Benchmark: Livability

Detroit’s motto – Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus – gets trotted out a lot these days. The Latin, first written by Father Gabriel Richard in 1805, works well for what seems to be going on in the city lately: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”

But Detroit has seen a lot of turnaround dreams go up in smoke over the decades, and the ashes have only gotten deeper. The Renaissance Center was named for what its builders hoped would happen after it was finished, and that was in the 1970s. But there’s no denying the events of the past year suggest at least some optimism is called for.

So, how has the vaguely defined category of “livability” fared under the first six months of the Mike Duggan administration? Let’s start with the obvious: The temperature rose to a high of 18 degrees on New Year’s Day, when Duggan took the oath of office. The weather is markedly better in June. That has a way of improving anyone’s outlook.

What else? The city’s cultural institutions are stronger. The one at the center of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings, the Detroit Institute of Arts, has seen a surge in attendance in recent years. Some is due to admission being free to residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, following the 2012 passage of a tri-county millage to provide the museum with operating revenue. But perhaps because of the threat to the DIA’s collection posed by creditors angling for liquidation, the turnstiles are spinning: As of April 30, with two months left to go in its fiscal year, attendance stood at 661,111; attendance for the previous fiscal year was 619,441. The year before that, it was 594,267.

The DIA’s future is tied to the success of the so-called “grand bargain,” the alliance among private foundations, corporations and the museum itself to protect the collection from liquidation with $816 million for the city’s pension funds. As more players sign on to the arrangement, the museum looks safer, although its final fate – preserved as an institution or liquidated to pay debts – is far from settled.

Other signs are looking up, too.

Building Detroit, a program to auction rehab-ready vacant houses through the Detroit Land Bank has been an apparent success. Two homes a day are auctioned via a city website, some for as little as $1,000, and buyers have six months to bring them up to code.

The battle against blight continues to show some progress. In May, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force released the result of a months-long mapping project of all blighted properties in the city, and came up with an estimate for what it would cost to eradicate them – $850 million for residential real estate, and up to $2 billion of commercial property.

Blight has led to some apparent conflicts, with Bill Pulte’s much-publicized Detroit Blight Authority abruptly exiting the eradication scene after two high-profile projects, in Eastern Market and Brightmoor. Some have said the shutdown of the Detroit Blight Authority was a power clash with the Duggan administration, but the mayor appears unconcerned, claiming the city’s “demo team is moving the fastest the city has ever seen.”

RELATED: Duggan in control

While a $2 billion bill doesn’t exactly count as great news, it is at least the best effort to define the true scope of the problem that has taken place in years.

The city’s parks are a mixed bag. The state lease of Belle Isle began in February, and strict enforcement, by state police, of the the park’s 20 mile-per-hour speed limit has caused some grousing in the city; City Council president Brenda Jones and city clerk Janice Winfrey both publicly complained about troopers pulling visitors over. Even the mayor was stopped. The state Department of Natural Resources has defended the enforcement as a safety measure, and there has been no widespread outcry.

Duggan’s administration has offered hope to people visiting less high-profile parks. In April, he announced a plan to partner with community groups to maintain parks, as well as a doubling of seasonal maintenance staff. The moves will mean 186 recreational parcels will be mowed and otherwise kept in shape, after years of neglect, in some cases.

On two important pocketbook issues – high property taxes aggravated by high assessment and the notorious Detroit auto-insurance rates – Duggan has promised relief. A three-year reassessment process would, he said, bring property taxes down by 5 to 20 percent.

And the mayor has also promised to explore the formation a city-owned auto insurance company that could offer drivers relief for highest-in-the-state rates, which prod many to register their cars outside the city (and lose their right to vote in city elections).

The mayor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for updates to these plans.

Whether any of these improvements bring population back to the city remains to be seen. The mayor has stated boosting migration back to Detroit is the single most important job he can do as the city moves through the bankruptcy process, and beyond it.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.

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