This picture shows a few children playing on the swings at a park.
The recently-opened Ella Fitzgerald Park shows how Detroit is getting creative with vacant lots. Spackman Mossop Michaels

The reuse of over a dozen vacant lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood illustrates the city’s holistic approach to redevelopment outside of downtown.

It’s been a week since Ella Fitzgerald Park opened in Detroit. It’s named after the storied jazz and blues singer who made a career in nearby clubs, but the Fitzgerald neighborhood in which it resides predates her.

As for the park’s design, the jury is still out.

Bernadette King, who’s lived in the Fitzgerald neighborhood since 1993, spent a good chunk of Thursday enjoying the new space, hula hooping in the park with a friend. She dreams  that one day hoolahoopers from across the neighborhood will line the park’s open space at once.

Darnetta Banks, whose family moved into the neighborhood in 1966, has high hopes for the park, too, but worries that there aren’t enough jungle gyms or trash cans, and that the noise disturbs those who live closest to it.

Regardless, the neighbors, city officials, developers and philanthropists who helped make the park happen know that this is just the beginning.

Nearly a third of the lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood in the northwest section of Detroit sit vacant. Some hold abandoned homes falling into disrepair and others are simply overgrown. Neighbors have informally converted many into community gardens or meeting places over the years. It’s all too common in Detroit, where vacancies steadily increased as the city’s population fell over the last half-century. “The only change I saw was people moving out,” said King of her nearly 30 years in the neighborhood.

It took a while for redevelopment money to start flowing into Detroit after the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, and most of it was aimed downtown.

In the run-up to his reelection campaign, Mayor Mike Duggan and planning director Maurice Cox turned their attention to Detroit’s neighborhoods. Instead of spreading resources around the entire city, Cox focused on three specific neighborhoods to create a model for redeveloping the rest.

That’s how the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project was born, and why Ella Fitzgerald Park just opened in the middle of the quarter-square-mile neighborhood.  

The idea behind the project, according to Alexa Bush, Detroit’s east region design director, was to transform the neighborhood without building new housing on the vacant lots—there’s no market for it, she says—in a cost-effective, low maintenance manner. Even with plenty of philanthropic partners, the city’s financial situation necessitates low-maintenance changes that won’t place a larger burden on the parks department or other city services. “We want to create a neighborhood that feels complete, intentional, and cared for without having to build a single house,” she said. The city’s planning department, which employed six people at the time, sought help from a consulting firm, Spackman Mossop Michaels (SMM), which started drawing up plans.

Anchoring the neighborhood’s center were about 20 consecutive vacant lots. It was the perfect spot for a park, and Darnetta Banks, president of the Prairie Street Block Club, had already been using the space to plan Fitzgerald Activity Days for the community.

Representatives from SMM and from the city attended Block Club meetings, hosted forums, and even created a website to help figure out exactly what the neighbors would want out of a redevelopment plan and the park. The city also contacted a local artist, Hubert Massey, to create murals for the new public space.

The new Ella Fitzgerald Park was constructed atop 19 consecutive vacant lots. (Spackman Mossop Michaels)

The result is a park with mostly open space, a jungle gym, a basketball court and two murals longer than 60 feet.

Massey didn’t do the murals on this own, though. While the design is his, the actual artwork was done with community members who provided the color and helped tile the 60- and 70-foot murals that line the park.

“It’s really wonderful when you get people involved in the process and get people excited about experiencing the creative aspect of participating in art,” Massey said of the creations.

Hubert Massey drew the outline for his mural, but the colors were inserted by neighbors. (Hubert Massey)

The murals have made the park distinct and colorful. But still, the park’s large swath of empty space, Banks thinks, is a missed opportunity.

“It’s a shallow model of what we thought it would be,” she said. Banks expected more play space for children that included more structures to play on.

Wes Michaels, a co-owner at SMM, who helped design the park, tried to create a space that fits many age groups, needs minimal upkeep, and encourages cars to slow down (the vacant lots sat on different sides of a street). For the latter, the design team painted the roads blue indicating a slow zone, and moved the jungle gyms to a portion of the park furthest from the road. The park also includes a basketball court and picnic benches.

San Juan Drive, which passes between the main park and the basketball court, was painted blue to slow drivers. (SMM)

As part of the plan, the Detroit Land Bank Authority was able to transfer the lots that make up the park to the parks department, which agreed to take on its upkeep. It’ll also take over a slew of tangentially connected vacant lots which, all together, will be transformed into a greenway connecting the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College—two schools that hug the neighborhood from the east and west.

Moreover, a local developer team called Fitz Forward won a bid to refurbish several houses in the neighborhood for sale, and to transform the remaining vacant lots into meadows, gardens, and other community hubs. Meanwhile, the city and its philanthropic partners are investing in the nearby Livernois-McNichols commercial district, to help attract new stores to an area that has lost much of its neighborhood retail in recent years.

“For Detroit to be an equitable place for residents, there have to be strong neighborhoods,” said Chantel Rush, the program officer of the Kresge Foundation’s American Cities Practice. Kresge, so far, has invested nearly $4.8 million into the neighborhood projects. The JPB, Knight, and Rockefeller Foundations are also investing in the project.  

According to David Alade, a co-owner of Century Partners, one of the developing firms that makes up Fitz Forward, several of the refurbished houses are supposed to be set aside for moderate- and low-income buyers and, he says, the city is helping provide grants and loans to potential home-buyers.

The sudden interest from large philanthropic organizations and the city into the Fitzgerald neighborhood hasn’t gone without a hitch, of course. A recent investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that the project was a year behind schedule and had lost some of its federal funding. Moreover, some residents feel that the communication with the neighbors needs to be stronger, and that the city could do more to help existing homeowners.

For example, while the city offers zero interest loans to existing homeowners to renovate their homes, Banks isn’t sure that’ll always be able to help. “There’s nothing out here grant-wise for existing homeowners,” she said. “That should have been brought to the table in the very beginning.” If the city wants new people to move into the neighborhood, they need to make it as accessible as possible for existing neighbors to update their properties, Banks added.

And the communication between the city and the residents hasn’t always been perfect. According to Bernadette King, a member of the College Corp Block Club, it took a while before the city’s websites were up, and still some people don’t have internet access. But she attributes a lot of the problems to growing pains.

“This is how you learn,” she said. “This is new for residents.”

And she’s excited to see what comes next. “I’m very pleased with the park and I am looking forward to more great things,” she said.

If all goes as planned, the Fitzgerald neighborhood should be transformed in the next two years. By then, all the vacant lots will either be owned by the parks department, new homeowners, or be used by as meeting spaces, meadows, or farms by neighbors. A greenway will cross the neighborhood and a series of community hubs will dot almost every block. Massey’s murals will look over it all from the new park that sits between Prairie and San Juan streets.

For residents who have lived there for years, like Darnetta Banks and Bernadette King, it’s been a long time coming.

“We’ve watched this area go from a beautiful area to just fine,” Banks said. “Now, we’re back on the rise.”

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