Elements of Urbanism: Detroit

September 7, 2009 22 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

While Detroit is nationally recognized as America's poster child for blight and economic decline, Metro Jacksonville takes a look at one aspect the city has successfully brought back to life: Downtown Detroit.

Tale of the Tape:

Detroit Population 2008: 912,062 (City); 4,425,110 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1806)

Jacksonville Pop. 2008: 807,815 (City); 1,313,228 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Detroit (1,849,568)

Metropolitan Area Growth rate (2000-2008)

Detroit: -0.62%%
Jacksonville: +15.86%


Urban Area Population (2000 census)

Detroit: 3,903,377 (ranked 9 nationwide)
Jacksonville: 882,295 (ranked 43 nationwide)


Urban Area Population Density (2000 census)

Detroit: 3,094.4
Jacksonville: 2,149.2


City Population Growth from 2000 to 2008

Detroit: -39,208
Jacksonville: +72,312


Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Detroit:  Cobo Center (yb. 1960) - 700,000 square feet
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1986) - 78,500 square feet

Adjacent to Convention Center:

Jacksonville: N/A


Tallest Building:

Detroit: Renaissance Center - 727 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet


Fortune 500 companies 2009 (City limits only):

Detroit: General Motors (6), GMAC (66), DTE Energy (285)
Jacksonville: CSX (240), Winn-Dixie (340)


Urban infill obstacles:

Detroit: Downtown is cut off from nearby neighborhoods and the waterfront by major highways (Jefferson, I-75, I-375, Lodge Freeway)
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.


Downtown Nightlife:

Detroit: Greektown
Jacksonville: East Bay Street, located between Main Street and Liberty Street.  


Common Downtown Albatross:

Surface Parking Lots - Both city's downtowns have too many.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

Detroit: 89 out of 100, according to walkscore.com
Jacksonville: 88 out of 100, according to walkscore.com

Visual Information

Green = Jacksonville's city limits (current urban core) before consolidation in 1968
Red = Jacksonville's current consolidated city-county limits

Jacksonville's current and original city limit boundaries over Detroit's city limits (highlighted in red).

Downtown Detroit

In the 1990s, the city began to receive a revival with much of it centered in Downtown Detroit. Comerica Tower at Detroit Center (1993) arose on the city skyline. In the ensuing years, three casinos opened in Detroit: MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino, and Greektown Casino which debuted as resorts in 2007-08. New downtown stadiums were constructed for the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions in 2000 and 2002, respectively; this put the Lions' home stadium in the city proper for the first time since 1974.The city also saw the historic Book Cadillac Hotel hotel and the Fort Shelby Hotel reopen for the first time in over 20 years. The city hosted the 2005 MLB All-Star Game, 2006 Super Bowl XL, 2006 World Series, WrestleMania 23 in 2007 and the NCAA Final Four in April 2009 all of which prompted many improvements to the downtown area.

The city's riverfront is the focus of much development following the example of Windsor, Ontario which began its waterfront parkland conversion in the 1990s; in 2007, the first portions of the Detroit River Walk were laid, including miles of parks and fountains. This new urban development in Detroit is a mainstay in the city's plan to enhance its economy through tourism.

According to a collaborative report released by the Brookings Institution, Social Compact and the University of Michigan on October 26, 2006, downtown Detroit is home to 6,500 residents, and hosts 80,500 downtown workers, which makes up 21% of Detroit city's total employment. Downtown offers a number of residential high rises, including Riverfront Towers.

Sports Entertainment District

Comerica Park opened in 2000, replacing historic Tiger Stadium, which has since been demolished.  The $300 million stadium was a part of a downtown revitalization plan, along with nearby Ford Field, to reenergize the north section of downtown.  The 41,782 seat ballpark serves as the home ballpark for the MLB's Detroit Tigers.  These images were taken on July 18th.  The crowds making their way through downtown's streets, eating at nearby restaurants and bars, was there for a free Kid Rock concert that featured Alice in Chains and Cypress Hill as opening acts.  Judging from the number of businesses that have opened near these sports facilities, chosing to build new stadiums in downtown (as opposed to a mile outside of downtown, as in Jacksonville's Sports District's case) has been a success in stimulating additional nearby private sector development.

Ford Field stands across the street from Comerica Park.  This $430 million, 65,000 seat indoor football stadium is the home field of the NFL's Detroit Lions.  Completed in 2002, the stadium's design incorporates a six-story former Hudson's warehouse, which had stood since the 1920s.

The stadium's design incorporates a six-story former Hudson's warehouse, which had stood since the 1920s. Architecturally, the stadium shares a likeness with its sister stadium Ford Center, a multipurpose sports/concert arena located in downtown Oklahoma City. Hammes Company, a real estate development company in Brookfield, Wisconsin, developed the new stadium, as well as the warehouse.

The presence of the warehouse allows for a seating arrangement that was unique among professional American football stadiums at the time of Ford Field's opening. The majority of suites at Ford Field are located in the Hudson Warehouse along the stadium's southern sideline, as are the lounges that serve the premium club seats on that side of the field.

Fox Theatre

The Fox Theatre is located directly across the street from Comerica Park.

The Detroit Fox is one of five spectacular Fox Theatres built in the late 1920s by film pioneer William Fox. (The others were the Fox Theatres in Brooklyn, Atlanta, St. Louis, and San Francisco.) It was designed by architect C. Howard Crane with a lavish interior featuring a blend of Burmese, Chinese, Indian and Persian motifs. There are three levels of seating, the Main Floor above the orchestra pit, the Mezzanine, and the Gallery (balcony). The exterior of the attached 10-story office building features a facade with Asian motifs which, when illuminated at night, can be seen for several blocks. The Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri is its architectural twin with about 500 fewer seats.

The Fox was the first movie theater in the world to be constructed with built-in equipment for sound films. The Fox Film Corporation's patented sound-on-film system "Movietone" enabled the theater to present sound films from the time of its opening.

The Fox opened September 21, 1928 and remained Detroit's premier movie destination for decades. By the 1970s the theater had become an aging venue. But unlike other downtown Detroit theaters in the 1970s, such as the Michigan and United Artists, the Fox managed to remain open.

The 1980s brought new hope for the Fox when in 1984 Chuck Forbes, owner of the State and Gem theaters, proposed a renovation project. These plans were never completed, but in 1988 the theater was acquired by new owners, Mike and Marian Ilitch, who fully restored the Fox at a cost of $12 million. Their company, Ilitch Holdings, Inc., is headquartered in the Fox Theater Office Building. The downtown area near Grand Circus Park which encompasses Fox Theatre is sometimes referred to as Foxtown after the theater. In 2000, Comerica Park opened and helped to revitalize the area along with the construction of Ford Field in 2002. The Fox is Detroit’s top venue for Broadway shows.

The Fillmore Detroit

Like the Fox, The Fillmore is also located directly across the street from Comerica Park.


The site of the Fillmore was previously home to an earlier theatre known as the Central and then, from 1913-1923, as the Grand Circus Theatre. This theatre was demolished to make way for the 1925 construction of what was then called the Francis Palms Building. The building was named for Francis Palms, a Belgian native who moved to Detroit in 1832 and made his fortune in real estate development. Palms's descendants continued in real estate as the Palms Realty Company, and constructed this building at a time when Detroit's population and the popularity of movies was booming.

The Fillmore Detroit was constructed in 1925 as a movie house in the Renaissance Revival style of architecture. C. Howard Crane was the original architect, and the building is still called the Francis Palms Building. The building is twelve stories high and covered with terra cotta, with a six-story auditorium extending to the rear of the building. The office tower has elaborate Beaux Arts Italian Renaissance decorations on all but the ground floor, which was modernized in about 1960.

Current Use

The Fillmore Detroit is a busy concert venue for popular music acts, and rarely hosts larger, multiple-night, Broadway-style theatre shows like the Fox Theatre does. Its current seating capacity (with cabaret style terraced seating and a dance floor) is 2,200. If the original seats (in storage) were reinstalled and the original grade brought back to the theatre orchestra level, its seating would be 3,000. The mezzanine and balcony levels still contain their original theatre seating. Currently the main floor has seating for 700, and the mezzanine and balcony have a combined seating for 1,500.

All-age shows as well as adult-only concerts are held; during 21 years plus events, alcohol sales are offered at several theatre concessions including access to the State Bar & Grill.

In March 2007, Live Nation announced that the State Theatre would become the Fillmore Detroit as part of a multi-city extension of the Fillmore brand, similar to what has been done previously with their House of Blues franchise. Various changes were implemented to evoke the Fillmore's iconic venue in San Francisco, California. The official inaugural show under the Fillmore Detroit re-branding was Fergie's June 13, 2007 performance.

Detroit International Riverfront

The Detroit International Riverfront is an area so designated by the nonprofit city sponsored managing entity, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization. The conservancy resulted from a study commissioned by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The International Riverfront area ranges from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle in downtown Detroit, Michigan encompassing a multitude of parks, restaurants, retail shops, skyscrapers, and high rise residential areas along the Detroit River. The comprehensive project has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and manage the riverfront which has complemented urban development in Detroit. The Marriott at the Renaissance Center and the Omni Hotel at Riverplace face the International Riverfront. The area features a variety of annual events and festivals including the North American International Auto Show.

The Detroit International Riverfront, a comprehensive project led by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, marks a step forward for the region's potential competition for the 2020 Summer Olympics. The east riverfront promenade development was planned at $559 million, including $135 million from GM and $50 million from the Kresge foundation. In June 2007, the Riverfront Conservancy announced the completion of 75 percent of the east RiverWalk. The east and west riverfront projects together comprise a 5-mile section of downtown from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle bridge linking the cruise ship dock area to a series of parks, venues, hotels, residential high rises, retail shops, and restaurants. Belle Isle Park is the city's 972-acre island park.

Detroit has made the Summer Olympic Games' final bidding election more often than any other ultimately unsuccessful bid city, participating in IOC elections for the 1944 (3rd place, behind bid winner London), 1952 (5th place), 1956 (4th place), 1960 (3rd place), 1964 (2nd place), 1968 (2nd place) and 1972 (4th place) Games. (Los Angeles has more total bids with 9, but hosted twice) If accepted as the U.S. candidate by USOC, this would be the city's eighth bid. Lower crime figures as of 2007 bring hope to a possible revitalization of the city by the early 2010s, which would be improve Detroit's prospects for the USOC competition. Soft-drink manufacturer Faygo has stepped up its efforts as major sponsor. Successful events such as Super Bowl XL have showcased Detroit as a city accustomed to hosting supersized crowds.

In addition, there is the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge which is the only international wildlife preserve in North America, uniquely located in the heart of a major metropolitan area. The Refuge includes islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals, and waterfront lands along 48 miles (77 km) of the Detroit River and Western Lake Erie shoreline.

Known as The City of Roses, Windsor (pop.216,473) is the southernmost city in Canada and is separated from downtown Detroit by the Detroit River.

Tri-Centennial State Park and Harbor

Tri-Centennial State Park and Harbor is a state park in Michigan, and the only state park located in an urban area. The park consist of the former city-owned St. Aubin Park and Marina. Located just east of downtown Detroit in the Near-East Riverfront, it covers 31 acres on the Detroit River, and includes a 52-slip harbor of refuge. A 63-foot conical brick light tower marks the harbor entrance. The park's first phase opened in 2003, included refurbishing of the marina and construction of lighthouse. Construction on the second phase that will expand the park, adjacent to Rivard Plaza, is scheduled to start in summer 2008 and be completed in summer 2009.

The Globe Trading Company Building across the street from tri-Centennial State Park.

Hart Plaza

Cobo Center

Cobo Center, originally known as Cobo Hall, is a major convention center situated along Jefferson Ave. in downtown Detroit, Michigan, USA. It and the adjacent Cobo Arena are named for Albert E. Cobo, mayor of Detroit from 1950 to 1957. Designed by Gino Rossetti, both Cobo Hall and Cobo Arena opened in 1960. Expanded in 1989, the present 2,400,000 sq ft complex contains 700,000 sq ft of exhibition space. Construction to update and further expand the center's exhibition space to 866,000 sq ft may begin September 1, 2009.  Cobo Center, adjacent Joe Louis Arena with seating capacity of 21,000 is served by the Detroit People Mover with its own station. Cobo Center has a large attached parking garage with direct access to the Lodge Freeway. Cobo Center is located along the Detroit International Riverfront.

The center is the home of the North American International Auto Show or NAIAS, which is hosts each January, and Autorama, which is hosts each March. There are about 5,000 hotel rooms in downtown Detroit with 4,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of Cobo Hall.

The Detroit People Mover, a 2.9-mile (4.7 km) automated people mover system, operates on a single-track, one-way loop through the downtown area.  A sibling of Jacksonville's Skyway, it has a daily ridership of 7,500 and costs $12 million annually to operate and maintain.

Renaissance Center

The Renaissance Center (also known as the GM Renaissance Center and nicknamed the RenCen) is a group of seven interconnected skyscrapers in Detroit, Michigan, United States. Located on the International Riverfront, the Renaissance Center complex is owned by General Motors as its world headquarters. The central tower, called the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, is the tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, and features the largest rooftop restaurant, Coach Insignia. It has been the tallest building in Michigan since 1977.

John Portman was the principal architect for the original design. The first phase constructed a five-building rosette, with a 73-story hotel surrounded by four 39-story office towers. This first phase officially opened in March 1977. Portman's design renewed attention to city architecture, constructing the world's tallest hotel at the time. Two additional 21-story office towers opened in 1981. This type of complex has been termed a city within a city.

In 2004, General Motors completed a $500 million renovation of its world headquarters in the Renaissance Center, which it had purchased in 1996. The renovation included the addition of the five-story Wintergarden, which provides access to the International Riverfront. Architects for the renovation included Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Gensler, SmithGroup, and Ghafari Associates. Work continued in and around the complex until 2005. The Renaissance Center totals 5,552,000 square feet making it one of the world's largest office complexes.

Renaissance Center redevelopment

The redevelopment project included the work of many different architects including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, SmithGroup of Detroit, Gensler Detroit office, and Ghafari Associates of Dearborn who did the renovation of the office towers. The majority of the construction operations were led by Turner Construction Company. The cost of the renovation does not include the cost for reconfiguring the streets around the Renaissance Center or the cost of the park along the International Riverfront.

The $500 million renovation of the Renaissance Center completed in 2003 has helped improve Detroit's economy.  Together, GM's renovation of the Renaissance Center and the Detroit Riverwalk exceeded $1 billion; the project constituted a substantial investment in downtown. More than 10,000 people (of which 6,000 are GM employees) work in the complex. Nearly 2,000 state workers now occupy GM's former office building, the restored Cadillac Place, in the historic New Center district.

The Wintergarden added to the Renaissance Center faces the Riverfront and provides panoramic views of the Windsor skyline. The complex connects offices, the hotel, retail specialty shops, restaurants, a jazz club, and a movie theater. A pedestrian-friendly glass entryway has replaced the former concrete berms along Jefferson Avenue. The redevelopment provides the GM World display of vehicles, a restored hotel, a renovated rooftop restaurant, and the addition of GM's corporate logo to crown the top of the building. Construction of the lighted glass walkway facilitates ease of navigation encircling the interior mezzanine. Hines completed redevelopment of Towers 500 and 600 for GM in 2004.

The Riverfront Promenade was dedicated on December 17, 2004, and helped to usher in a return to recreational uses along Detroit's International Riverfront. GM played a key role in the transformation of the east riverfront with a donation of $135 million to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy for the development of a world class riverfront promenade planned at $559 million, which included $50 million from the Kresge foundation. With the addition of several prominent restaurants and retailers to the complex – such as JoS. A. Bank Clothiers, Seldom Blues, and a first-run movie theatre – the RenCen has started to redefine Detroit once again for a new generation. In 2009, the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority opened its new state of the art cruise ship dock and passenger terminal on Hart Plaza, adjacent to the Renaissance Center. Port authority bonds financed another 1,500 space parking garage adjacent to the Renaissance Center. The Omni Hotel at Riverplace faces the Riverfront as part of a restored historic area. Planned projects complementing the Renaissance Center continue along the International Riverfont which include development of luxury condominiums, retail, and entertainment usage.

The Riverfront Promenade along the Detroit International Riverfront.

Woodward Avenue

Woodward Avenue has been the main artery of Detroit's transportation network since the incorporation of the modern plan of the city in 1805 and it therefore holds considerable cultural significance. Woodward was planned to be the most important of the five major avenues (along with Michigan, Grand River, Gratiot, and Jefferson) planned by Judge Augustus Woodward that extend from downtown Detroit in differing directions.

Many of Detroit's most important cultural fixtures are located on Woodward in downtown Detroit, including the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and Ford Field. Farther north, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, and the College for Creative Studies are located on Woodward Avenue. In Oakland County, the important cities of Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham, including the Detroit Zoo, are centered on Woodward Avenue.

Financial District

Campus Martius Park

Campus Martius Park is a re-established park in downtown Detroit, Michigan which anchors the Campus Martius neighborhood and office district. After the fire of 1805, Campus Martius (from the Latin for Field of Mars, where Roman heroes walked) was the focal point of judge Augustus Woodward's plans to rebuild the city.[1] It is where the "point of origin" of Detroit's coordinate system is located. Seven miles (11 km) north of this point is 7 Mile Road; eight miles (13 km) north is 8 Mile Road, and so on. The precise point of origin is marked by a medallion[2] embedded in the stone walkway. It is situated in the eastern point of the diamond surrounding the Woodward Fountain [3], just in front of the Au Bon Pain store. The park is located at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and Michigan Avenue. The original park covered several acres and was a major gathering area for citizens. The park was lost in the 1900s as the city's downtown was reconfigured to accommodate increased vehicular traffic. Hart Plaza, along the riverfront, was designed to replace Campus Martius as a point of importance. But as Hart Plaza is a primarily hard-surfaced area, many residents came to lament the lack of true park space in the city's downtown area. This led to calls to rebuild Campus Martius, the site of the Michigan Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument of the American Civil War located across from the new Compuware Headquarters. Grand Circus Park is on Woodward Avenue, down the street from Campus Martius Park.

The new Campus Martius Park was dedicated on November 19, 2004. It includes two stages, sculptures, public spaces and a seasonal ice skating rink. At 1.2 acres (4,900 m2), the park is smaller than its predecessor, as a full restoration of the original would have required the demolition of several buildings. However, the city increased the amount of park space in the area by constructing the new Cadillac Square Park immediately to the east of Campus Martius. Cadillac Square Park opened in the summer of 2007.

The park's skating rink is designed to resemble the one at Rockefeller Center in New York City and is actually larger in size than the Rockefeller rink. Campus Martius Park is the home of the annual Motown Winter Blast, an event that draws 450,000+ people to the downtown area every year. One of the newly most beloved events in Metro-Detroit is the annual tree lighting celebration that is held around Thanksgiving time every year. Thousands come out to hear Holiday music and countdown to the tree lighting up for the start of the holiday season.

Facing Campus Martius Park, Compuware's World Headquarters was completed in 2003.  The building features a full-height atrium with an indoor waterfall and water sculpture as its center focal point.  The building's parking garage was also built around the Detroit People Mover and is the home of the Cadillac Center Station.


Greektown Historic District

The area known today as Greektown was first settled in the 1830s by German immigrants, who created a primarily residential neighborhood in the area. However, in the earliest years of the 20th century, most of the German residents began moving from the neighborhood into areas further from downtown. As the Germans left the area, fresh Greek immigrants moved in, spurred by Theodore Gerasimos, the first documented Greek immigrant in Detroit. The newly-arrived Greeks established businesses in the neighborhood.

However, by the 1920s, the area was becoming primarily commercial rather than residential, and the Greek residents began moving out; however, the restaurants, stores, and coffeehouses they established remained. The next thirty years brought a menage of immigrants to the few residential spaces left in the neighborhood. Redevelopment in the 1960s led to a shrinkage of the neighborhood as buildings were razed to provide space for municipal buildings and parking. By 1965, the neighborhood had been reduced to little more than a single block of commercial buildings.

Realizing the culturally significant neighborhood was in danger of being snuffed out, Detroit's Greek leaders banded together. With the help of the Mayor's office, the streetscape and building exteriors were improved, and additional street lighting was installed. The neighborhood threw a Greek festival in 1966, timed to coincide with Fourth of July celebrations. The festival was a success, and was continued for years until turnout grew too large. By that time, Greektown was firmly established in Detroit. The Greektown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Greektown today remains distinctly Greek. The neighborhood is a popular restaurant and entertainment district, having many restaurants that serve authentic Greek cuisine, as well as 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 The Laikon Cafe, Cyprus Taverna, Pegasus Taverna, and Pizza Papalis. The Detroit People Mover has a station at the Greektown Casino on Beaubien Street between Monroe Street and Lafayette Boulevard. Greektown is featured in the 2005 video game, Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition.

Bricktown Historic District

Bricktown separates the Renaissance Center from Greektown. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The area contains an eclectic mix of late 19th century architecture and early 20th century industrial buildings and warehouses. Bricktown is home to St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church, the oldest standing church in Detroit, and the Italian Renaissance style Wayne County Building (which was saved from demolition in the early 1980’s). The Wayne County Courthouse, which used to be located in the Wayne County Building, was the place where Mae West was once a defendant on a charge of public indecency. The Bricktown area is now seeing resurgence with the creation of lofts and the addition of the Greektown casino.

Unique Detroit

  • Detroit is the only U.S. city that looks south to Canada.

  • At its peak in 1950, the city was the fourth largest in America, but has since seen a major shift in its population to the suburbs.

  • Detroit has 937,506 lost residents since 1950.

  • City nicknames emerging during the 20th century include The Motor City, Motown, City of Champions(1930s), Arsenal of Democracy(WWII), The D, D-Town, Hockeytown, Rock City and The 3-1-3.

  • During the late 1800s, the city was referred to as the Paris of the West for its architecture.

  • In 1896, a thriving carriage trade prompted Henry Ford to build his first automobile in a rented Detroit workshop on Mack Avenue.

  • During Prohibition, the notorious Purple Gang ruled the streets of Detroit.

  • During the 1980s, abandoned structures were demolished to reduce havens for drug dealers with sizable tracts of land reverted to a form of urban prairie.

  • Downtown is bordered by the Lodge Freeway, Fisher Freeway and Interstate 375 (The Chrysler Spur).

  • In 2007, downtown Detroit was named amoung the best big city neighborhoods in which to retire by CNN Money Magazine.


It is universally recognized that Detroit is an economically distressed community that has been on the decline for nearly sixty continuous years. Despite all of its problems, the redevelopment of its downtown core in the last decade is worthy of acclaim.

Article by Ennis Davis