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Can Billionaires Revitalize Decayed Downtowns?

Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert has an urbanist streak. And only people with his kind of money can singlehandedly buy out big chunks of downtown Detroit. But will his approach to neighborhood-making actually benefit the city as a whole?
October 17, 2014, 10am PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Angela Anderson-Cobb

In recent years, billionaire Dan Gilbert has been busy buying much of downtown Detroit south of Adams Street. Unlike urban speculators before him, Gilbert doesn’t raze and rebuild or sit on parking lots. He intends to revitalize the neighborhood as it stands, fixing up classic old derelicts and re-purposing them to befit a tech-savvy modern economy.

For that, “people in Detroit talk about Gilbert like he’s the Wizard of Oz, and that might be the closest analogy. He may be a land-hungry billionaire — but he’s the most civic-minded land-hungry billionaire the city has seen in a long time.”

But the picture isn’t all rosy. The article explains how Zappos founder Tony Hsieh attempted to create a walkable business haven in downtown Las Vegas, with disappointing results. An actual visit to Gilbert’s new district is underwhelming. There’s a lack of diversity, and few actual customers to patronize the hip retailers Gilbert attracts. The district seems disconnected from the rest of Detroit.

The article questions whether it is wise to rely on the resources and whims of the super-rich to turn urban cores around. Developers like Dan Gilbert may come armed with dollars and a vision, and even good intentions, but their methods for urban "placemaking" are always dictated from the top down.

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Published on Tuesday, October 7, 2014 in Grist
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