Rust Belt Special II: Learning from Downtown Detroit

November 29, 2006 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Founded in 1701 by French fur traders, over the years, Detroit has become known as the world's traditional automotive center and an important source of popular-music legacies, celebrated by the city's two familiar nicknames, Motor City and Motown.

However, the city's crime rate has also brought it notoriety.  Today, the city continues to struggle with the burdens of racial disharmony between itself and its suburbs and experiences budget shortfalls. Nevertheless, Detroit is currently experiencing a downtown revival with the construction of the Compuware headquarters, a recently renovated Renaissance Center, three gambling casinos, new stadiums and the Detroit Riverwalk.. 


Incorporated in 1815,  The city quickly became known as the "Paris of the West" for its fine architecture during the that era. With a strategic location along the Great Lakes, Detroit soon emerged as a transportation hub.  In 1896, a thriving carriage trade prompted Henry Ford to build his first automobile in a rented workshop on Mack Avenue, and in 1904, the Model T was produced. Ford's manufacturing—and those of automotive pioneers William C. Durant, the Dodge brothers, and Walter Chrysler reinforced Detroit's status as the world's automotive capital. The industry spurred the city's spectacular growth during the first half of the 20th Century as it drew many new residents, particularly workers from the South. During the prohibition era, the city became a major conduit for Canadian spirits, organized in large part by the notorious Purple Gang.

Detroit endured a painful decline during the 1960s, 70s and 80s and was often held up as a symbol of urban blight.  The downsizing of the automobile industry combined with riots and court-ordered busing accelerated white flight from the city. The percentage of black residents increased rapidly thereafter, as not only did the whites flee the city, but the migration of blacks from the south continued. The city's tax base began a steep decline as retailers and small business owners departed the city in the wake of the riots. Within a decade large numbers of buildings and homes were abandoned on the southeast side of the city, with many remaining for years in a state of decay.

In the 1990s, the city began to enjoy a revival, much of it centered downtown. In 1994, Comerica Tower with its postmodern architecture and neo-gothic spires arose on the city skyline. Soon after, three downtown casinos opened to close out the decade. Two new professional sports facilities opened in 2000 and the 2004 opening of Compuware Center  gave downtown Detroit its first significant new office building in a decade. Since then, redevelopment has continued, fueled by the city's hosting of the 2005 MLB All-Star Game  and Super Bowl XL in 2006.


Detroit Population 2005: 886,675 (City); 4,488,335 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1815)

Jacksonville Pop. 2005: 782,623 (City); 1,248,371 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1940: Jacksonville (173,000); Detroit (1,623,452)



The next few images are examples of signs that would violate our signage ordinance.  Despite the fact that scrolling message boards and oversized signs are outlawed in Jacksonville, they definitely create a visual scene of excitement and life for the average visitor.  If a city that has lost over one million people since 1960 can get it right, why not us?

The popular Hockey Town Restaurant features scrolling message boards, electronic screens and signage installed above the building line. 


 In 2004, Borders Books opened this 8,000 square foot store, in the new Compuware World Headquarters building, overlooking Woodward Avenue and Campus Martius Park.  The banner installed here, would not be allowed in downtown Jacksonville.


The redevelopment of the downtown core has resulted in many new restaurants and bars opening in buildings that has sat vacant for decades.  In most cases, unique illuminated large signage has been used as a way to draw interest in their establishments.


Another exciting addition to the downtown street scene is this 8,200 square foot Hard Rock Cafe, which opened in 2004, at the base of the Compuware Building.  The Hard Rock sign would be prohibited by our ordinance.


Renewed interest in downtown has resulted in many old buildings becoming attractive investments for authentic lofts.  The use of large "coming soon" banners is a common scene in the downtown landscape.


Another example of large business signage, that would not be allowed on downtown Jacksonville's streets.



Greektown is comprised of a few city blocks, centered around Monroe Street. The neighborhood is a popular restaurant and entertainment district, having many restaurants that serve authentic Greek cuisine, as well as the home of one of the city's three casinos, Greektown Casino. Certain buildings on Monroe Street are themed to resemble the Parthenon, Pegasus and other forms of Greek architecture. Greek music  is also played on Monroe Street throughout the day. Well known restaurants include Cyprus Taverna, New Hellas Café, Pegasus Taverna, and Pizza Papalis.

The Greektown Casino was designed to allow for dining and retail space to open along Monroe Street, defeating the idea that casinos aren't good destination generators for additional private development.


The use of overhead flags and illuminated signage help to make the district visually stand out from the rest of downtown.  Although, the City of Jacksonville has invested heavily in converted Bay Street, into an entertainment district, it faces an uphill battle with our restrictive signage ordinance, limiting creativity needed to stimulate visual excitement and buzz.



Several pedestrian way finder signs were installed around downtown, as a part of the city's Super Bowl XL improvements. 


New smart meters, have replaced several outdated meters on downtown's streets.  This means its possible to parallel park without having a pocket full of only quarters.  They also reduce the visual clutter that comes from having meters adjacent to every parking stall.


This new 13-story 650 space parking garage was constructed to serve a loft conversion project next door.  The garage has been designed to allow up to 18,000 square feet of retail, at ground level.  In January 2006, CVS opened, taking up 10,000 square feet of space.


Compuware's parking garage was build over the Downtown People Mover, to allow visitors to catch the rail line, without being exposed to natural elements.


This new garage, sits on a site shaped similar to our new Courthouse garage's location.


This garage was constructed to serve residents moving into new loft projects along Woodware Avenue.  Large scale signage has been installed to direct drivers to the entrance location.


Wayne State University is located about a mile north of downtown.  Recent developments, such as this parking garage, have been designed in a pedestrian friendly layout, adding life to the city's streets.


Wayne State University's bookstore is operated by Barnes & Noble and opens up to the city's streets.  As FCCJ expands along Laura, it will be very important to make sure additional classroom and parking garage space is designed with an attractive pedestrian friendly edge along this street, which connects Springfield to downtown.


The new 1.2 acre Campus Martius Park was dedicated on November 19, 2004.  It includes two stages, sculptures, public spaces, a seasonal ice skating rink and an Au Bon Cafe (sidewalk cafe).  The creative mix of uses is the very thing the designing of our pocket parks continue to lack.

Loft infill along Woodward Avenue, near Wayne State University.

Woodward Avenue, downtown's main street, terminates at Hart Plaza, along the Detroit River.  The skyline of Windsor, Canada can be seen in the background.


This row of buildings were recently renovated into lofts.  Attractive uplighting schemes were used, not only to highlight building details, but to also add light to the street, which enhances the area's image of being a safe section of town.

This aerial illustrates the importance of high quality lighting.  Before the recent streetscape, Woodward (at night) resembled the lighting scene shown on the left side of the image.