Stream : We are working on the mutations of urban spaces and Detroit is one of our case-study cities, given its symbolic dimension and its current situation. We met Dan Pitera who told us about the participatory dimension of the Detroit Future City project, working with citizens and the community in planning for the city. We found this approach very interesting, but it doesn’t deal with the downtown area and is very different from your approach as a real estate developer. We were interested in your thoughts about what is happening in Detroit and your hopes for the future.
Dan Mullen : Detroit is still Detroit. We’re all from Michigan here, and many, many of our relatives grew up downtown. The auto industry was there for many years: that’s really what brought families to the state of Michigan, and in particular to Detroit. And there’s a lot of opportunity in having the capital of the automotive world and innovation right here in Detroit. Even in the manufacturing days, when there was a lot more manual labor, the city was at the cutting edge in terms of design and creativity. That’s important for us, it’s part of our history. We called ourselves the Paris of the Midwest at one point. Downtown Detroit is also really where all the culture and the soul of the state of Michigan started.
So for us it’s important to help with the revitalization of downtown Detroit and the creation of an urban core now that this opportunity is presenting itself again. It’s all the more attractive because we are surrounded by this beautiful architecture. To be able to come in and help renovate the properties and recruit people to come downtown is really important to us. Not only is it where most of our families were created, some of this late 1800s architecture and early 1900s architecture is just beautiful.
For many years, students at many schools and major universities in Michigan were leaving for the suburbs, but this wasn’t happening in New York, Chicago, Boston, or L.A., where students were moving to the core downtown urban areas. And we recognize that’s where everyone wants to be. You want to walk outside your building, to get a coffee or some dinner. And just to be able to walk from A to B. Live, work, and play in walking distance. That’s why these urban cities are so successful.
Stream : Live, work, and play. That could be the motto of your project. Can you explain this concept a little?
Dan Mullen : Yes it could be our motto. Not only do we want people to live, work, and play in downtown Detroit, but most people already want that themselves. Living in an urban area gives you opportunities that suburban areas don’t. You can walk to work, to restaurants, to what we call your “third place.” The first place is home, the second place is work, so where is your third place? It could be a coffee shop, a restaurant, an entertainment event, a friend’s apartment. That motto and model can work in every urban city. You want to live, work, and play and provide outlets for people in all three of those areas.
Stream : When you started this project with downtown Detroit, how did you go about planning this idea of bringing life back to the city center? Did you work with city planners? What process, what methodology did you come up with or test, because it seems to be a very unique case? With Detroit there is a preexisting city center—a very large area—which is very different to developing a new city like Songdo in Korea or cities in China. Here there is an existing architecture that you need to rejuvenate. It must have been a very exciting process.
Dan Mullen : There were a few different elements at play. A lot of it happened organically, just by trial and error, but we also brought in some urban planners, a company called Project for Public Spaces (PPS) based in New York. They helped to activate outside spaces, to brainstorm to really drive traffic to these streets. They’ve done work in Paris, in 150 different cities. They did Bryant Park in New York. They did SoHo in New York before SoHo was cool, South Beach in Miami before South Beach was cool. And a lot of it was just brainstorming creative ideas of how you can drive traffic to the streets. That is what it’s all about, street activation.
In the summertime we took out the park with the ice skating rink and put in an urban beach bar. We took a grassy area replaced it with sand, brightly colored chairs, umbrellas, and a tiki bar. All of a sudden it was packed, from 11 a.m. until midnight every single day. That is just one example of outdoor activation.
We also partnered with the local government and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and worked together to brainstorm ideas to activate the streets and bring in some of these urban planning ideas. From there, we have an internal team that works on all the planning of our real estate.
Stream : And am I right that you intend to intensify this downtown area by mixing office, retail, and residential real estate?
Dan Mullen : Office, retail, residential, entertainment. The idea is to create as much density as possible in one area and to spread out from there. Detroit is such a big canvas that for many years it was too spread out. Now it’s all about pulling it back together and then growing from there.
Organic urban identity
Stream : From sprawl to density: intensification, that’s certainly the key for many cities around the world. In Detroit one interesting consequence of this low density was urban farming, which is now authorized and legal. Do you think that can be compatible with what you are doing here? Can these things coexist ?
Dan Mullen : Absolutely. The city of Detroit is massive. Three or four major cities—San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston—could all fit within Detroit’s city limits, so there’s a lot of land you can take advantage of. I think there could be an interesting contrast between urban farming and urban density, if these things are treated as complementary. Look at Eastern Market, it’s the oldest farmers market in the country, and every Saturday morning throughout the summer it’s packed with vendors. That is where most of the grocery stores come to buy their produce for the week and where the farmers come in to sell their goods. Urban farming has been growing organically for several years.
Stream : We have the feeling that these difficult years for Detroit—the automotive industry falling, and the like—has forced people to find different ways to innovate and that the city has become a laboratory for city planning. It could be an interesting new type of city, with agriculture inside high-rise buildings. Do many people come to Detroit to see this ?
Dan Mullen : There’s a huge amount of interest in what’s going on here: from the technology boom that’s happening, from agriculture to real estate development to restaurants and retail, reporters from all over the world are coming in to study what’s happening here.
Stream : What would you say is the most unique thing? Do you have a vision or an intuition of what could become Detroit’s specificity?
Dan Mullen : Over the next five to ten years, many people see Detroit booming with continued development and activation. There’s going to be streetcars with the M-1 Rail project which is a curbside light-rail program that has just been approved. So we have public transportation coming in. Thousands of lofts are being developed, there is retail that’s filled. The city of Detroit is going to have unique destinations that you can’t get anywhere else in the world. Every one of our retail buildings and outlets and all of our real estate holdings are going to be experiences, but we look at downtown Detroit as one overall experience. People will be blown away from the second they park in garages filled with the most beautiful graffiti, street art, and murals, to the second they hit the streets and experience the different colors, music, smells and the interaction and collaboration between people. We see an amazing opportunity, for real estate developers, for entrepreneurs, for farmers, for those who have lived in the city for fifty years. There is no single city we are going to replicate, because Detroit has its own identity. And this is going to happen organically.
Stream : When you talk about organic growth, do you mean that change is going to happen in a natural way?
Dan Mullen : You can’t force a thing to be something that it’s not, it will never work. You have to look at real estate and development as a way of kick-starting things and bringing resources to a city, but you can’t put buildings in an art district if they have nothing to do with that district. You have to understand the bones of the city, understand the community, understand what people want, do your research, and throw in your “igniters” so that the city can grow organically.
Stream : What do you think of those cities planned from scratch, like Songdo in Korea, where everything is planned, with cameras everywhere that are going to organize and survey everything that exists?
Dan Mullen : If you’re going to start from scratch and develop something it’s a little different. With acres and acres of open land, it has to be planned and built from scratch. But in Detroit we have a deep history and a deep culture that’s been here since 1703. To come in here and wipe out all of that and just say what should be put in place is not the right approach. We want to work with this history.
(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)