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Every Day is a Holiday: The Future of Detroit is Now

Cadillac Square Rendering by Project for Public Spaces
Cadillac Square Rendering by Project for Public Spaces -

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By Nicole Rupersburg, editor of UIX and Model D development news | April 1, 2013

Sundays are usually pretty quiet in Detroit. On the morning of Easter Sunday, the rain-soaked city was empty, cast in the lo-fi glow of an overcast sky while the streets shimmered wet, washed anew. I'm driving through the downtown core after a lively brunch at the Brooklyn Street Local in Corktown, listening to the Dandy Warhols' "Every Day Should be a Holiday" on the radio.
Everyone who has a relationship with the city has their own unique set of "I remember Detroit when..." memories. My relationship with Detroit really began in 1999, when I started working towards a bachelor's degree at University of Detroit Mercy. To put that in context, not the Detroit Riverwalk, Campus Martius Park, Comerica Park, Ford Field, or any of the permanent casinos-hotels were open yet. Woodward was still lined with mostly boarded-up, blighted storefronts. Old Tiger Stadium still stood in Corktown while Slows Bar BQ and the development fever it spread was still a few years from opening.
On Easter Sunday, over a bowl of poutine and freshly-made hot cross buns, a friend and I talked about the reality of Detroit's renaissance. After years of wondering – Is this really happening? Or is it just another rhetorical road to nowhere? – the events of this past week (and really, this year so far) have solidified Detroit's new reality. The future of Detroit is now. It's happening all around us, right in front of us. We've got prime seats behind 1st base for what could quite possibly be one of the greatest American comeback stories in history. And we’re living it, live in Technicolor, every single day.
I thought about this as I drove home, making the loop around Campus Martius Park past the First National Building where the Roasting Plant recently opened and where Papa Joe's Gourmet Market will open later this year, past the "the Qube," formerly known as Chase Tower, one of 17 downtown buildings now owned by Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans/Rock Ventures LLC chairman who has a vision to totally revitalize downtown Detroit.
A vision which he shared this past Thursday in front of roughly 400 business and civic leaders and members of the press. A vision which includes both large- and small-scale "placemaking strategies" for six identified downtown districts – everything from street retail to dog parks to sidewalk cafes.
Gilbert promises that this new Detroit starts now, with funding already in place and commitments already made for many of these projects.
This master plan for the revitalization of Detroit's core came just two months after the extensive Detroit Future City framework project was rolled out after two years of planning. This framework looks at much larger pockets of the city beyond downtown and offers ideas for more widespread urban renewal over the course of the next several decades.
Projects in their infancy now have the potential to redefine Detroit as we know it. Already Gilbert's efforts have proven to have significant impact, with over 80 companies moving into one of his properties over the last 30 months (and thousands of people with them). Shinola, a brand-new Detroit-based retailer manufacturing watches, bicycles, leather goods and more, has launched with an aggressive national marketing strategy and will be the largest American-manufactured watch producer in the country (their first run of 3,000 limited edition watches has already sold out). Three Squared, a 20-unit condo complex and the largest shipping container construction project in the country, will break ground later this year. The 350,000-square-foot Gateway Marketplace project at Eight Mile and Woodward is the largest retail development project in Detroit's history and will (ideally) transform Eight Mile from being seen as a divider to being seen as a connector.
Midtown will continue its development streak with more commercial and residential development this year and renewed efforts in developing the Sugar Hills Arts District, which includes the substantial renovations now happening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Hatch Detroit has expanded its reach from beyond one annual retail contest to helping develop six retail districts around Detroit. Detroit Soup continues to provide microfunding to community-oriented projects and is now expanding into individual neighborhoods. Three friends are currently working on a bid to bring the X Games to Detroit, and by all accounts stand a very good shot at pulling it off (thanks to support from major players like Gilbert).
Of course, not all innovation happens on such a large scale. Here at Urban Innovation Exchange we profile smaller-impact projects and the innovators behind them, the people who have the vision to push Detroit forward one person at a time. No effort is too small and no amount of positive impact insignificant. Innovation often starts small – the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, and the social impact not always measureable in mere numbers (though that doesn't stop us from trying). From coffee shops that anchor an entire neighborhood's redevelopment to tech start-ups to work in food justice to child advocacy to retail development to beautification projects to greening efforts to promoting Detroit's fast-growing cycling community, our urban innovators don't wait for permission to move Detroit forward. They just do it.
Living in Detroit right now is like watching social evolution on fast-forward. Changes large and small are happening so fast it's almost impossible to fully grasp – until you find yourself driving down Woodward one sleepy gray Sunday morning and think about just how drastically different it all looks from barely 15 years ago. It is truly an exciting time to live in Detroit and to watch the city transform right before our very own eyes. From the ashes it will rise, indeed.
Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. As a symbolic holiday, Easter represents new beginnings. Today we find ourselves stepping out of Detroit's interminable winter and into the dawn of a new beginning, for even the longest, cruelest winters must eventually end. Every day is now a holiday in Detroit. It's time to celebrate ... and to keep innovating. 

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