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Detroit's 'doom loop' was unlike any other American city. Its downtown is now a model for urban reinvention.

John L. Dorman   

Detroit's 'doom loop' was unlike any other American city. Its downtown is now a model for urban reinvention.
  • For decades, Detroit was seemingly caught in an economic time warp that hobbled its full potential.
  • But the city's downtown has one of the most stunning urban reinvention stories in the United States.

Last week, more than 775,000 football fans converged in downtown Detroit for three days as the city hosted the NFL Draft.

Detroit obliterated the previous draft turnout record set in 2019 when Nashville hosted roughly 600,000 fans across three days.

Campus Martius Park, perhaps the most revered public gathering space in Detroit, served as the centerpiece of the festivities.

Such positive developments are not atypical for Detroit these days. New residents continue to flock to residential developments downtown, and businesses occupy early-20th-century architectural gems that sprouted when the city was at its industrial zenith.

So, just how did this Midwestern city become a model for urban reinvention?

The past informs the present

In the 1980s and 1990s, downtown Detroit was a visible reminder of the "urban doom loop," when residents head for the exits and office towers empty out — leading to diminishing tax revenues that threaten core municipal services.

The legendary flagship location of Hudson's department store, beloved by generations of Detroiters, closed in 1983. The 1980s saw scores of layoffs in the automobile industry and the closing of numerous factories, causing economic strain in a region once known for its prosperity and its gateway to the middle class. Many small businesses either closed up shop or moved to the region's suburbs, a trend that continued into the 1990s.

But when the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July 2013, the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in US history, many wondered whether an economic comeback would ever be fully realized. At the time, even weekly trash pickup had become unreliable in many neighborhoods.

Now, the city is seemingly in its best economic position in decades.

Detroit beat out Miami as the fastest-appreciating housing market in the country last November, with home prices rising by 8.7% year-over-year, according to a CoreLogic report.

People want to live in the city

The allure of walkable neighborhoods, public transportation, green spaces, and businesses catering to local needs is something that many millennials and Gen Zs have embraced with open arms — but it's also a quality attractive to many boomers headed into retirement.

Downtown Detroit has an abundance of towering, historic buildings that are perfect for office-to-housing conversions and office renovations that have taken hold in downtowns across the country.

Dan Gilbert, the cofounder of Rocket Mortgage (formerly Quicken Loans) and a Detroit native, has poured billions into the city's downtown to revitalize the area.

Gilbert's real-estate firm, Bedrock Detroit, is building a 45-story mixed-use skyscraper at the site of the old Hudson's department store. When completed, the development will be home to General Motors' new global headquarters, a five-star hotel, and high-rise residences.

GM is currently headquartered at the 1970s-era Renaissance Center, a Detroit icon. While the company's move from the Renaissance Center has certainly raised questions about the complex's future, GM is staying in the city. GM's future headquarters, which will be even closer to the residential buildings sprouting up downtown, is poised to continue contributing to the city's vitality.

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