Mayor Realtor

December 06, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

DETROIT — Detroit. -- Dennis Archer is about to become mayor of a half-empty city. Elected November 2 to succeed Coleman Young, Detroit's mercurial and controversial leader of the past 20 years, the lawyerly and thoughtful Mr. Archer will preside over a city that has lost nearly half the 1.9 million people it had in 1950.

All across Detroit there are blocks so devastated that just two or three houses, ghosts of yesterday's blue-collar paradise, still stand. Many are boarded up. The city ombudsman has seriously suggested closing down blighted areas of Detroit altogether, relocating residents to areas with some life left in them.

Mr. Archer recalls that back in 1977, when he managed Mayor Young's first re-election campaign, Detroit had 1,125 voting precincts. This year there were only 657. There were years in the late '80s when not a single new house was constructed in the city. Between 1980 and 1990, 61,000 housing units vanished. Detroit now has only 7 percent of the property valuation in its metropolitan region.

Today, as inner-city devastation besmirches the Detroit citistate's international reputation and crime and urban rot spread into its working-class suburbs, Detroit's plight underscores the sheer insanity of letting suburban flight and racial polarization (the city is 76 percent black) empty out a once-great city.

Rejecting the politics of class and race that marred Mayor Young's latter years, Mr. Archer ran as a ''coalition builder'' seeking sharply improved relations with Detroit's suburbs and business interests.

To combat crime, a chief culprit in driving people and investment from the city, he promised to move 276 to 380 police out from behind their desks and onto Detroit's streets, and to initiate a broad program of neighborhood policing. And he pledged a ''reinvented'' city government that pays its bills on time, improves its miserably low bond rating and ''picks up the garbage on time and keeps the streetlights on all night.''

Yet Mr. Archer recognizes, as he prepares to take office, that he'll also have to be Mayor Realtor, attacking the problem of vast tracts of abandoned and underutilized land. He rejects the idea of forsaking parts of the city. He's bent instead on broad-scale redevelopment.

One has to rub one's eyes with amazement on hearing a mayor of Detroit declare: ''We have many excellent development sites along our waterfront and farther inland. We have space for building whole new neighborhoods -- moderate, upscale-priced -- enough space for nine-hole golf courses and man-made lakes. ** We have enough land for a technology park run by Wayne State and other institutions.''

The Mayor Realtor motif was born during the campaign when Mr. Archer heard ''bitter complaint from businesses small and large'' that wanted to buy existing vacant land near their locations, to build on or to just clean up for a better ambience. Even though the city had foreclosed on most of the properties, its bureaucracy seemed unable or unwilling to sell the land to willing buyers.

So now Mr. Archer wants to move fast on a thorough inventory of all the unused land in the city, and to put enough parcels together to make them attractive to business. He's pledged ''one-stop shopping'' for businesses for needed permits, with a promise of action in 72 hours or a committed time limit for final responses. ''We need to become a pro-business city.''

Mr. Archer acknowledges Detroit has some abandoned industrial sites with toxic residues. But 90 percent of Detroit, he contends, is free of environmental problems because it was formerly residential.

Most press accounts describe the mayor-elect as a quiet conciliator. I found an activist, itching to see Detroit develop a master plan to give surety to businesses and developers. He'd like creative architects and engineers to find ways to revive retail on the first floors of deserted downtown buildings, using the areas above for residential apartments, condos or flats. He wants town meetings for lively debates on how to regenerate investment in the city.

Pitfalls await a Mayor Realtor. Words of counsel come from from Merritt Malone, the Washington housing commissioner who's made a mark cracking down on developers who hold exclusive rights on choice parcels of city-held land but fail to move forward expeditiously. Work hard, says Mr. Malone, to see that each land deal strengthens the tax base and ties into comprehensive community development. Instead of holding out for ''overambitious'' real-estate projects, get behind more modest infill development as ''a way to build critical mass.''

Mr. Archer faces the obstacle of what he himself acknowledges to be ''one of the most oppressive and punishing tax rates in Michigan.'' Tax abatements aren't on his list of inducements, since the point is to build the tax base.

Then there is Detroit's continuing deep regional recession, discouraging investment. Fresh development isn't likely unless people perceive crime coming under control. Mr. Archer's police-reform goals, led by community policing, may hit walls of opposition in the police bureaucracy and unions.

Even so, no one can gainsay Mr. Archer's leap of vision to make Detroit's liability of derelict land the building block of its future. If Mayor Realtor can make it in this city, then what mayor can't?

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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