Amy Crawford has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, Slate, and Smithsonian. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The city is experiencing a sustained real estate boom, poaching employers—even pro sports teams—from surrounding municipalities. Places like Southfield, Pontiac, and Dearborn will have to find ways to keep up.
Throughout the 20th century, as American metro areas sprawled ever outward, Detroit—the city that arguably made the modern suburbs possible—led the way. It began with developments in the auto industry; while early plants were multi-story, like 19th-century mills, the continuous assembly line required cavernous single-story buildings on larger plots of land than were available in the city. Between World War II and 1960, automakers built some 20 new facilities in Southeast Michigan, but not one in Detroit city limits.
“That drove the employment structure, and as the economy shifted all types of employment went to the suburbs,” says Avis C. Vidal, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Detroit’s Wayne State University. “Since the postwar period, there’s been a great deal of suburban housing built on the fringes—in excess of the number of households in the region.”
White flight, overly rosy demographic projections, and car-based planning continued to encourage patchy, rambling growth. And even as Detroit itself became a symbol for everything that was going wrong in America’s inner cities in the late 20th century, the sprawl prospered. Seven Fortune 500 companies now call the Detroit suburbs home, compared to three inside the city. By 2000, Oakland County, which borders Detroit to the north, was one of the richest in the nation. Meanwhile, Detroit was headed toward the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.
In recent years, however, buzz around Detroit—or, at least, the 7.2-square-mile area known as Greater Downtown, if not the city’s predominantly black residential neighborhoods—has been growing. The new Detroit has been earning a reputation as a hipster haven, but urban farms and bike shops aren’t what’s fueling its growth. In 2011, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert consolidated the mortgage giant’s entire Michigan workforce—today, some 15,000 employees—in downtown Detroit, abandoning office space in the suburbs. Gilbert’s real estate company, Bedrock, is now Detroit’s largest landlord, and it just broke ground on a new 800-foot skyscraper, the centerpiece of a $2.1 billion investment that comes with the promise of 24,000 new jobs. According to real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield, office vacancy rates in Detroit’s central business district and Midtown neighborhood are now just 10.9 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively, compared to 13.5 percent in the region as a whole—and down nearly two-thirds since to 2010.
Meanwhile, Ford, which pulled out of the city completely in 1996, will move its electric and autonomous vehicle divisions from neighboring Dearborn into Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood later this year. It’s a deliberate effort, executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. has said, to appeal to young workers who want to live and work in urban neighborhoods. And although a spokeswoman said the company was not ready to make any announcements, Ford’s plans for a Corktown campus are rumored to include Michigan Central Station, the abandoned Beaux Arts train station that has long been a dramatic symbol of Detroit’s decline.
It’s all exciting news for Detroit. Some in the suburbs, however, are watching these developments warily. As Detroit belatedly joins the nationwide urban resurgence, will its suburbs ride the city’s coattails, or will they struggle to compete? If Ford’s sought-after millennial tech workers want to be downtown, can the outlying, auto-centric communities that were so long synonymous with the region’s prosperity reinvent themselves in time to stay relevant?
Built in 1975 as the new home for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, the Pontiac Silverdome, with its state-of-the-art inflatable roof, would go on to host Superbowl XVI and appearances by Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Pope John Paul II. But the Lions moved back to Detroit in 2002, and after years of neglect the Silverdome was imploded in December. Crews are continuing to deconstruct the remains, and city officials say they are exploring options to redevelop the site, which should be cleared by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the vast parking lot has found a less illustrious second life, as a graveyard for Volkswagen’s recalled “cheating diesels.”
The Silverdome, about 30 miles from downtown Detroit, is not the region’s only ill-fated suburban landmark. Long-abandoned Summit Place Mall, in nearby Waterford Township, is under a demolition order, after a scheme to turn it into a “sports and entertainment complex” never came to fruition. The NBA’s Pistons’ former home, the Palace of Auburn Hills, was renovated in 2015 but doomed to obsolescence when Little Caesar’s Arena opened in Detroit last September. While the now-shuttered Palace is surrounded by parking, Little Caesar’s sits at the center of a new, 50-block mixed-use development called “The District Detroit,” a so-far successful effort to tap into the modern mania for walkability.
The failure of a few landmarks does not mean Detroit’s suburbs are doomed, but some local leaders see writing on the wall. Oakland County’s famously abrasive county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, has long taken a vocal pro-sprawl position, but even his government is making an effort to invest in the county’s handful of historic downtowns, via what’s touted as the “nation’s first and only county-wide Main Street program.” Archetypal suburbs like Troy are also getting in on the act. While it may be hard now to imagine walking along Troy’s main drag, a busy six-lane thoroughfare called Big Beaver Road, the city recently installed wider sidewalks, revised zoning to encourage taller buildings and multifamily housing, and took a stab at transit with a trolley-style shuttle bus.
“Everybody’s trying to create places in Southeast Michigan, which didn’t really have places before,” says Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for Dearborn, which borders Detroit to the southwest. “And there’s a lot of interest in diversified housing options, from young people who want to be in the hearts of downtowns.”
Dearborn, with a bustling commercial center of its own less than seven miles from Detroit’s, is in a better position to adapt to the changing times than most of its suburban peers. The city has been Ford’s hometown for the past century, and while a few thousand Ford workers might be moving down Michigan Avenue, the automaker is also spending more than $1 billion to reimagine its Dearborn headquarters along the lines of a Silicon Valley Tech Campus, and to create a new mixed-use development around Dearborn’s historic Wagner Hotel. Murray expects at least 1,000 new apartments to come online over the next few years—at present, he estimates, 90 percent of the city’s 38,000 housing units are detached single-family homes. Meanwhile, a declining mall where 1,800 Ford employees are temporarily occupying an old Lord & Taylor is “an active planning area,” Murray says. “We know these retailers are not going to be there forever.”
Southfield, just across Eight Mile Road from Detroit, could tell Dearborn a thing or two about disappearing retail—last year, it began tearing down Northland Center, the first shopping mall in America. Since Amazon turned down the city’s offer of the site for its second headquarters, Southfield is moving forward with a plan to crisscross the property with through streets and make way for offices, restaurants, apartments and a park—an effort to create a downtown in a city built without one. Says Mayor Kenson Siver, “We have a lot of plans here.”
Southfield is also home to the region’s largest office complex outside Detroit, but Southfield Town Center—as the cluster of five golden glass towers is known—has recently been forced to compete with Detroit for tenants. This year, it will lose Microsoft’s Michigan Technology Center, which is following Fifth Third Bancorp’s regional headquarters to Detroit. Still, Siver remains sanguine, noting that other large employers have recently moved in, and Southfield saw more than $200 million in investment over the past year.
A Southfield resident of more than 50 years, Siver argues that the suburban idea—single-family homes, big yards, good schools, and highway access—will always appeal to a certain segment of the population. So while the community is working to add density where it can, he believes Southfield’s future lies not in imitating Detroit, but in emphasizing its differences.
“You would never hear me bash Detroit—I think we’re all in this together, and I’m glad to see Detroit thriving,” Siver says. “But clearly, not everybody wants to be downtown. The workforce is still in the suburbs. They have their kids in school here. And I’ve heard from employers who have considered Detroit but decide on Southfield because of parking.”
“Southfield has tons of free parking—convenient parking,” Siver adds. “And if people want to go to Detroit, they can get in their cars and drive 15 minutes.”