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Tough choices – Who to save...GM or Detroit?


As GM prepares for a bankruptcy filing later this week, and as the region's business and political leaders gather at the anachoristic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island for the annual regional Policy Conference, the subject of where the company's headquarters might be is high on the buzz list.

Moving its headquarters out of Detroit as part of the compression of its operations and realignment of its corporate real estate portfolio was out of the question until Fritz Henderson, the company's new CEO, said he'd look at all options as the company struggled for survival. The "all options" in this case referred to the concept, raised by the mayor of the suburban community where GM has its Technology Center, that GM should leave Detroit and consolidate in excess space in Warren.

The proposal clarifies that the options "are presented not to move jobs from Detroit to Warren, but to reduce GM's costs as a first important step to profitability and efficiency."

"I present this to you not as a choice between Detroit and Warren, but as a matter of GM moving forward and surviving," Fouts' letter states.

The concept produced a firestorm of criticism. But is it really a bad idea? If the focus is on the survival of GM, an essential economic engine in the region and the country, why is the welfare of the city of Detroit the defining agenda? Is the focus on the city as the primary determinant something that could affect the success of GM's reorganization and reorientation?

Ever since Mayor Coleman Young at the beginning of his administration in 1974 told the criminals in Detroit to "hit the other side of Eight Mile," there have been tensions and rivalries between the city and its suburbs. Mayor Fouts, of Warren, is only the latest in a long line of suburban municipal and county leaders who have, as some would say, cannibalized the city of Detroit by offering invitations and incentives for companies to relocate from the city.

The city itself seems to have been suicidal over the last generation, not only exclusionary to development interests, but also corrupt, antagonistic, and lately, disfunctional and absurd in its behaviors. Making the choice to come to the city is harder and harder to do and, I expect, the case to stay in Detroit for many companies and institutions is less rational than philanthropic.


GM's headquarters location, however, seems to be consistently linked to the life and health of the city. Its first, iconic, headquarters was built in the early 1920's in an area of Detroit eventually called the New Center. Grand Boulevard, a ring road that when constructed represented the outer limits of the city, became the location for the next wave in the progressive outward expansion of the city brought byu the success of the auto industry. GM became the catalysts for development of retail, entertainment, business, cultural and residential occupancies in the area.

Economic and social issues with seeds in earlier decades eventually grew into the 1960's. The New Center struggled to keep business occupancies, the surrounding neighborhoods began to decline, and the 1967 Detroit riots pretty much defined the end of the New Center. GM continued to support some aspects of renovation and redevelopment in the area, but it was clear that the location had lost its cache and GM's interest.

GM eventually moved to the Renaissance Center, along the riverfront and near the historic, "old center" of the city. Renaissance Center was a concept of Henry Ford II as Ford Motor Company's contribution to rejuvenate the flagging economic health of the city. The development was considered faulted from its beginning because it pulled the life from the streets and buildings in the center of the city, and surrounded itself with high concrete walls interpreted as a defensive perimeter from the citizens of a city not yet recovering from the impacts of the riots.

I was part of a team of planning and design consultants hired by GM in the early 1990's to realign the company's real estate and facilities portfolio with the cyclical reorganization and consolidation of the business beginning to take place. A central concept was to reduce GM's holdings and leases to a small number of "thematic" locations. The Technology Center in Warren, the Proving Grounds in Milford and the Truck Products Center in Pontiac, were among those locations, and GM Headquarters was, of course, another.

The GM Building was beginning to show its age, and its narrow fingers were not supportive to the emerging structure and operations of the company. It was expensive to maintain, and difficult to renovate while occupied. Concurrently, the Renaissance Center became available and, after an assessment of the appropriateness for its reorganized operations, GM purchased the complex in 1996 and began its renovation, including making the complex more open, better managed, easier to comprehend, and more engaged with the surrounding developments on the riverfront. GM was again celebrated for its role in the rejuvenation of the economic life of the city.

In recent months, GM has been actively buying out the employment of its white collar workers. The Renaissance Center headquarters of the company, as with other properties, is now only partially occupied. Further reduction in the size of the company and its markets will continue to have an impact on occupancy there.

So, what now?

GM's continued presence at this location is considered to be essential for the continued life of the city. It provides a real as well as psychological grounding for the economic and social life of the city, and even passively is an important basis for other development initiatives in the city. GM's commitment can give others considering moves to the city a confidence that there is continuity and strength there. The large numbers of people who would remain with GM or be other tenants in the building provide at least daytime economic life to the limited retail and service businesses in the city. And longer term planning, like the proposed light rail transit system, would depend on GM as an anchor to the system and the basis for the other economic life and transformational development it is intended to catalyze along its route. Without GM occupancy, I do not think the system has any relevance.

So GM is essential to the life of the city, but is the Renaissance Center essential to the life of GM? I am deeply concerned about the city that has been the base for my career and the basis for my lifestyle. But I am fascinated by the question of how place affects performance, and the question of Detroit or Warren is provocative. So here are some speculations and provocations, not positions, as a means to gather further information and sustain further analysis and planning.

The Renaissance Center is a drain on the resources and energies of the company at the most critical time in its history. And it doesn't really do all that much for the daily life of the city.

GM's diminished scale – brands, people, plants, market share, resources – cannot justify nor sustain a multi-site empire. It had already effectively abandoned millions of square feet developed in the 1990's for its Truck Products groups in Pontiac, just north of Detroit. The Milford Proving Grounds, a specialty campus, will certainly be underutilized in the new company. The Technical Center, a diverse campus for research, design and engineering, is underutilized and underdeveloped.

And Renaissance Center, where GM had been pusing other tenants out earlier in the decade, is now a swiss cheese of occupancy for a company not yet scaled or regorganized for its next generation. The complex is the transposition of a multi-tenant mixed use concept from another city and another economy. Peachtree Center in Atlanta was its model, and Portman's duplication of the concept in Detroit – bad design and bad planning and in the wrong location – may, other than through taxation, have harmed the city more than helped.

A complex of five silos with small floorplates and no interconnectedness except through public spaces and defensive security at its base, separates the functions and staff of the company, reduces its speed and efficiency, and cannot provide the environment for new thinking and new acting demanded by the urgency of the current condition.

And Renaissance Center is a self-contained complex. Despite the best efforts to open the place up in its recent renovations, the people in the complex do not mix with the city. Work, food, services, parking and entertainment are all there, and people who have worked in the complex for years still do not know the names of the streets within blocks of the headquarters. If the complex had been built inboard a few blocks, at Grand Circus Park, the city might have had a diverse and lively downtown; built across a ten lane boulevard from the rest of the downtown, the complex is a symbol of renaissance but not a catalyst for it.


The Technical Center in Warren focuses the company on its purpose – its products. It is itself a great symbol of leading design and engineering, and can catalyze energy, focus and achievement by linking the administration and management of the company with its product vision and quality.

The GM Technical Center, designed principally in the 60's by Eero Saarinen remains an iconic and inspiring complex. As a campus of dedicated buildings, it clarifies and articulates the functions and purposes of the company – research, design, engineering, integration, fabrication, supply chain management – and the differentiating components of its products – styling, powertrain and technology. Locating the headquarters here would not only make the company more efficient, but provide a symbolic and physical environment for its renaissance.

Underutilized but recent buildings, originally planned for engineering teams, have light-filled, large, open floorplates that could change the insular culture sustained at the Renaissance Center, creating integrated and efficient teams connected and visible to each other and united around common and shared purpose.

I have worked on a number of studies for renovation, redevelopment and new development at the Technical Center, and know it can sustain the life of a smaller company, but also its expansion in future success.

So, which is more important? To make a probably interim, potentially ineffective, politically-motivated commitment to the Renaissance Center? Or to make a catalytic, transformational, refocused, repurposed company that can contribute in its rebirth to new economic development in the region?

What are your thoughts?

This just in –

Granholm, Bing fight to keep GM in Detroit's Renaissance Center

Warren offers tax breaks to lure HQ to Tech Center

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Building in cornfields, part deux

Early Detroit, French "ribbon farms"

Tabula rasa” was a term frequently used by Elizabeth Diller the other night in Charlie Rose’s interview of the Diller Scofidio+Renfro principals. She was using the term to describe an approach they took that implied that each project began with a fresh look, uninhibited by considerations of experience, precedent or philosophy.

The term had been on my mind recently, perhaps through a direct reference but, I think, more through reflection on what seems to be an accelerating number of explorations and interventions focusing on the city and cities in general, but in the domain of this interest, on Detroit specifically. The history of the stories of the decline of the city has been more recently joined by a rapid flow of articles, photo journals, studies, and now competitions all informed by a general (accurate) impression that there is not much left, and that therefore the city is a tabula rasa on which to test, impose on, intervene with, and explore new concepts for the city and for “city,” and, as we’ll see, for “farm.”

I have written briefly about this before. In a quick recap, I had been recalling the concept of “building in cornfields” first advanced by a client, an executive with Chrysler, in the late 80’s. We were in the process then of designing and building a new palace for Chrysler very shortly after its emergence from near bankruptcy with the benefit of a government loan. As we erected four million square feet of new headquarters and technical facilities for them on what had been a large farm north of the city, Chrysler was in effect abandoning Highland Park, a city completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, and the clusters of shops, labs, plants, offices, design studios and other facilities that had been its home, and the home of its workers, for decades.

It was natural to give at least some passing thought to the exit strategy, to the impact of the void that was being left behind. This executive suggested that the best thing they could do was demolish the buildings and plant corn. “Everybody wants to build in a corn field,” he said.

Now, 20 years later, the first step in that vision, that strategy, is apparently about to take place. Among the reports on the web site of the Detroit Free Press today (the “newspaper” is no longer printed but 3 days a week, another casualty of the large outmigration from the city), was the announcement that Hantz Farms was an entity, part of a suburban financial services firmproposing to till and plant an initial 70 acres of the land in the lots and plots that have become progressively abandoned in the steady intentional and incidental shrinkage of the city (there are more than 40 square miles of vacant property in the city) . This would become, in effect, the largest “urban farm” in the world.

Of course, the potential of urban agriculture in Detroit has been made robust by the failure of the leadership of its leading industries to act responsibly and embrace a concept of a sustainable business through a sustainable product. China, a country that itself is rapidly urbanizing and turning its farms in to cities, has developed a vision and a strategy to become the world leader in the development of the systems and products that has resisted and actively lobbied against for years. Planning to become a world leader in the development of electric and hybrid vehicles within three years, China will be doing what the Obama administration has been trying to get GM, Chrysler and Ford to do while they protest that it is impossible to achieve within the decade. Already suffering from a failure of vision and commitment, already on the brink of bankruptcy, the American companies will now feel even more pressure.

So the industry responsible for its urbanization is now responsible for its de-urbanization.

People are leaving Michigan at a staggering rate. About 109,000 more people left Michigan last year than moved in. It is one of the worst rates in the nation, quadruple the loss of just eight years ago. The state loses a family every 12 minutes, and the families who are leaving -- young, well-educated high-income earners -- are the people the state desperately needs to rebuild.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Ouroussoff referenced the faulted and failed urban development policies of the past as part of the reason for turning Detroit into what he calls a ghost town. He seems to accept the notion of a tabula rasa in the cases of many American cities. He calls for radical new solutions, destruction rather than repair, and extravagant imagination.

In this miserable context of continuous erasure, there is this delight of infill attention. Among the attention Detroit is getting includes these--

Rouse [D] is an international ideas competition focusing on "re-inventing the city of Detroit through the use of digital computation methodologies." The organizers of the competition acknowledge the extensive history of other intentions to restore or reinvent the city. They believe that their approach, however, may actually be a catalyst to action and accomplishment. In the context of a tabula rasa approach, they suggest that "every city has its history and Detroit is no different, but now it’s our turn to “bounce back” and maybe not in the traditional or conventional way, but in a new, unprecedented way that is specific to the one-of-a-kind condition Detroit presents to us. So the solution too, will be one-of-a-kind specific to our Detroit." It is a competition about place, illustrating ideas for specific sites in Detroit, and accepting both micro and macro approaches.

The jury is intriguingly international and includes, David Pigram of SUPERMANOUEVR, Marc Fornes of THEVERYMANY, Skylar Tibbits of SJET, Michael Ashley of MASH-ARKT, David Jackowski of ALVATRON STUDIO, Peter Macapia of DORA, Brian Dubois of 2:37AM / 2:37AM STUDIOS and Jason K. Johnson of FUTURE CITIES LAB. Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich of PATTERNS will act as the competition exhibition's keynote speakers.

Detroit UnReal Estate Agency is about documentation. They say they will "produce, collect and inventory information on the 'unreal estate' of Detroit: that is, on the remarkable, distinct, characteristic or subjectively significant sites of urban culture." The tabula rasa for them is acknowledged in their intention to aim "at new types of urban practices (architectural, artistically, institutional, everyday life, etc) that came into existence, creating a new local ‘normality’ and a new value system in the city of Detroit." Rejecting the "renovation" tendencies of Richard Florida, and the "artistic" opportunities in urban ruins, they  instead seek to "support stimulus strategies for urban transformation...and, simultaneously, to re-interpret and built on the value of decay as well as the intrusion of wildlife in the city." Among the questions they pose as a means to generating new concepts is "How to imagine a new equilibrium between the city, the human communities and the natural elements (plants, water, wilderness)?"

Detroit Unreal Estate Agency has a similar international origin. It is a project of Partizan Publik centered in Amsterdam. They call themselves a "think and action tank devoted to a braver society." Their intention is to "explore, produce and implement social, political and cultural instruments which generate positive and sustainable change to people and their surroundings." The Partizans are Christian Ernsten (founder) and Joost Janmaat (founder), as well as, Amir Djalali, Bart Blaauw, Arthur Huizinga and Jeroen Visser.

[bracket] is at the core of the matter, developing a web publication about farming in general, but with a number of urban farming proposals and with Detroit specific explorations. [bracket]'s platform for its first issue, On Farming, is broad. "Once merely understood in terms of agriculture, today information, energy, labour, and landscape, among others, can be farmed," they say. "Farming, beyond its most common agricultural understanding is the modification of infrastructure, urbanisms, architectures, and landscapes toward a privileging of production."

Bracket, also international in scope, is supported by the Graham Foundation and is a collaboration of Archinect and InfraNet Lab. They put together an annual publication intended to document "issues overlooked yet central to our cultural milieu that have evolved out of the new disciplinary territory at the intersection of architecture, landscape, urbanism and, now, the internet...a publishing platform for ideas charting the complex overlap of the sphere of architecture and online social spheres."

One of its projects, entitled "Your Town Tomorrow (Detroit 2007)" explores the form and history of the farming that was at the foundation of the city, noting that "it has been over three hundred years since Count Ponchartrain sent word back to Paris describing Detroit’s landscape as ' temperate, so fertile and so beautiful that it may justly be called the earthly paradise of North America.'” The brief implies an exploration of a return to the agriculture that lies under the industrialization and de-industrialization of the city.

With all of this as promise, in a sense, the concept of "tabula rasa," seemingly so free, clean, and airy, nonetheless seems to carry a bit of baggage. Considering the concept, it seems there are at least 6 ways to think about, employ or resist it.

  1. It's the wrong approach--There is no such thing as a tabula rasa. No matter the level of destruction, abandonment and decay,there is, resident in this place, a lingering memory of rights and wrongs that should never be dropped, overlooked or assuaged, and will always make its play.
  2. It's the right approach--Every tendency to bring complexity to this kind of problem is to defer its
    solution; the approach should be unencumbered and should uncover and deliver its effectiveness through simplicity, clarity, cleverness and insight brought from freshness, innocence, care, and creativity.
  3. It's not a physical concept--Declaration of the city as without fact and without history allows you to see what you want to see, not what is there;it is a political act that is about power not benevolence, about dominance not compromise.
  4. It is essentially a political tool--When everything else about the city's administration is corrupt or collapsing, when an entire half century can be measured only in decline, when the effect of its politics and policies has created the tabula rasa, the right approach is a political approach and should engage new modes of representation and administration.
  5. It is at its best as a physical concept--Perception is reality. The complication and compromise involved in almost every plan that acknowledges the political and social eliminates the ability
    to see things in new way; approaching the land and space as open and clear will allow new ideas to be implanted, leading more effectively to new perceptions generating more effective politics, plans and policies.
  6. He who throws the first stone--Those who promote and use the tabula rasa approach should be without sin; the concept has a sense of purity associated with it and its intentions and executions should be free of self interest and of the taint of past acts.

I'd be pleased to have your comments about any of the topics in this post.

As I write this, I've been interrupted by comments from my wife who has picked up Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road. She is reading it's post-apocalyptic vision in the context of the economy, not of the the bomb. She carries the sense of the tabula rasa in that case as gray, not the white (or green) I have been imagining.

She conjures up an image of a park in downtown Detroit, a "neighborhood" very close to the CBD and immediately adjacent to the city's newest and best high school. It is difficult, as you move through the area, to see someone who is not disabled in some way, moving on crutches, in wheelchairs, hobbling, or in grocery carts. There is no "order" in this neighborhood, and the streets are effectively public space for anything, not simply thoroughfares. There are only scattered buildings around, windowless, odd elements conjuring some sense of an earlier time before they, too, are demolished and memory erased. There are those who come to the park in generosity to prepare food on outdoor grills and around whom, on a sensed or known schedule, huge numbers of homeless gather, aroused from their otherwise dispersed sleeping areas around the park.

In this case, it is no job, no health, no home, no place, no security, no resource, that makes up the tabula rasa. And it is expanding.

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Detroit's rebirth

Fighting through the clutter of the perpetually self-reinforcing Detroit paradigms (Egad! That City Council!), there is the fact that this place--on the river, an international border, surrounded by lakes, beautiful communities--offers so very much in terms of environment, entertainment and enthusiastic citizens and admirers from other places. So it is surprising, and delightful, to see a story like this in a recent issue of Fast Company--a recognition that the delights, the oddities, and the prices, might just be an attraction to a creative class who could generate a new kind of economy here.


Fast Company...Seven Tiny Tech Stories That Will Be Huge...

Cities die, but they rarely disappear. So it will go with Detroit, where property values have fallen to pennies on the dollar. Yes, the American motor companies may have grossly mismanaged their businesses and eviscerated Detroit's economic core in the process--to see just how, read this lecture--but there is indeed beauty in Detroit waiting to be salvaged. According to the AP, cheap homes are bringing in out-of-state buyers by the droves, if for no other reason than to indulge in the novelty of buying a $10 house.

For evidence of Detroit's inevitable rebound, look no further than this online photo essay by Time magazine documenting the city's delapidated architectural elegance. Untouched Queen Annie Victorians, stately public buildings and once-lavish neighborhoods beg for revitalization, and the prices expect it.

While it might seem quixotic to hope that the auto industry will rise again, it's entirely within reason to believe that Detroit might find itself home to an information economy in the next decade. As startups look for space on the cheap in a worsening recession, and our larger economy transitions away from manufacturing and towards intellectual property and invention, a host of heretofore neglected cities might find themselves unlikely candidates for colonization by small, agile companies looking for the space to expand away from the excesses cost of New York, Boston or California.

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