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Archive: Curtis Johnson

Texas-size Thinking

Curtis Johnson / Feb 14 2013

For Release Thursday, February 14, 2012

Curtis JohnsonLegendary Chicago planner Daniel Burnham would like Scott Polikov. No timid plans, no boutiqued, half-done solutions. Polikov – attorney turned town planner and public-private partnership consultant – spoke in mid-January to a roomful of rest estate developers, financiers, planners and local officials at an event sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Polikov was bursting with big ideas – even for small places.

He told this audience that the key to better development today is a mindset centered on economic strategy. “We never approach a project and start out by just planning,” he said. “We start with a market study, to see what level and what kind of investment will actually produce good results. Planning, in the absence of examining market conditions, ought to be considered malpractice.” This approach could provide more local funding capacity for infrastructure, to make up for diminishing federal capacity.

Proving his point, he put up slides from a small Texas community. The scene looked familiar to anyone who’s seen small cities with neglected centers. Roanoke, Texas, just north of Fort Worth, has a population of 7,000. Despite a median household income of almost $80,000, the city’s center looked weary and worn. It was a tableau all too familiar: aging concrete spread all over, with the usual eruption of power poles and tacky signs pointing to places people already know how to find. Few pedestrians in sight. And because it’s Texas, a predominance of pickup trucks.
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Michigan’s Minor Miracle

Curtis Johnson / Dec 27 2012

For Release Thursday, December 27, 2012

Curtis JohnsonQuestion: What recent political event in Michigan, affecting the Detroit region, holds the potential for the most lasting impact?

No, it’s not the state’s controversial new right-to-work law, as full of implications as that may be. It’s not the latest maneuvers over Detroit’s finances, which may lead to a bankruptcy episode in the coming year.

The answer lies in what might appear to be a minor structural change in how one piece of government is organized. On Dec. 19, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law the new Regional Transit Authority (RTA). Over a whole generation of attempts – 24 in all – various coalitions had tried to put together something regional for transit – a system taken for granted in virtually all other major metros of America. Such a measure even passed once, in 2002, but Republican Gov. John Engler vetoed it, almost literally on his way out of office.

The RTA goes live in March and gets full financial authority in October 2013. It effectively merges the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which has long run a bus system serving Macomb County and the outer portions of Wayne and Oakland counties.

Serious transit in Motown? Like a wind farm on a coal mine? In reality, Detroit’s transit history dates to 1863, when the city had a horse-drawn streetcar system. By 1900 the streetcar railway, electrified by then, had expanded to offer inter-urban service to Ann Arbor, Toledo, Port Huron, Flint and Jackson – only to die a slow death in the 1920s.

Detroit’s downtown monorail circulator, dutifully running a 2.9-mile loop since 1987, was an early urban experiment. Though never a model of efficiency and often the butt of derisive humor, it soldiers on. Today, with downtown filling up again – spurred by investments by Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert and other entrepreneurs – the People Mover may not be lonely much longer.
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TechTown in Motown

Curtis Johnson / Nov 15 2012

For Release Thursday, November 15, 2012

Curtis JohnsonA couple of summers ago, I invited Pike Powers, the Austin business guru who more than anyone else engineered the economic reinvention of Austin a generation ago, to come to Detroit, a place much more in need of reinvention than Austin.

He and several others associated with the Citistates Group spent a couple of days looking at Detroit’s economic challenges, with the support of the Kresge Foundation. Before the first day was concluded, Pike sneaked off to look at TechTown. Arriving late afternoon, he was told he needed security clearance to look around. Using a patented folksy Texas accent, he talked his way past the security point and took a good look.

I still recall the glow on his face when he returned. I wrote down what came next. “This place they call TechTown,” he said, “is totally the key to a turnaround here.” “Everything is there that they need,” he went on, “from a critical mass of entrepreneurs to a supportive infrastructure, topped off with a clear connection to a good university with major investments in technology and medicine and engineering.”

It turns out that’s exactly the same theory of action held by the leadership of TechTown.
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A Presidential Proposition

Curtis Johnson / Oct 12 2012

For Release Friday, October 12, 2012

Curtis JohnsonIn a font size that virtually screamed from the Oct. 7 Sunday New York Times pages, readers saw: “REPUBLICANS TO CITIES: DROP DEAD.”

It’s true that most Republican heavies today hail from rural or suburban parts. That headline colorfully points to how severely one party has bent itself into an anti-urban crouch. But the headline also, if possible, understates how national politics today treats metropolitan regions – the cities of our time.

Having spent several years of my life working for a Republican governor, I cringe to see the way sensible economics has been chained up, locked out and hooted over by the reigning ideology of today’s leading Republicans.

Not that the Democrats are much better. A dear colleague of mine says ruefully that the Democrats don’t have very good answers, but the Republicans don’t even understand the questions (and he’s a Republican).

Most Americans now live and work in metro regions, so you’d expect full-throated support for their futures. Metros host the nation’s treasure of cultural and recreational amenities. They are undeniably the economic engines that power ongoing (if a bit fragile today) prosperity of the whole country.

Demographers in states with major metros point repeatedly to trends in baby-boomer behavior. Today once every eight seconds one of those 76 million people born between 1946 and 1963 reaches 65 years of age –a phenomenon that will last another 16 years. The majority of this group lives in suburbia. But their kids are gone (or at least grown), likely the dog, too. House and lawn care are wearisome burdens. As real estate conditions permit, nearly half are moving closer to the center of their regions, close to places they go frequently – restaurants, medical clinics, theaters, museums and sports venues.
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Housing Shortages in Detroit?

Curtis Johnson / Jun 30 2012

For Release Saturday, June 30, 2012
Citiscope News

Curtis JohnsonNowhere in the picture most people have of today’s Detroit is there an image of housing shortages. Mention the city and people think of vacant land and boarded up houses and old factories. Not many people imagine a growing cadre of career professionals scrambling for a scarce supply of rental housing.

But that scramble is the new reality. Our Citiscope team stumbled on to this as we interviewed the young and mid-career professionals moving to Detroit to join the Detroit Fellows Revitalization Program. Rena Bradley, who became one of the 29 selected fellows and who would eventually find a loft apartment she loves in Corktown within biking distance to her job at the Detroit Land Bank Authority, recalls “it took me a few weeks to find an apartment.” She landed in Detroit last August just as Live Midtown and Live Downtown programs were starting and found “there was nothing” where she was looking but hotel rooms.

So it doesn’t matter much that the median housing price in Detroit is parked at around $10,000 or that, as the Detroit Free Press recently reported, most sales of good houses in stable areas are for less than $75,000. Young people moving to Detroit want to rent.

Midtown has become a magnet for young and mid-career professionals. Their search for housing is colliding with 96 percent occupancy rates, which Sue Mosey of Midtown, Inc. calls a “very tight market.” For a while, some businesses (under the Live Midtown push) were offering $25,000 grants to employees who would buy in Midtown. That soaked up some of the supply, Mosey said. And while the pipeline seems clogged with demand, the supply is not keeping up. On the sober side of the credit meltdown, banks became wary of funding housing projects. “You had to look at very creative formulas, often involving foundations or corporate support, or you had a gap you couldn’t fill,” she said.

Olga Stella of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation agrees, describing housing finance in recent years as stuck in “a slump of low confidence.” Asked what might catalyze confidence, she pointed to retail. But retail typically doesn’t show up until there’s evidence of enough buyers. That’s why the decision by Whole Foods to build a store at Mack Avenue and John R Street in Midtown is so significant. “It’s not just a store,” Stella said, “it’s a signal to investors that demand is still growing and isn’t likely to stagnate.” Meantime, meeting demand is “slow, hard work, one project at a time.”

Signals aside, there are stirrings of new supply. Both Mosey and Stella point to the Broderick Towers across from the baseball park downtown and the Auburn, set to open this coming October at Cass and Canfield in Midtown.

Sustainable demand for good rentals is not that hard to imagine. In recent years employers such as Quicken Loans, Blue Cross, and Compuware have moved close to 9000 workers from outside the city to downtown. Cultural and arts institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the College for Creative Studies line the shoulders of Midtown’s Woodward Avenue. A thriving and large urban university, Wayne State, anchors the heart of the corridor. Vanguard Health System is pouring a billion dollars into the Detroit Medical Center.
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Think Detroit’s Done? — Think Again!

Curtis Johnson / Jun 14 2012

For Release Thursday, June 14, 2012
Citiscope News

Curtis JohnsonRepeating a too familiar refrain, the Economist, a famously serious weekly news magazine, reported in a June 9 story an outbreak of random shootings in Seattle and captioned a photo with “Not yet Detroit, though.”

There’s no debate that Detroit has big challenges. The mayor’s fighting off state control of the city’s budget, while having trouble keeping lights on the streets and garbage off them.

The school district, under emergency management, is imploding. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s land is vacant, much of it blighted. Crime, even in the remaining middle-class neighborhoods remains a problem.

No one denies these realities. But it’s also yesterday’s news.

What media accounts miss is a robust movement that’s building a new Detroit. It starts with the wave of young and mid-career professionals who’re moving to Detroit because they see opportunity.

Nothing better illustrates this movement than the 29 people chosen as Detroit Revitalization Fellows, most of whom moved or returned to Detroit to help boost its prospects. The program’s a project of Wayne State University, funded by the Kresge Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State, matching rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of building a better city.

Rachel Perschetz, who left a Washington D.C. consulting firm to work at Southwest Solutions, recalls her first exposure to Corktown, Campus Martius, the Henry Ford exhibits and the Motown Museum: “Right away I knew I wanted to be part of it. I recognized how much the city has to offer to young and creative professional people; I was inspired by the enormous potential.”

Detroit also harbors surprising possibilities. Rents to start a small business are affordable. A rich array of organizations working strategies for a new Detroit are looking for talent and finding it.

These young and mid-career professionals see something that local cynics and national naysayers don’t. They arrive with new lenses to spot opportunities. Another of the Detroit Fellows, Erin Kelly, working at NextEnergy, even sees opportunity in abandoned structures: “I am looking at how the demolition process is leveraged to create jobs and stabilize taxable property value in the city, including how to manage the land once it becomes vacant. I know we can attract investment and create jobs in Detroit by down-cycling some of the material streams coming out of these structures.”
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A Detroit Surprise

Curtis Johnson / Apr 15 2012

For Release Sunday, April 15, 2012

Curtis Johnson“America’s Surprise Comeback City” read the headline tucked into a tight corner of a magazine cover. I was connecting at the Los Angeles airport after a long flight, ready to board a red-eye flight back to the Midwest, and thought I’d do a quick browse of the newsstand. It was the current edition of the National Geographic Traveler that caught my eye.

It had a Cuba story emblazoned on its cover. That was enough to make me reach for my wallet, thinking back to the people and places I visited in Havana a decade ago. But when I picked up the magazine, curious about the comeback story, I was — well, the tag line was “surprise comeback” — at least mildly amazed that a mainstream travel magazine would be among the first to pick up the changing narrative about Detroit.

What’s not surprising is discovering this article came from someone with Detroit roots, Andrew Nelson. Nelson grew up in Detroit and remembers how, in the mid-1960s, the city was fifth on the charts of the largest American cities and at the “top of its game.”

Nelson’s lived in New Orleans for the past three years, and finds it easy to point out that both cities have French beginnings. Most people from elsewhere don’t know that Detroit’s founder, going back all the way to 1701, is — get ready for longer names than we see today — Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac.
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Oregon Learns — Can Other States Be Students?

Curtis Johnson / Jan 07 2012

For Release Saturday, January 7, 2012

Curtis Johnson2011 saw Oregon once again daring to be the first bird off the wire on an audacious policy agenda. Governor John Kitzhaber, having been governor from 1995 to 2003, won the office again in 2010. What he told seasoned politicos was that he wasn’t running just to be governor again — “been there, done that.” But if elected again, he would put all his chips down on doing something bold, with the power to endure.

Kitzhaber’s bold maneuver: a proposal to overhaul the entire system of education — from toddlers to twenty-somethings, now called Oregon Learns.

In the 2011 session of the legislature he won a down payment on the promise — a liberalization of the chartered school law, a better welcome for on-line schools, and an official board. It’s called the Oregon Education Investment Board, intended from its enactment forward control how money is appropriated to get better education results.

Sounds tame enough. But the governor’s agenda is actually aimed at radical change in the system. For the first time (anywhere, not just in Oregon), the system of education would find its financial pivot point on results. The entire budgeting process would be re-engineered around outcomes rather than inputs.
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Paradigm Lost: Can Americans Change Course?

Curtis Johnson / Apr 17 2011

Originally Released August 9, 2008

Curtis JohnsonAn historic $14 trillion of public and personal debt, a fourth of America’s bridges deficient, more than a fourth of adults obese, and nearly half of the nation’s youth not prepared for a 21st century economy – what do these baleful effects have in common?

Each of these effects and more like them show what we got for a half-century of an easy-going, profligate, low-efficiency culture.  Though only five percent of the people in the world, we Americans got comfortable with burning 25 percent of the world’s resources. From corporate practices to personal lifestyles, we shoved the consequences of waste on to the backs of the less well off and future generations. We provided schools but didn’t worry if half the students didn’t succeed.

Now costs along with climate change compel Americans to use air and water and land more efficiently, to rethink how we can arrange our lives less tethered to our car keys, to get serious about creating schools that work for every willing child. Read More »

Detroit a Turin Twin?

Curtis Johnson / Dec 10 2010

For Release Sunday, December 12, 2010

Curtis JohnsonTURIN — When in 1993 the Italian Parliament finally agreed to allow citizens to elect their own mayors, the people of Turin picked not a ‘pol’ but a professor, Valentino Castellani.

Turin was in what Americans make think of as the perilous “Detroit position,” with giant automaker Fiat still ratcheting down local employment from a high of 130,000 to today’s 20,000. Italy wanted more employment shifted to the south where jobs were needed; Fiat complied, seeing the bright side of lower labor costs. And Turin staggered.
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