University of Detroit Mercy Helps Transform Vacancies into Public Assets
Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, bounded by two prominent commercial corridors and home to the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College, has benefited in recent years from grassroots planning and revitalization efforts. The University of Detroit Mercy, in particular, has had a central leadership role in community organizing and in forming the community development organization Live6 Alliance. Since 2015, Live6 has undertaken numerous projects that focus on residential stabilization, placemaking, and community engagement with support from the University of Detroit Mercy’s design professionals. During this time, the city of Detroit restructured its planning and housing departments with a renewed focus on neighborhood-level planning. When the city began a major revitalization planning effort for Fitzgerald, it was able to tap into the network of community groups fostered by the University of Detroit Mercy and Live6 and build on the local projects already underway. The resulting Fitzgerald Revitalization Project calls for the comprehensive reuse of all vacant lots and buildings in the neighborhood as park space, productive landscapes, and mixed-income housing.
University of Detroit Mercy in the Community
Decades of depopulation and disinvestment in Fitzgerald caused the neighborhood’s 2014 median income to drop to below $16,000 and left approximately 400 lots and buildings vacant. One of the neighborhood’s strongest assets in facing these challenges has been the University of Detroit Mercy. In 2011, the university expanded its role as a community leader by partnering with the Kresge Foundation and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation to discuss approaches to revitalization with Fitzgerald residents and business owners. The discussions led to the creation of Live6 Alliance, an organization that focuses on six program areas: real estate development, business attraction and retention, placemaking, residential stabilization, safety, and engagement.
Live6 staff connect neighborhood residents with city resources such as mortgage assistance and home repair loans and connect local business owners with resources for financial and technical assistance. Live6 also organizes community events such as a bimonthly food and craft market and gatherings for neighborhood residents to tell stories about their experiences living in the community. For city-led planning initiatives in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, Live6 serves as the point of contact between the city and neighborhood residents.
Live6 frequently uses the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), a nonprofit design organization in the University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture. Established in 1994, DCDC provides community engagement and design services to neighborhood organizations and other clients throughout the city. Modeled after a teaching hospital, DCDC employs seven full-time design professionals and between one and four student interns. DCDC’s primary participation in Live6 is to assist with coordinating community events. DCDC also worked with Live6 to install temporary streetscape elements such as bike lanes and landscaping along Livernois Avenue to help activate the street.
Collaborating with the City of Detroit
After Detroit’s bankruptcy in 2013, the city developed a new approach to planning that centered on community engagement through neighborhood organizations. The city began the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project in 2015, involving residents in all steps of the process and incorporating the projects and activities of Live6. Following community and block club meetings held over a period of five months, the city and local stakeholders developed a plan to holistically address every publicly owned vacant structure and parcel in the neighborhood.
The city contracted with landscape architecture firm Spackman Mossop Michaels, Live6, and DCDC to create a landscape strategy that would serve as a framework for the reuse of vacant lots and the rehabilitation of vacant buildings. Instead of constructing new houses on the vacant lots, which the market would not support, the framework calls for reuse of 250 vacant lots as 3 different landscape typologies. Fifty lots will be combined to create a 2.5-acre park and an approximately half-mile-long greenway connecting the campuses of the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College. Other lots that can be combined into larger parcels will be used as urban farms that may generate revenue. The remaining standalone lots will be converted to passive parks that provide stormwater management or pollinator habitats using native plants. Improvements to the park, greenway, and other open spaces will be financed with community development block grant funds and private capital, as well as funding from Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national philanthropic initiative.
After establishing a landscape strategy for the neighborhood, the city signed a development agreement with Fitz Forward, a partnership of local developers Century Partners and The Platform, to rehabilitate 115 vacant houses. Fitz Forward plans to rehabilitate the vacant houses as a mix of rental and for-sale houses with a minimum of 20 percent being affordable as required by the city. A mix of public subsidy and private funds will finance the housing renovations; the city is currently working with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to determine the amount of subsidy from the HOME Investment Partnerships, Community Development Block Grant, and other HUD programs.
The Fitzgerald Revitalization Project also includes complete streets projects for the neighborhood’s commercial corridors (Livernois Avenue and McNichols Road, which mark Fitzgerald’s eastern and northern boundaries, respectively) that build on DCDC and Live6’s temporary streetscaping installation. Complementing the redesign of Livernois Avenue will be the revitalization of commercial structures and vacant lots. Other significant activities include the repurposing of a high school on the Marygrove College campus as a community center and the reuse of a storefront on McNichols Road as a resource center called HomeBase that will house DCDC, Live6, city staff, and local housing developers. HomeBase will function as a one-stop shop for residents seeking access to neighborhood resources. The relocation of DCDC and Live6 staff to the neighborhood will allow the University of Detroit Mercy to have an even more active presence in the community.
University of Detroit Mercy as a Catalyst for Action
As a partner in the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project, Live6 took the lead in community engagement and served as a liaison between the city and the community. Over the past 2 years, Detroit city staff have attended more than 90 community meetings and functions in Fitzgerald, demonstrating Live6’s success in community organizing as well as the city’s commitment to giving residents a voice. Implementation of the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project is currently underway; the housing rehabilitation work will begin in spring 2018 and continue through 2020. Construction of the park will be completed by summer 2018, and the greenway will begin construction this year.
Live6 Alliance. n.d. “About.” Accessed 16 February 2018; Interview with Alexa Bush, senior city planner, city of Detroit, 14 February 2018; University of Detroit Mercy. 2015. “Live6 Alliance to Advance Neighborhood Revitalization in Livernois/McNichols Corridor,” news, 1 September. Accessed 16 February 2018.×
Interview with Alexa Bush, senior city planner, city of Detroit, 14 February 2018; Antoine Garibaldi. 2015. “Live6 Alliance announcement,” YouTube video, University of Detroit Mercy channel, 1 September. Accessed 15 March 2018; Live6 Alliance. n.d. “About.” Accessed 16 February 2018.×
Live6 Alliance. n.d. “Programs and Focus.” Accessed 5 March 2018; Interview with Alexa Bush, senior city planner, city of Detroit, 14 February 2018.×
Detroit Collaborative Design Center. n.d. “About.” Accessed 16 February 2018; American Institute of Architects. n.d. “2017 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award: Detroit Collaborative Design Center.” Accessed 23 February 2018; Detroit Collaborative Design Center. n.d. “Projects: Live6 Alliance.” Accessed 23 February 2018; Detroit Collaborative Design Center. n.d. “Projects: Better Block.” Accessed 5 March 2018.×
Scott A. Brave and Paul Traub. 2017. “Tracking Detroit’s Economic Recovery After Bankruptcy with a New Index,” Chicago Fed Letter 376. Accessed 16 February 2018; Interview with Alexa Bush, senior city planner, city of Detroit, 14 February 2018; Detroit Collaborative Design Center. n.d. “Projects: Fitzgerald Revitalization Plan.” Accessed 9 March 2018; Correspondence from Alexa Bush, 22 March 2018.×
Interview with Alexa Bush, senior city planner, city of Detroit, 14 February 2018; American Society of Landscape Architects. n.d. “2017 ALSA Professional Awards: Fitzgerald Revitalization Project: Landscapes as the Framework for Community Reinvestment.” Accessed 16 February 2018; Fitzgerald Revitalization Project. n.d. “Neighborhood Framework Plan.” Accessed 16 February 2018; Correspondence from Alexa Bush, 22 March 2018.×
Interview with Alexa Bush, senior city planner, city of Detroit, 14 February 2018; Correspondence from Alexa Bush, 22 March 2018.×
Detroit Collaborative Design Center. n.d. “Projects: Livernois and McNichols Public Realm Plan.” Accessed 16 February 2018; Interview with Alexa Bush, senior city planner, city of Detroit, 14 February 2018; University of Detroit Mercy. 2017. “Work begins on HomeBase and Ella Fitzgerald Park,” news, 18 October. Accessed 23 February 2018; Detroit Team. 2016. “Detroit’s 21st Century Dual Campus Civic Commons,” 2, presentation given as proposal to “Reimagining the Civic Commons,” 3 May. Accessed 16 February 2018.×
Interview with Alexa Bush, senior city planner, city of Detroit, 14 February 2018.×