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Wall Street Journal Names Detroit in Top 5 Innovative Cities To Watch

DETROIT: Reducing red tape for neighborhood redevelopment


Adapted from the article, "Five Cities That Are Leading the Way in Urban Innovation" in the Wall Street Journal
Written by Michael Totty

The city hopes to encourage startup businesses and small-scale redevelopment projects by creating ‘pink zones’ with a simpler approval process. 

Detroit, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2014, doesn’t have a lot of money for revitalizing all of its neglected areas. So it is trying something more radical: setting aside areas where normal development rules don’t apply.

Developers and designers complain that, like many cities, Detroit’s onerous and outdated rules make it too difficult to rebuild or repurpose long-neglected retail areas. To try to reduce those obstacles without a time-consuming and expensive rezoning process, the city is proposing a handful of “pink zones,” where red tape will be cut to help small developers and entrepreneurs open new businesses and revive aging commercial strips. The goal is not to eliminate zoning but to ease some of the constraints faced by new projects, like minimum-parking requirements or environmental-impact reports.

With a $75,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the city planning department intends to recruit designers and planners to come up with a general framework for anyone who wants to start a new business or build in those areas. This might include pre-approved plans that can be used by builders to speed up a new development.

“You can create a great place, and you won’t have to go through months of red tape,” saysMaurice Cox, Detroit’s planning director.

The idea of pink zones has been rumbling around planning circles for a few years. In the U.K., where it is called pink planning, it mainly aims to remove obstacles to new residential developments. It is part of a larger effort called “lean urbanism” that aims to reduce the regulatory tangle that can hinder new business.

Andrés Duany, a planner and architect who in the 1980s helped popularize the New Urbanism idea of walkable neighborhoods with a mix of housing, jobs and retail, is a leading U.S. proponent of lean urbanism. He says the idea came from all the young entrepreneurs and artists who in recent years were drawn to Detroit by cheap housing and space for launching new ventures. Detroit’s recent bankruptcy made that possible, he says, because the city wasn’t able to enforce its development rules and hinder the pioneering newcomers.

Detroit’s pink zones pilot program is the first test of this idea and is expected to serve as model for efforts to spur small redevelopment projects in other cities. “The city is ripe, the time is ripe,” says Douglas Kelbaugh, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

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