Land Boon or Boondoggle? Can Mayor Bing’s Land Use Pass The Public Test?

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    Mayor Dave Bing appeared before the Detroit City Council last week to formally make his presentation for better use of city land that some developers and industrialists are applauding.

    The mayor’s critics are calling the plan a land grab, the kind of thing that is reminiscent of the flagrant use of eminent domain in other similar projects in the past that left many displaced and compensated only with a few thousand dollars.

    The mayor without doubt has entered uncharted territory and he will have to make a compelling case about the need to reduce the size of the city and better utilize the land.

    Whenever discussion around land conservation comes up, it evokes a lot of emotions because land signifies control, power, ownership and stability. Historically, one’s place in a community has alway been determined in large part by what and how much land you own.

    For African Americans it bears a special significance when we assess the larger impact of the euphemistic term “urban renewal” and how Blacks were forcibly removed from their land.

    From that premise there is legitimacy to be suspicious of any discussion around the politics of land control and use. And in Detroit where we live in a segregated community just like Livonia, the discussion doesn’t help. But somebody has to take the lead and Mayor Bing is doing so by opening up a hot and controversial topic.

    He is kicking off a series of public meetings to discuss vacant neighborhoods under his “Detroit Works Project” to galvanize public support for his proposal.

    That’s a good start for Bing because any level of public/private partnership has to have the support of the public — taxpayers — who will be asked to foot the bill.

    Too often we’ve had instances where a proposal like the one Bing is introducing is shrouded in secrecy and only unveiled when the execution was about to begin. History tells us that those who govern without transparency always end up paying a heavy price for it.

    This new public/private partnership — that would include developers — should be open and accountable at every level of the process. And surrogates of Mayor Bing should be armed with information to pass on to our senior citizens, some of whom will be affected by this plan, including what better alternatives they have for them in place of their old neighborhoods.

    The fact that Bing has mapped out 12 to 18 months as a study period for this plan shows that much thought is being given to the idea. But the crux of the matter will be how the mayor explains this idea to residents against the backdrop of the campaigns his critics will be waging.

    There is no doubt the mayor will be greeted with grave skepticism at some of these town hall meetings. Bing cannot convince everybody to come on board. But his actions will determine how residents who are willing to entertain the idea and work towards a better and more efficient use of land will receive him.

    This proposal cannot be stuck in time as is the case with the calamity facing the Detroit Public Schools. They are two very different issues, but both carry an almost even underlying theme: control.

    Bing has to govern from the bottom up, not the other way around. This proposal will be successful if he gives priority and ownwership to the residents which begins with public meetings.

    But if the mayor appears to be giving more deference to the business and political elites on this matter, he runs the risk of rendering his plan in the eyes of many in Detroit as a deeply flawed plan that has “control and takeover” written all over it.

    That is why Bing will have to employ individuals who understand this city’s political and cultural history and struggle to work with him on this turnaround plan. If not, I doubt how it can happen.

    Utilizing experts from an array of backgrounds is good. But the groundwork of convincing senior citizens and other residents to embrace this idea does not require an MA in land economics from Harvard University.

    It requires Bing and his team rolling up their sleeves and going into the neighborhoods and have personal, one-on-one conversations with the residents, who have have a crucial stake in the project. It has always been government handing down proposals and plans. Let the residents give their own take on the plan and make a commitment to be a part of it, and soon Bing will realize that it doesn’t take rocket science to make that happen.

    This is not the conventional form of politics that need to be applied in the land strategy. It is the neighborhood politics that will work because it has deep meaning and nuances, and to understand that is to make residents know that they are fully respected and that their input is of great importance.

    Because government too often is so disconnected from those who pay the bills, officials are written off quickly whenever they have any plans, no matter how beneficial and worthwhile they could be for the city’s future.
    Mayor Bing has an opportunity to be different. The public hearings are a major step in the right direction.

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