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Warren/Conner Development Coalition

4401 Conner
Detroit, Michigan 48215

Maggie DeSantis

By Matthew Lewis
July 18, 2014

Thirty years ago, residents and business owners of Detroit's Lower Eastside convened to create the first modern community development group to service that area, the Warren/Conner Development Coalition (WCDC).
Maggie DeSantis, who has been WCDC's Executive Director since its inception, notes that the organization's work has always been about building partnerships.
"We connect residents, institutions, businesses, and government," she says.
Over the course of her 30 years at the helm of WCDC, DeSantis has helped bring groups together to execute traditional real estate development projects, as well as played a role in the launching of partner community organizations throughout the Lower Eastside, including the Villages CDC, the Jefferson East Business Association, and U-SNAP-BAC.
Yet a negative trend was underway well before the formation of WCDC. Due to forces beyond its control, the Lower Eastside of Detroit has experienced population losses and increases in land vacancy rates more acutely than perhaps any other part of the city.
Despite the obvious challenges that come with depopulation and vacancy, Maggie DeSantis is optimistic.
"The Lower Eastside…My gosh…look at the assets!" she muses.
Indeed, the Lower Eastside is home to some of the city's greatest assets: the east riverfront, Detroit City Airport, several magnificent (if under-maintained) parks, a smattering of unique and stable neighborhoods, and—yes—lots of vacant land.
"Our problem is not [a lack] of density; it's how we manage and organize vacant land. It is possible to create livable neighborhoods even in areas lacking density," says DeSantis.
The notion that vacant land can be an asset is one that WCDC presciently embraced well in advance of the publication of the Detroit Future City framework that prescribes a variety of approaches to planning for different neighborhood typologies, including those with high vacancy rates. It also predates one of Mayor Mike Duggan's favorite sayings: "Every neighborhood has a future." WCCD believes this, though that future does not necessarily involve traditional economic development efforts and building new housing. For some neighborhoods on the Lower Eastside, it means embracing low levels of density and thoughtfully managing vacant land to generate quality of life for residents.
It's a belief that originated in 2009 when DeSantis and WCDC decided it was time to confront the Lower Eastside's challenges by exploring ways in which the community could turn vacant land into an asset. Utilizing the Community of Development Advocates of Detroit's Strategic Framework process for neighborhood planning, WCDC launched what would come to be known as the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP).
LEAP, a community-driven effort, was a watershed moment for WCCD and marked a break from the established methods of community and economic development in Detroit. For the first time, a community acknowledged that it would continue to lose population and experience increases in vacancy, yet that did not mean that it was doomed to a fate of unlivability.
"For me, it [LEAP] has been the most compelling and important work we've done," says DeSantis. "Members of the community kept showing up and saying, 'We're not giving up.' When the Detroit Works Project reinvented itself [as Detroit Future City], LEAP was able to influence its processes. The City Planning Department is now reworking the city's Master Plan to incorporate DFC and LEAP."
An example of an innovation in LEAP is the creation of a "green thoroughfare" designation for streets like Mack Avenue. Green thoroughfares will take advantage of high levels of vacancy by accommodating all forms of traffic – bus, bike, car, and pedestrian – while also providing the community with more aesthetic green spaces that produce alternative forms of energy while also reducing the burden on city services.
WCDC facilitated the planting of pennycress, a low-cost, low-maintenance plant that is used to make biodiesel, on a vacant lot on Mack Avenue at Copland Street as a pilot project in the development of the Mack Avenue green thoroughfare.
"The ironic thing is that our organization is focusing on repurposing vacant land when we used to put up shopping centers. It's still economic development, just in a different form," says DeSantis.
"Over the 30 years I've been doing this, I see much more optimism today. I see Detroit's national perception changing. I see a mayor who gets it. What's not to be optimistic about?"
On July 26, WCDC will celebrate its 30th anniversary and re-brand itself as the Eastside Community Network, a name that more accurately describes the organization's mission and accomplishments.

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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