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Mapping the Motor City

By C. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — Since December, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force surveyors have photographed nearly every parcel of land in the city, encountering residents who are either “excited” or “suspicious,” says Tanya Lamar-McDonald.

McDonald is a supervisor and one-time surveyor working on an unprecedented effort to catalog all properties in the city of Detroit. Surveyors — Detroit residents from the neighborhoods they are cataloguing — are creating an inventory of every parcel of land in the city, including abandoned and occupied homes, vacant lots, parks, commercial and city-owned property.

The Blight Removal Task Force — chaired by Rock Ventures’ Dan Gilbert, Glenda Price of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation and Linda Smith of U-SNAP-BAC — is heading up the effort, which could become a model for urban planners and policy experts in other cities. After making an inventory of all Detroit land parcels, The Task Force will develop a demolition plan.

McDonald, who lives in Northwest Detroit, says the surveyors have received extensive training to understand the condition of a structure.

“We adhere to definitions to describe the structure,” says McDonald. “First we determine if there is a structure. Does the roof need work?  Is the trim and fascia ok? We learn to look at those attributes and give it a status. Is it in good, fair or poor (condition?)”

The Task Force is charged with capturing photos and gathering information on every property in Detroit. The data will be linked with public records to show who owns the property and whether the taxes are up to date. The Task Force is using Loveland Technologies’ platform to develop a master database of the city’s property. Loveland created the website Why Don’t We Own This, a tool to connect potential residential and commercial property buyers with tax foreclosed properties.

The Blight Removal Task Force’s data and recommendations will be delivered to Mayor Mike Duggan and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr when the project is complete, which organizers say could be as soon as the end of this month.

Surveyors and Task Force team members expect the dataset to be made public.

“What is most exciting about this project is people will have a chance to write their own narrative about Detroit. So much of what happens in Detroit is people from outside telling the story, but this gives Detroiters a chance to — via a variety of platforms  smartphones, tablets or a computer at a library or community center — tell their own story,” says Lauren Hood of Loveland.

Hood says every property will have a Facebook-like profile that can be constantly updated. So if a surveyor mistakenly said a property is vacant, the community can respond and say no, someone actually lives there. The intention is to make the data used by the city and other groups transparent and driven by Detroit residents.

Heidi Jugenitz of the Ypsilanti Planning Commission says the database could increase accountability and transparency.

“I think the major potential is to help the city and other major parties — private developers, foundations or nonprofit organizations — make better informed decisions on how to allocate resources,” says Jugenitz but also “help residents monitor where resources are going and where improvements are occurring.”

Until now, Detroit’s 139 square miles were an almost unfathomable urban planning riddle. In 2010, Mayor Dave Bing was widely criticized for his position on shrinking the city. Residents asked on what basis the city would make the decision to eliminate neighborhoods. When he made the announcement early in his term, he did not have a working-plan.

With this dataset, city planners say Detroit now has the ability to make a realistic development plan for Detroit that includes resident input.

The project is funded by federal dollars along with grants and support from the Kresge and Skillman Foundations and is intended to create economic opportunities for Detroiters and Detroit-based business, according to a press statement.

DTE Energy, Rock Ventures are also partners in the initiative.

Marq Weaver, who worked as a surveyor but was promoted to supervisor, owns several properties in Detroit and lives in Conant Gardens.

“I can look at what is actually in those communities,” says Weaver. “Before you had to go out and ride around to understand the neighborhood.”

Weaver also believes the database will help the city know exactly what neighborhoods need the most help.

“We can do some things to improve the stability of the neighborhoods and make people happier about where they live.”

For more information visit timetoendblight.com or call Garrett Jackson of Rock Ventures at 313.373.3701.

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