastructure including housing stock and increased daytime block safety
· Civil dialogue between urbanists and environmentalists
· Consensus or, at least, a process for reaching civic consensus (eg., charettes) amongst community groups, urban planners, municipal politicians, developers, residents, conservationists and other special interest groups 
· clear legal title
· legal process for obtaining clear legal title thorugh power-of-sale process
· sancitity of contracts
· protection of private property rights from confiscatory policies restricting uses including building form and type of use, rent control, density limits, downzoning, signage, wind rights, air rights, riparian rights, subsurface rights, grazing rights, …
· protection from arbitrary expropriation
· broadband access
· adopt-a-cop programs- direct community interaction with police
· higher density residential communities using low rise, street oriented housing forms instead of high rises, encouraging development of ‘theatre of the street’ and block safety
· home grown solutions, local initiatives, taking matters into ‘your own hands’, community ‘buy-in’ supported by appropriate public policy
· enterprise zones
· government supported micro-loans to local entrepreneur start-ups
· tax abatements (realty taxes, excise taxes, duty free zones, …)
· mortgage availability for purchase and renovation of derelict, abandoned and deficient buildings and homes
· repopulation of downtown
· repopulation of abandoned sites
· replacement of parking lots and unsafe parks with residential buildings 
· Feng Shui- letting the light in, managing building pressures and the wind, respecting the top of the mountain and high places and views, nestling structures into hillsides, locating windows and doors and people spaces so they relate to inside and outside realities
· Constructing welcoming buildings- bringing the outside in and the inside out (tropical climes and northern climes too)
· ‘Organic’ architecture- structures that seem to have grown on their sites rather than having been constructed

Defining Characteristics of Urban Deterioration*

* North American Physical Clues that distinguish areas of urban decay

· Overgrown, derelict sites
· Street lights out.
· Peeling Paint
· Broken windows
· Numerous “For Lease/For Sale” signs
· Prostitution
· Drugs
· “Panhandlers”
· Homeless
· Roaming Gangs
· Absence of police, or excessive police presence
· Graffiti
· Ports
· Heavy industry
· Air pollution
· Noise Pollution
· Abandoned cars
· Defended institutions and homes
· Razor wire, barb wire, security fencing, video surveillance
· Large recent immigrant population and those just starting out.

Bounding Characteristics of Urban Class Distinction

· Highways and freeways
· Railroad tracks
· Racial Segregation
· Parkland
· Waterfront access 
· Elevations (higher elevations imply higher rents except where access to water and waterfront takes priority)
· Wind Directions… west side is usually the prosperous areas are located, while depleted areas are more commonly seen to develop on the east side. (“Go west young man, break bread in the new land…” First immigration began from the east and as people began to prosper, they generally moved west.)
· Car traffic directionality (well-to-do people live in the west end, drive to work later and drive home later to avoid glare from sun; industrial workers in the east end leave for work earlier and leave for home earlier)

Spread The Word

About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.