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Friday, July 11, 2014
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Published: Friday, 12/20/2013

COMMENTARY

Razing vacant buildings to give rise to Detroit’s future

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Jack Lessenberry Jack Lessenberry
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Detroit is bankrupt and full of abandoned buildings. Many of those buildings need to be torn down. How many of them are there? No one knows.

“They often use the number 78,000,” said Glenda Price, one of the three co-chairs of a high-powered task force on blight. However, she added, soon we should know exactly how many buildings need to come down, as well as the state of every structure in the city.

Starting this week, three-person teams are fanning out across the city, surveying and photographing each of an estimated 350,000 parcels of land. They intend to let neither snow, sleet, nor vicious neighborhood dogs keep them from their work.

They hope to complete their task by the end of January, when Data Driven Detroit, a nonprofit demographic firm, will assemble their findings in a searchable database.

“This will be given to the city, and hopefully, constantly maintained and updated,” said Ms. Price, a Philadelphia native in her early 70s. She came to Detroit in 1998 to revitalize Marygrove College, a small, struggling Roman Catholic institution.

She succeeded in doing that, with the help of an innovative and profitable distance learning program. By the time she retired in 2006, she found she had fallen in love with her adopted city. By then, she had a reputation as a can-do administrator who was more interested in getting the job done right than in who gets the credit.

Naturally, Ms. Price soon found herself in demand. Last year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed her to Detroit’s financial advisory board, as part of the consent agreement meant to help Detroit try to avoid being taken over by the state.

That effort failed, but emergency manager Kevyn Orr kept the board, and divided it into teams. Her team, which she chairs with Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and community activist Linda Smith, is charged with getting a handle on blight.

What this is really all about, she said, is life in Detroit after bankruptcy — something that Mr. Orr intends to outline in the plan of adjustment he will present to Steven Rhodes, the federal judge presiding over the proceedings.

Mr. Orr’s goal is to have the bankruptcy finished by the end of next September, when he expects to leave town. But what really matters is to have a plan to keep the city solvent and on a path to better things, if not immediate prosperity.

Nobody knows how much it would cost to bring down all the buildings that need to be demolished. When pressed, Ms. Price said it could come to a billion dollars.

What may be even more important is finding the money and the people needed to repair the buildings that still can be saved.

Ms. Price said that she is more optimistic than ever about her adopted city’s future. “I think this is a very exciting time for Detroit,” she told me. “I feel there are so many options and opportunities.”

Let’s hope the city makes the most of them.

● One step forward; one back: Sadly, the Michigan Senate has taken action that will, in effect, help criminals in Detroit.

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat, worked for three years to forge a compromise with the Republican majority in the Michigan House to do something about scrap metal thieves.

For years, gangs of crooks have ripped apart vacant houses to tear out copper wiring and other metal that could be converted to quick cash. This year, the House passed a bill she sponsored that would have required a three-day waiting period before people could be paid for three commonly stolen scrap metal items: catalytic converters, window air conditioners, and copper wire.

It also required dealers to take down the license plate numbers of people who bring in those items in and pay them by check.

Such practices have sharply reduced crime in other states. But in Michigan, Senate Republicans stripped out these requirements in favor of a toothless “registry” maintained by scrap dealers.

Why Republicans did that isn’t clear, though it is likely that dealers didn’t want the bother of changing the way they work.

Ms. Tlaib then said she’d vote to kill her own bill, and that was that. She vowed to try again “to pass a tough law that will actually deter scrap metal theft so we can again have safe, vibrant communities where we can live, work, and raise our families.”

One thing’s for sure: You can’t say she’s a quitter.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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