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With Detroit in dire straits, mayor invites big thinking

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 12:39 AM

DETROIT - On a recent Tuesday afternoon, city hall was quiet and dim. The front desk was unattended. The receptionist, and most other city workers, had been furloughed again.

If he had wanted to, Mayor Dave Bing could have looked out his 11th-story window at the Detroit River and the final vestiges of the boomtown he arrived in 44 years ago.

But his eyes were focused on the grim details of the city's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Page 25: The annual budget is in the hole by $155 million. Page 28: Long-term debt has climbed to $5.7 billion. Bing tapped the 237-page document with his index finger, number after daunting number.

"When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on, but I got here and found out [that] in the short term, things were way worse than I ever imagined," Bing said. "Financially. Ethically. From a policy standpoint. We were on the brink of a financial calamity."

Twenty-one months into the job, that's where the city remains. With no salvation in sight, Bing, 67, has embarked on a mission few in his position have ever had to take on: dramatically shrinking a major American metropolis. To do so, Bing has issued an open invitation: anyone with a proposal, plan, theory - a notion, even - is welcome to try to save his crumbling city.

Numerous outfits have responded, turning Detroit into the new New Orleans - a giant testing ground for urban planners and developers.

There is an urban farming proposal, which would turn over whole sections of the city to corporate farming operations. Many of the country's leading foundations, including Kresge, Ford, Rockefeller, Kellogg, Skillman and Knight, are funding arts, education and development projects.

The Urban Land Institute is helping to revitalize a downtown corridor. The federal government has spent hundreds of millions, and Bing is seeking millions more.

"It's open season," said Chazz Miller, an artist and entrepreneur in Detroit who was handed a $15,000 grant from the Knight Foundation last year after speaking on a panel about urban renewal. He's now applying for a $40,000 grant for a beautification project in the Brightmoor neighborhood. "There's over a million dollars a year now for public art in Detroit."

Bing announced a plan on Monday to encourage city police officers and firefighters to live in Detroit as a way of bolstering neighborhoods. Using federal dollars and deals with local banks, the city would offer homes for as little as $1,000.

The mayor is not just trying to save Detroit for its residents, but create the kind of city that others will want to return to, said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University. "Bing, since he came on board, has consistently held the position publicly that this is a time that requires decisive and directional changing intervention," he said.

"There is a new day," Boyle said. "The question is, do they have the will and the capacity and the facility to make a change in a place that is so economically and socially and environmentally impacted as Detroit?"

The mayor has, so far, made no commitments. At this point, he just wants residents to face facts. Such as: He cannot afford to send water, garbage trucks and other services to large parts of his city. And: There are so few ambulances that some people have been transported in city-owned sedans. Plus: Last summer, the wheels and rims were stolen off Bing's GMC Yukon security vehicle and it was left on blocks.

"It's a puzzle, and we've got to start putting the pieces together in ways that make sense," Bing said. "The key to our coming back is being focused and making sure that we've got the right kind of density in the right parts of the city."

Bing knows his constitutents are wary. Some proposals, for instance, call for effectively clearing out and closing off enormous sectors of the city. Already, nearly one-third of Detroit - an area the size of Boston - is largely deserted.

"The key is what change will really look like," said Donna Harris, director of a neighborhood community development corporation. "It's not that we dislike change. We dislike being changed."

Sense of urgency

Bing, a Washington native, was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1966, the second player taken that year. Bing the ballplayer was known for a jump shot so smooth he became a Hall of Famer. Bing the mayor looks more comfortable flipping through the city's financial report than glad-handing with constituents.

He pushes back when his scheduler tells him that, after an already long day of meetings, he'll need to do a radio interview and swing by a United Auto Workers reception. "I'm not some kind of toy," he said sarcastically, holding his hand up like puppet-master, before agreeing to go along.

He is in the office at 7 a.m. and does not shut down until well into the night. Lithe and tall, he favors tailored suits and fedoras. He was a wealthy man before becoming mayor and has opted to forgo a salary as he engages in tough negotiations with the city's unions to cut their salaries and pensions.

"Most people would say, 'Hey, you're in your mid-60s. Hell, it's time to just kick back and enjoy life,' Bing said. "And I'll tell you, that was where my head was. But you really look at the time where we are . . . if we don't fix the city now, it's not going to happen."

Bing spent a recent evening at a dinner hosted by the Urban Land Institute's Rose Center, which has agreed to spend $100,000 to help revitalize the two-mile Livernois corridor, a stretch once known as the Avenue of Fashion.

"This city was hot," Bing told the urban planners. In those days, the Big Three auto companies and their suppliers had built the nation's largest black middle class.

Now, the avenue has Family Dollar, Auto Zone and the Gates of Heaven funeral home.

There was a time that cities in Detroit's predicament would rely on the federal government to save them. But that's not a luxury available to Bing.

During a recent trip to Washington to attend the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Bing sat near the front of the room as retiring Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley passed along wisdom gained during his 22 years in office. "The idea that we come down to Washington, and they have all this money, it's wrong," Daley said. "Those days are over."

Bing clapped 'amen' to that, but he continues to pursue federal programs that could benefit Detroit. "As much as we can get - always ," he said.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was in Detroit last month to meet with Bing about a $400 million light-rail project, which will be developed downtown with public and private dollars.

On that same corridor, Bing is using money from neighborhood grants and $110 million in federal stimulus dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to knock down abandoned buildings and clean up the area, among other projects.

"He knows what he doesn't know, and he knows where he needs help," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. "He's invited us in as a true partner to help him tackle those issues."

Creating a plan

Late last year, Bing held his first round of community listening sessions for his Detroit Works Project, which will eventually produce a master plan for the city. There was a lot of yelling and many questions about whether people would be forced to move out of their homes if their neighborhoods are shuttered. Bing promises no forced relocation.

But memories remain of two black neighborhoods, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, that were demolished when the city built the Chrysler Freeway.

"Is the real goal to, in one fell swoop, clear significant portions of land that can then be turned over to developers, and then you can turn over the entire ethnic typography of the city?" asked Horace Sheffield III, president of a coalition of black organizations.

Last week, in a second round of listening sessions, Bing's staff had electronic clickers and a digital survey to take community feedback silently - a way to cut down on the screaming. But the fears were still there.

Anna Montgomery, 57, is the kind of resident Bing will have to win over. She was born in the city, retired from the assembly line at Chrysler and bought her bungalow 30 years ago for less than $20,000.

"I would not be opposed to moving if I was compensated for a lifetime of living in this home," she said. "Well compensated. . . . And it would depend on the neighborhood they are thinking about consolidating us in."

The city has no money to give to people like Montgomery. One of the few things it can offer is a new address - one from its stock of thousands of foreclosed and abandoned houses.

In coming months, Bing will announce a plan. But he's already made one calculation - giving up his campaign pledge to be a one-term mayor.

"It's going to take more than one term to turn this around," he said.

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