North Corktown Redevelopment Handbook

The NATIONAL ASLA First Place Graduate Research Project for 2004 was awarded to a group of students that I had the pleasure of advising. This interdisciplinary team not only served created a fine product but acted with professional and compassion when working with the distressed Detroit neighborhood of North Corktown. I am extremely proud of the hard work of: Jason Braidwood (Business and Urban Planning), Chris Cox (Landscape Architecture), Paul Coseo (Landscape Architecture), Jen-Jia Huang (Landscape Architecture), Jessica Kenzie (Landscape Architecture), Joanna Paine (Landscape Architecture), Derek Roberts (Architecture and Urban Planning), Ben Smith (Urban Planning) and Ethan Solomon (Urban Planning)

The following summary describes their outstanding project in the students own words:

Two miles from downtown Detroit, North Corktown was once a vibrant neighborhood housing waves of Irish, African-American, Hispanic, and Maltese immigrants who came in search of work in the automobile industry. At its peak in 1940, the quarter mile square neighborhood had approximately 1,177 structures that included residential units, retail businesses and three public schools. Due to economic restructuring, racial tensions, suburban flight, freeway construction and urban renewal efforts, the neighborhood declined and today, only 350 structures remain. The neighborhood is now a place with low property values, decreasing numbers of housing units, increased crime, and aging infrastructure. We, a multi-disciplinary team of nine graduate students, from landscape architecture, urban planning, business and architecture, used our thesis requirement as an opportunity to assist a distressed community in Detroit move toward positive redevelopment. The product of this year-long collaborative project consisted of a North Corktown Redevelopment Handbook which offers efficient tools and processes by which the client, The Greater Corktown Development Corporation (GCDC) can facilitate redevelopment in North Corktown.

Our handbook addresses three dimensions necessary for successful redevelopment;:economic feasibility, physical design, and the promotion of social diversity. We first performed extensive research examining texts such as the Urban Design Handbook by Urban Design Associates (UDA), the Lexicon for New Urbanism, Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City and Jane Jacob’s The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Historical research included reviewing books, newspaper articles as well as interviewing current residents to understand Detroit and the neighborhood’s evolution. We visited neighborhoods in Washington D.C., Chicago, and Grand Rapids, to gain practical insights into how other communities dealt with the provision of affordable housing construction, and phased urban redevelopment projects while promoting community participation in the design process. Our team identified North Corktown’s current problems, proposed potential solutions espoused by “new urbanist” principles, and synthesized our recommendations into a cohesive, implementation-oriented plan. Problem identification was a collaborative effort assisted by the GCDC and the opinions and ideas of current and future residents (solicited through three community workshops). The solutions that we proposed for particular aspects of the redevelopment processstarted with the big picture brainstorming and were scaled down to detailed plans> The overall framework plan,supported by market feasibility studies, suggested strategies for Brownfield remediation, methods to maintain the neighborhood’s historic residential and commercial architecture, improvement to pedestrian and vehicular circulation, and methods to create ecological corridors throughout.

Area specific designs included streetscape design guidelines for a main-street style mixed-use development within the neighborhood. From extensive input from the community, a community park and four pocket parks were designed featuring walking paths, playgrounds, basketball courts, habitat gardens and a baseball field. Residential planting plans offer current and future homeowners guidance in plant selection (native and non-native), configuration and maintenance. We investigated the challenges and feasibility of re-establishing the neighborhood farmers’ market and provided a site plan and design guidelines. Finally, we constructed a website template that could be used by potential micro-developers to obtain information about developing in the neighborhood.

In practice, this project required an iterative process that balanced planning and design with market feasibility. The amount of proposed commercial space, residential units, infrastructure and open space are all inexorably tied to supply, demand and available funding. Outside of directly helping the GCDC, we gave presentations to Detroit business groups and representatives of public agencies to provide them with additional ideas for redeveloping nearby communities.

From its inception, the North Corktown Design Handbook has been an effort to spur revitalization in the heart of Detroit, a task that has not been successfully achieved through other urban revitalization efforts. Our efforts varied from past process in this area because we engaged current and future in our discussion and we tried to creatively consider how public and private investment can leverage greater change. We believe that those who live and work in North Corktown and the surrounding neighborhoods should be the people who decide what is best for the community. The community engagement that resulted from this project will significantly increase the likelihood of the GCDC’s ability to gain stakeholders’ trust.

The purpose of forming this team was that we all believed that one person or even one profession cannot successfully implement community redevelopment. Rather, it takes the expertise of many disciplines to heal the physical framework of buildings, roads and open space. Throughout the project, the different disciplines educated one another on professional ideologies, terminology, and analysis methods to render the best solutions. Quality has been the underlying principle of the project creating critical thinking and attention to detail. Often our desire to clearly communicate ideas to a variety of audiences forced re-working materials, improving the quality of the materials and simplifying the communication of our thinking. When we initiated this project, we did so because of a common interest in community redevelopment. As an independent project, we were placed into a situation that required each of us to work as a team in formulating a strategy and demanded flexible problem-solving and required us to operationalize how economic, environmental, and social components can promote a successful and sustainable community. We relied on our client, the GCDC, to help us understand our role, and they employed us as consultants to assist them. As our group had nine members with diverse interests, we split into smaller sub-groups and focused on particular aspects of our planning and design solutions. Each group was responsible for writing a chapter of the handbook.

We attempted to consider how visitors from the suburbs and other communities in the city would interact with the redeveloping North Corktown neighborhood. Considering the breadth of our team and the challenges of our project, we are pleased to have created tools and materials that are the thoughtful confluence of many voices and many ideas.

Image 1: Lodge Freeway and Figure Ground Diagram of the City of Detroit

Photograph of the Lodge Freeway being constructed on the eastern portion of the neighborhood. Picture highlights neighborhood being fractured by the freeway system and many houses destroyed.

Diagrams highlight the change in density in the City of Detroit from 1916 to 1994.
The decrease in density of the city was a result of the decentralization of the auto industry, development of the surrounding suburbs and extensive freeway system, and the Race Riots that encouraged many to move out of the city into the suburbs.

Image 2: Bird’s Eye View of North Corktown in 1953
The axonometric drawing highlights North Corktown before the freeways were installed to the south and east of the neighborhood. At this time the neighborhood is relatively dense. Any vacant property is due to people burning their houses down, or not building on it to use for parking on game days for the Detroit Tigers. The Tiger Stadium was located to the south of the neighborhood.

Image 3: Bird’s eye view of North Corktown in 1991
Interstate-75 was installed south of the neighborhood fracturing it from the vibrant Corktown neighborhood. The Lodge Freeway was constructed to the east of the neighborhood. Many houses in the neighborhood were burned in the 1967 Race Riots and many fled to the suburbs in search of safer neighborhoods. From 1953 to 1991 the neighborhood saw much disinvestment.

Image 4: Bird’s Eye View of the Future North Corktown
The axonometric view is based off of a framework plan the team developed for the neighborhood. The image highlights the neighborhood as a dense, walkable neighborhood.

Image 5: Proposed Framework Plan of North Corktown
The plan suggests that a main-street style mixed-use district be developed along Temple Street. Sidewalks should be widened to 10’ near the mixed-use area to accommodate more pedestrian traffic. Three densities of commercial architecture should be provided, high (4 or more stories), medium (two to three stories), and low (two stories or less). Three densities of residential should occur, high (two or more stories), medium (two to 2.5 stories), and low (one or two stories). The density should be the greatest at the corners of Temple Street and Trumbull Avenue, and 14th Street and Temple Street and decrease and it reaches the center of Temple Street. Small plaza spaces and parks are encouraged within the mixed-use area to provide recreation spaces and on street parking is suggested to create a buffer between the pedestrian and the vehicles.

Throughout the neighborhood street trees are recommended for shade and to create a more aesthetically pleasing experience for drivers and pedestrians. Buildings are to have short setbacks or abut the sidewalk to match the existing structures in the neighborhood. As distance from the mixed-use area increases, the overall density should decrease, with the inclusion of a large community park.

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