Tag Archives: construction

Rambling report

October 24, 2014

The new $24 million segment of the Dequindre Cut, from Gratiot to Mack, is about as short as you’d expect if you’ve ever wandered Eastern Market end-to-end without even noticing. This 0.45 mile stretch is due to open next spring after some delays, following the initial 1.35-mile trail conversion which was completed in 2009. The railroad itself was constructed in the 1830s by the Detroit Pontiac Railroad Company, predecessor of Canadian National and Grand Trunk. Trains ran along the tracks from 1838 until the mid-1980s; passenger rail service to the riverfront terminated in 1982. A subsidiary of the MGM Casino purchased the parcels between 1998 and 2000 and handed them off to the city shortly after.

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Aside from just wandering and having fun, our intent was to examine the benefits and losses of greenway rails-trails conversion projects, particularly the impact on wild plants commonly referred to with the generic term “weeds.” Focusing on the greenery when the Dequindre Cut has been so well-known for its colorful graffiti was a shift that felt natural at the time, and almost certainly foretells the theme of many future walks there. Wildflowers were everywhere bland new embankment walls weren’t. How the pale blocks had been kept free of graffiti for their weeks in place baffles the imagination. Especially as the grade changes to join street level closer to Mack, the balance tips in a pastoral direction. Birds were chirping and flocking around grassy clumps unjostled by the heavy machinery lining the Cut. Behind the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a birdhouse perched atop a tall pole.

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At Mack we waited a while for the roar of Lions’ game traffic to quiet before setting foot on the rails. This stretch of the Cut splices two different worlds — the vastness of bleak industry to the west where the Pepsi bottling plant sits, and a line of trees and some grassy lands to the east. It’s a dynamic that feels very Detroit. “These would be lovely to keep as parks,” I said. “They already are,” a rambler replied. The disused tracks themselves were littered with surprises — we examined pottery, the railways’ signature shards of metal, bones, shoes, trash, and treasure in the form of a fully intact shovel sitting in a bush.

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The tracks are fenced off with shiny chainlink at Farnsworth where they keep the trains. At this point we turned east, doubling back on St. Aubin for a glimpse of what life might have been like before the railroad. Cobblestone streets still push determinedly westward before petering out into high grasses next to dead-ending sidewalks. Rust inexplicably coats sections of pavement. At Forest, a naked flagpole sits lonesome in the grassy lot that was the Dabrowski Playground, in memory of the reverend who once founded a Polish Seminary there. There aren’t many houses these days. Outside of Eastern Market again, we stopped to check on the little cinderblock wonder at 2126 Pierce St., then followed the alley south to Wilkins. An eastbound detour gave us better viewing of the sculpture garden outside C.A.N. Art Handworks.

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The ramble paused on Gratiot to share generous rambler-made brownies with a belated contingent of tired tweed riders. After this ramblers disbanded to their vehicles and I trekked south alone. At Antietam a red-tailed hawk dove to scoop up a squirrel, dangling it from the power lines. I followed the Lafayette Parks to the river, broad green spaces paralleling the Cut. After the Greening of Detroit Park, I crossed Jefferson and ventured down Riopelle, looking at the Ren Cen looming past the wreckage of a torched building. It felt out of place. In Milliken State Park, the recent sidewalk led me over the hill, next to the canal, and back into the Dequindre Cut.

This is the familiar Dequindre Cut, where in an otherwordly composition graffiti is backdrop for the occasional sly storybook red fox straight out of Le Petit Prince. It’s also a greenway beloved by Detroiters who wouldn’t or couldn’t explore the wilder sections we’d seen earlier in the day. As I strode north, a family passed, pushing their stroller and talking about how safe it was there. Their hip-height young daughter smiled a few paces behind them. It was getting dark but a group of people still had a tripod set up in the pedestrian lane, filming skateboard tricks. This is something you might not try a few miles north along the rails.

If something is lost in this conversion from rails to trails, it isn’t the greater good. As one who lived for the spaciousness and unruliness of parts of this city, I can’t wholly mind that it isn’t here, right here, anymore. But will there always be somewhere else to go? As perambulists in other cities thoughtfully elegize their vanishing wildernesses, I wish they could ramble with us and see the before and the after simultaneously, two sides of a story, two ends of the same trail.

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Overriding pedestrian sense

October 13, 2014

While Detroiters are keeping close eyes on what is happening with Woodward and the Peoplemover 2.0, another privately-funded construction project is taking place less than a mile away.

Remember when we were talking about turning I-375 into a walkable, bikeable surface street? Even as recently as this summer, this was the plan, with a study examining the benefits of each of six proposals to reconfigure the road due in September.

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Unfortunately, this utopian scheme seemed to be forgotten when in September no study results were revealed and instead Dan Gilbert shared his vision for building a wider exit ramp at Lafayette. This basically makes a big funnel from the burbs into Rock Ventures’ Greektown Casino parking garage and other downtown destinations.

Scheduled to be finished in December, the project enlarges the single-lane exit ramp at Lafayette into a three-lane — as wide as the highway itself. As a spokesperson for Rock Ventures told Crain’s, “There are more and more people coming downtown. If we can make it easier and a more pleasant experience to access points of interest, it’s a win-win.”

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It might have been the day after, or it might have even been the day before I heard about the ramp-widening that I saw crews tearing into the embankment. Apparently, this immediacy is one of the wonders of privately-funded road projects. (Just being glad that some zillionaire didn’t appear with funds for the ruinous proposed I-94 expansion out of their own pocket). With a new $1.25 million investment in the highway, removing much of it is doubtful to happen anytime soon. As catering to pedestrians and cyclists is probably not central to the economic success of the casino and surrounding businesses, it’s not difficult to imagine how this highway amendment took priority over previous plans. At least there is the promise of landscaping to look forward to next spring.

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Facilitating swifter beelines to “points of interest” is not a strategy that serves the people who are already downtown or in neighboring areas, aside from mollifying admittedly knotty traffic flows. Detroit isn’t just a handful of “destinations” in a barren wasteland, as the New York Times staff has infamously reported every time they drive around and see something that isn’t Slow’s.

Treating the city like every mile matters — the destinations and the spaces in between — will benefit both pedestrians and the highway-travelling commuters and destination-goers alike. The broader ramp at Lafayette may make short-term sense, but taking a broader perspective seems an obvious choice, especially for someone who is banking their future on Detroit’s future.

Where the sidewalk doesn’t end

July 22, 2014

Surprisingly good sidewalk news from the 7.2 and beyond:

    • No crosswalks have materialized on the recently bi-directional Second Avenue in Midtown, but crews are replacing disturbed sections of sidewalk.
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      One worker, looking zen as all get out as he smoothed the new patch with a cement-leveling tool, said, “We just fix what DTE breaks!” No response regarding the absence of crosswalks has been received following an email dated July 14 to the office of Jereen Rice, Midtown Detroit Inc.’s “Greenway & Non-Motorized Planner/Engineer.” Meanwhile, pedestrians still cannot get to the Bronx and back without undue risk.
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    • M-1 rail is breaking ground next week, which means it will be construction season on Woodward until 2016. While pedestrians know that this usually entails a wild goose chase of detours, M-1 rail planners are promising to keep sidewalks open, as Craig Fahle noted while skimming through publicity documents. “You’re going to make sure sidewalks are maintained; everything’s ADA compliant throughout the entire construction project. That’s not always the case in a project like this,” he said in an interview with chief operating officer Paul Childs.
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    • As the grand plan for the future Ilitch sports arena was announced this week, it brought some unexpected positive news for current Detroit pedestrians. Cass Park will still be a park, and a nicer one at that. As Curbed reported, “Most of the immediate construction in places like Cass Park Plaza will be in the form of new infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, etc) and landscaping to lure outside developers.” As Chris Ilitch told Crain’s, fixing streetlights and landscaping will “free the city up to spend its resources on other priorities.” How generous. Then, in a bizarre choice of words to describe a place where people actually live, Ilitch said, “This is an investor’s playground.” At least sidewalks are usually a priority near playgrounds.
    • Elsehere, sidewalks have bifurcated and grown lanes. In a “behavioral science experiment,” crews from a new National Geographic TV show have painted lanes on a Washington, D.C. sidewalk, splitting pedestrians into phone-using and non-phone-using groups.
      Photo by Cliff Owen for the Associated Press

      Photo by Cliff Owen for the Associated Press


      It went about as successfully as would be expected for a TV crew masquerading as behavioral scientists. Pedestrians either ignored it or posted pictures of it on social media. Can’t wait until this episode airs.
  • Losing ground

    February 24, 2014

    As the snowiest January on record drew to a bitter end and the news reported that even the middle class is now being priced out of apartments in highly desirable areas such as downtown and Midtown, construction crews broke ground just west of the M-10 the Lodge expressway in Woodbridge Farm, a historic neighborhood long feeling the push, if not the shove, of gentrification, or whatever you want to call it.

    Woodbridge Farm, a thin ribbon of land designated historic by the city and the National Register of Historic Places, spans Trumbull and Lincoln from Canfield to Grand River. It is not included in the larger Woodbridge historic neighborhood designation, a boundary some residents think may benefit from expansion. With only two houses standing on its northernmost block, the surrounding empty lots have no grounds for historic designation, and in come the developers.

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    This was a field I’d walked through many times before. Residents were shocked, outraged at the sudden appearance of workers cutting down tall, old trees in the park-like greenspace where many brought their dogs to romp. As bulldozers arrived, calls to the historic commission yielded nothing to help stop the destruction. The lots are rightly owned by Scripps Park Associates, the firm behind Woodbridge Estates, an enclave of generic, vinyl-sided new houses and townhomes situated between the freeway and Woodbridge Farm’s eastern boundary. Woodbridge Estates will be filling the block with more shoddy rent-to-own duplexes. Residents complain that construction within the original footprint of the development, aptly nicknamed Vinyl Village, has gone too slowly, leaving foundations capped for years. Why uproot more ground elsewhere when a reasonable density there hasn’t yet been achieved? The expiration of building permits knows no common sense.

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    So it goes in the city. One thing gets knocked down to make room for another. Soon enough few will remember the fields that were there, just as I don’t remember the apartment buildings that once stood, fairly recently, on the same lot. Change is good, or so implies the mantra many Detroiters hear and repeat: we need neighbors. But do we need the neighbors to live in depressing, identical drab beige structures?

    The staff in Woodbridge Estates’ rental office was unaware that the lots newly under development were in their jurisdiction until a grounds maintenance person wandered in while they were hemming and hawing. Overhearing our conversation, he exclaimed, “Yeah, I have to remove snow all the way up there now!” and directed me to the construction trailer, the nucleus of project operations. The trailer is warm and sunny, full of drawings and xerox machines and cold blueprints meting out what residents had thought was common ground. Nobody’s actually bought anything since 2007, the project manager told me on my third and most successful visit (on my second attempt, all but one worker had left shortly past noon to attend a retirement party).

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    The project manager, an affable guy named Howard who lives in the cushy northwestern suburb of West Bloomfield, took time to talk with me about the duplexes, seeming genuinely curious that neighbors were concerned over the appearance of the planned buildings. When I asked about whether care had been taken to mesh the appearance of new housing with the existing neighborhood character, he said that they should match better than the ones standing in Woodbridge Estates, but that he didn’t have final renderings yet. In this case, he told me, the developer had asked the architect to drive through and pick out some paint colors that would be a better fit than their usual dirt-hued “neutral” palette. How strange, to begin construction when the people in charge of the project don’t even know how the buildings will look.

    These lovely drafts are from Progressive Associates, Inc., architects based in Bloomfield Hills.

    These lovely drafts are from Progressive Associates, Inc., architects based in Bloomfield Hills.

    Had he seen much of Woodbridge himself?, I inquired. He seemed surprised. “I’ve driven through it a couple of times, yeah.” Howard was aware of the two “tenements” on the block, a baffling word choice for the two historic homes, among others, that his company is working to emulate visually. Whenever I walk by at lunchtime, the street is lined with the shiny trucks of construction personnel, idling, each guy eating his lunch in solitude as few yards as possible from the jobsite. I wonder if they ever explore the neighborhood, wander through these fields they’re digging up, or if they return promptly to their vinyl-sided paradise, leaving the “tenements” out of sight and mind.

    The "tenements."

    The “tenements.”

    Walking to Woodbridge from the venerable Cass Cafe during yet another snowstorm, I said to a friend, “Hey, we’re at Canfield already!” “You mean, more like Can’t-field these days,” he said as we looked at the stark structures newly rising from pits hollowed in the ground.

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    Perhaps it is just the way things will go, that all neighborhoods will have their own vinyl village, like elegant Brush Park with its unsightly rash of condos at the southern end. “With its suburban appearance and barren surroundings, the Woodward Place condo development isn’t exactly the pinnacle of the Detroit rental scene. Near so much architectural glory, many overlook the units in favor of something more loft-like,” says Curbed about one of the first and most successful developments near downtown. Even MOCAD is absurdly accompanied by its own vinyl ghost, the unfortunate Mike Kelley replica ranch, little more than a mean jab at Detroit’s citizens and circumstances veiled as a really exclusive library. To someone, this type of development must be voluntary, even desirable. Who?

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    If only they all came with pedestrian walkways!

    If only they all came with pedestrian walkways!

    Watching the greying heads of the supervisors at the Woodbridge Estates jobsite, it doesn’t seem like a far stretch to speculate that these are the structures admired by an older generation, the people who fled the city and built burbs full of McMansions. As renovating old commercial spaces into airy lofts and rehabbing historic residences to their former grandeur has smitten my generation, it’s curious that buildings like these continue to go up. Will future generations see these repetitive, uninspired houses as something to cherish and protect, the way we feel about older, more architecturally-rich ones? Is it all a matter of perspective, or worse, fashion?

    It just seems that we can do so much better than this. Why can’t more infill housing look like Briggs, where houses built in this century have, if not some of their own charm, then a neighborly benevolence toward the older structures with which they share blocks? They can. But with the plans already in place, what can be done about these lots? What can be done to protect other blocks in our neighborhoods from the dubiously-motivated interests of wealthy men from the burbs?

    For the past month, the construction equipment has been parked in the middle of the field that once was, abjectly motionless, surrounded by mounds of dirt. On the remaining fringe of land, people still come to play fetch with their dogs. It’s hard to complain; Detroit certainly suffers from no dearth of fields yet. It’s ironic that the neighborhoods regarded as disadvantaged by most other measures become the envy of those receiving such well-monied attentions. When this field is gone, where will people take their dogs to play? Maybe when Dan Gilbert is done installing the new art district, he’ll put in a fancy dog park somewhere, and we can all just drive over there, because that’s how to create a vibrant community. Tough luck to everyone else who simply wanted a piece of greenspace in their neighborhood, leaves to crunch through in the fall, and in all seasons a rare local breath of fresh air.

    Watch out, Weeping Willow Meadow! A name does not guarantee you'll be remembered.

    Watch out, Weeping Willow Meadow! A name does not guarantee you’ll be remembered.

    UPDATE: 03.08.14
    This week, dump trucks have been arriving laden with heap after heap of dirt and gravel, the excavated foundations of housing elsewhere all over lots not slated to be developed until well into the future. Trees wait waist-deep in mud. It seems torturous. And this is a good use of greenspace, this hotbed of unfulfilled dreams.

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    UPDATE: 03.11.14
    Whew! Our friendly development cheerleaders have made it to the game. Curbed reports today on a new housing slated to break ground somewhere in “Southwest Midtown” by none other than the Slavik Management, part of the team of hole-diggers disturbing Woodbridge Farm with their foundation voids and willy-nilly accumulations. Curbed speculates that the new arm of Vinyl Village will go in at the sadly defunct Wigle Recreation Center on the east side of the Lodge, conveniently connected to Vinyl Village proper by the Selden pedestrian bridge. If Curbed is correct, this is devastating news not only for greenspace enthusiasts making the trek from Woodbridge to Midtown but also the teams who practice sports there all summer.

    Far worse yet, Curbed references a Model D article that reads more like a press release happily penned by Slavik Development. Model D lays out the geography of Woodbridge Estates, then emits the following burp of nonsense:

    “Woodbridge Farm, another Slavik development, runs directly adjacent to the west of Woodbridge Estates. Eight single-family house lots remain in that development. Gold says that these homes are being designed with the surrounding historic architecture in mind.”

    Woodbridge Farm, a Slavik Development? A rambler comments, setting the story straight: “woodbridge farm is a neighborhood of 19th century Victorian homes that already exists. the prefab mess that’s currently going up on Trumbull is not woodbridge farm, it’s just more vinyl village. the plans look identical to the cookie-cutter houses where the streets have weird names east of Gibson.”

    UPDATE 03.17.14:
    Please see the comments for important notes regarding the boundaries of these historic districts and encroaching developments.

    Construction fence unrolled to the brink of the sidewalk, this is the last time someone will stand on this ground, until we tear these down and do it all over again.

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