Urban futurist sees turning points in pandemic windfall; ‘a lot of people are watching Detroit’

April 07, 2021, 11:06 PM by  Nancy Derringer

Aaron Domini is a principal with OHM Advisors of Livonia, an urban planning firm that provides architectural, engineering, design and other services to cities, including Detroit. A resident of suburban Columbus, Ohio, he has worked on this city’s projects at East Warren/Cadieux and the 8 Mile/Woodward underpass redesign. We spoke to him about his work, and about the windfall cash infusions for cities promised by the American Rescue Plan, signed this year by President Biden.

DD: I think we all know what an urban planner does because the job description is in the title there, but a futurist, maybe not. So why don't we start by discussing the intersection of those two jobs as it applies to what you do for a living?

Aaron Domini admires Detroit "sense of pride and resiliency and can-do spirit." (Photo: OHM Advisors)

AD: In a traditional sense, to be an engineer, to be an urban planner or an architect is about doing what's in front of you. A futurist is more, “what are we doing in front of us 20 years from now,” (as well as) always thinking about how we're getting there and how innovation is playing a role. So if you imagine like the whole smart city space, you know, that is very much a kind of futurist thinking, things like that. 

DD: What's your overall impression of Detroit, at this particular moment in time? Don’t be afraid to be honest. I know you’re an Ohioan.

AD: I have a very positive response. There is an infectious amount of pride that is alive and well in Detroit. Growing up in Toledo, I rooted for all the Detroit teams. There is just kind of a way about Detroit, right? The sense of pride and resiliency and can-do spirit. And the collaboration I see happening there is off the charts.

The other thing I'll say is that a lot of people I teach and talk to are all watching Detroit. This next generation of doers and leaders are very interested in what's happening in Detroit. They want to be part of it. When I have young students coming out of grad school, and I ask what they want to do after school? They want to go to Detroit.

DD: Talk a little bit about your work here, specifically, these two projects, 8 Mile/Woodward  and the Cadieux/Warren thing. 8 Mile and Woodward has a little homeless encampment underneath the overpass there. And from what I get from the city website, it sounds like it's mostly social work. What is your part in that?

AD: Part of that is just fixing an historical Detroit arterial roadway that has seen decades of deferred maintenance. A good part of that is just rebuilding the foundation of the roadway, building it for the next 20-plus years. What comes with that though, is the opportunity to be a futurist.

When originally we built these arterials, we built them for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to move cars as fast as we can. And the impact of that was segregating neighborhoods. It deemphasized the pedestrian, it deemphasized multimodal transportation, which continues to marginalize demographics and neighborhoods. If you didn't have a car or access to transit, the road construction made it more difficult to get to where you needed to go. So part of what we're also looking at is how do we weave (transit, pedestrians and other modes) back into the overall framework and drive the economy forward.

DD: I can tell you right now, nobody walks along 8 Mile Road.

AD: Well, I think that's true for a lot of these historical Detroit arterials and corridors. I mean, I think what's happening on Woodward, closer to the urban core? There you see the balance between transit, pedestrian, automobile and commerce. I don't think you'll see that all along this stretch of 8 Mile, but it's the spirit of that.

As for Warren/Cadieux, it was one of the neighborhood plans facilitated by the city of Detroit, like Jefferson Chalmers. I had a number of elements to it. The first was the actual street and streetscape, and like I said with 8 Mile, return it to a complete street with bike infrastructure, etc.

The second was focusing on facilitating new commercial and mixed-use investment. The third was parks and public spaces, and then you had neighborhood revitalization. Those were the pillars and focus of the project.

DD: You’ve talked about radical changes ahead for retail, that have been jump-started by the pandemic, the "Amazoning" of shopping. How do we respond to this in our futurist urban development? We don't need as many big boxes, but maybe we do need warehouses. What do you see happening in the next 25 years around how we buy things?

AD: So, number one, there's that Amazoning of America. We’re not necessarily visiting the mall. It's easier to just open up Amazon, and boom, I have what I want tomorrow. So that level of convenience is taking over. That's driving down trips to retail centers. And as a result, we have these dying shopping centers. Some might be transitioned into logistics hubs or other uses.

What I think we are driving toward is, if we want to go out to buy something, we're going out to shop local, we're going out to have an experience, as an entertainment factor, and less as just going out to stock up on stuff. I think it's going to return a lot of our focus and our attention back to the neighborhood level and to the local level, which is good. Things are coming kind of full circle. There's a lot of major retailers who are trying to catch up to that and create that experience.

We also see a lot of these (shopping) centers starting to flip towards developing that “missing middle” housing type, which we need so badly – a unit that's under $300,000 or a rental under $1,500, to serve our workforce. That's a big part of the adaptive reuse of those retail centers, but I don't think any economist or urban planner would stand up on a soapbox and say retail will come back.

DD: You have some things to say about how cities should be spending their pandemic stimulus, and now possibly the infrastructure money. 

AD: It is a lot of money, (and) from the research I've done, there are not a lot of strings attached. I understand that it can't be used for political purposes and in some cases paying down certain types of debt, but outside of that, communities can use it for infrastructure projects, for staffing, to provide service. So there's a lot of ways to use it.

My take on the spending of it is this: For communities to take what I call a 1+1=3 formula, looking to the future and being innovative, and not just paving two blocks of this road and fixing that valve. Certainly some of that stuff needs done. But there are a lot of other communities who are looking to take these monies and leverage private investment.

DD: Explain what you mean by 1+1=3.

AD: So how do you take, let's say, $10 million, and look towards an area that needed revitalization, that was underperforming, that wasn't generating revenue for your city. Take that $10 million and put it into infrastructure, land acquisition that complements any other private-sector investment that can help you get the project done.

If you took $10 million and paved a mile of road, that's great, you've got a really smooth road, but is that generating sustainable long-term revenue for your city? Is it leveraging more private investment into the community, that will create more revenue?

A rendering of a planned apartment complex on the site of the old Northland mall. (Photo: City of Southfield)

DD: Bring this down to earth with some hypothetical examples. The vocabulary you're using is buzzwordy, and sometimes people don't know what those terms means.

AD: Well, one example I think is a good one is looking at the Northland mall in Southfield. It’s a dead mall, it's 130 acres, basically not creating any revenues for the city and creating a drain on it. They were forward-thinking. They put a vision and a plan together for how to redevelop them all. They started to put some of their own money into that in terms of acquiring property, cleaning it up, putting a strategy together.

Now the next step, let's say you have a windfall of money. They can also start to prime the site for development, by putting in needed infrastructure. That will help attract the residential development they're looking for. They can start to prime the pump with that kind of visionary project.

There's a way to focus your attention into that space because part of the vision is to kind of facilitate and jumpstart private sector investment there, which will be long lasting. Those are the types of projects I think are really smart.

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