Shrinking in the Name of Renewal: An Interview with Dan Kildee

Dan Kildee Photo.websmall

Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee

Influential voice in land use debates Daniel Kildee talks with Let’s Save Michigan about what the Genesee County Land Bank is doing to improve conditions in Flint, Michigan. Genesee County Treasurer Daniel Kildee founded the Genesee County Land Bank to address poor land use, population decline and abandonment in and around Flint, Michigan. The Land Bank obtains and manages residential and commercial properties with the intention of improving conditions. Kildee, an outspoken figure in land use debates, shares his thoughts on Flint and reshaping the city’s design.

LSM: You say “shrinking” Flint will solve some of its problems. What are the problems affecting Flint that you think “shrinking” will solve?

DK: “Shrinking” is something that I as a policy maker have been pushing. The Land Bank itself doesn’t formally have a position on shrinking. The Land Bank is an important set of tools, but when it comes to the notion of shrinking cities that’s really something that I’ve been raising. I’m very much involved in the state and national land use debate.

The problems that Flint faces are really a result of 35 years of decline, partly as a result of major changes in industry and our economy. We’ve lost 90% of our manufacturing jobs. Then it’s also partly just the natural, unfortunate effects of poor land use policy here in the state of Michigan. We’ve had economic meltdown, which has really undermine the stability of our neighborhoods, exacerbated by poor land use, which encourages sprawl. You have a city that has lost 45% of its population, and the Land Bank is simply trying to deal with the fall out of that abandonment, of that dislocation.

LSM: One thing you say is that Flint is already “shrunk.” My impression is that this means moving towards a lower population density, because that’s really already the case. How would you describe it?

DK: I think that’s right. The population loss has already occurred and continues. I think that is a question that really shouldn’t be the subject of much debate. It’s a fact. The question for us is whether or not we allow all of this to happen in this unplanned and really quite destructive way, or do you acknowledge that population loss is a reality and try to reshape the physical design of the city so that it makes more sense? Right now we have a design for 250,000 people, for 109,000 people living in it, and that’s not sustainable. We have to have all sorts of strategies that help create incentives for people to move, and opportunities for them to live in more sustainable, higher-functioning neighborhoods, rather than what many people are dealing with now, which is living in abandoned neighborhoods, living in essentially a ghost town.

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Where once stood an abandoned home is now a community garden

LSM: For people who don’t work in development, how do you decide which properties you renovate, which get demolished, and which you sell to adjacent lots?

For 90% of the property we get, it’s obvious because the house that we get is already burned up or falling down. So for those properties that go into demolition, most of them are unsalvageable. For the properties that go into our side lot program, the priority is for properties adjacent to an actual homeowner. If a homeowner lives next door to one of these properties, that property would go into our side lot bundle. The renovation program is where it gets a little more difficult because it’s hard right now financially to renovate property because the market for land and housing is so weak. Much of the renovation is done by small entrepreneurs – people who know how to repair a home, they approach the land bank, acquire property, and on the condition that they will improve it we will sell it to them at a seriously discounted price.

But again, this gets back to the question of a master plan – the whole design of the city. We would make our job so much more affective if the decisions we are making about individual properties matched a 21st-century master plan. That’s why I spoke up about the need to redesign the city, because one thing that we need to factor in is where will we have strong neighborhoods, and where doesn’t it make sense to open up more green spaces. It would make it easier for us to make decisions about demolition or rehabilitation if we could do that in the context of a plan that actually makes sense.

On a bit of a tangent, I intentionally use the most provocative language that I can. A lot of people are mad at me for using the term, “shrinking cities.” In order in get a community off the bench, they have to be shocked into reality. The problem that I saw was that Flint was drifting along, half asleep, hoping and praying that some big company would come in a rescue us from our failures. I am no longer patient. If I use language that isn’t positive or affirming, it’s only because we have got to get to work. Your ability to succeed is going to be dependent on us being realistic with one another and actually designing a city that we can sustain, and not pretending that we can somehow be rebuilding the city of 1965. The struggle that I’ve had, which I fully accept and expected is that people of all political philosophies, frankly got their feelings hurt. That’s just a by-product of how serious our issues are. I really don’t feel the need to apologize for that. The only fault that they can find with this is that I didn’t wait for the community to come to this conclusion before opening my mouth. That’s just what leaders are supposed to do – force an issue and make people deal with reality. To do otherwise is an abdication of my own public responsibility.

LSM: In a positive sense, if people get upset, at least it means they are passionate about it.

DK: If they are upset, it’s the first time they’ve opened their mouth to talk about this thing. The fact that they are talking about it is a huge step in the right direction. They can’t pretend that they were talking about it before, because even if they were, nobody was listening. Now we are all talking and listening to each other.

LSM: Turning to commercial spaces, why do you decide on some of these locations?

DK: We select those large-scale development projects on two criteria. 1) They are catalytic. They actually change the environment with the idea of creating other development and; 2) we select projects that the market otherwise will not engage.

The Durant Hotel is a property that opened in 1920 and closed in 1973. For 35 years different people had come up with different ideas or schemes to redevelop it. We decided that enough is enough, we are going to buy that building, and we are either going to find a way to get it redeveloped or we are going to tear it down. In that sense, that property is intended to make a strong statement that we will not allow a big empty building to be an acceptable standard in this city. The Land Bank Center, which was the first commercial property we did in the middle of downtown Flint, we did to contribute to a new design standard, and improve the market for downtown redevelopment. The Barrage Hotel was basically a flophouse directly between downtown Flint and Carriage Town, which is our historic neighborhood. We acquired that in order to basically change the dynamic in that neighborhood. We replaced what was low-end housing that often was the sight of drugs and prostitution with something that is now 17 units of higher-end housing. The effect that it has on surrounding properties was really dramatic. There’s an approach we take when it comes to development – change the market dynamics in the community and try to affect other properties by investing in some of these really hard to develop properties.


The “Before” of one of the many rundown properties in Flint

LSM: The scope of the green spaces that are being created include open space, adjacent lots that extend somebody’s property, community gardens, and agriculture. It’s about beautification, but it also creates opportunities for additional programs and community support.

DK: This is one of those initiatives that I think really goes a long way to use land without requiring a structure to be built upon it, whether it’s open green space that’s just intended to be aesthetically pleasing or urban gardening that actually makes the land productive and literally provides food to the neighborhoods, or even a step further, managing that land in a way that gives people opportunity like the prisoner re-entry programs or our clean and green programs, or really active, large-scale urban agriculture that puts young people to work. I think a lot of time people think of urban land as only being useful if somehow we can build something on top of it. For cities like Flint, and many other cities across the country, the reality is that, if we really want to make these cities sustainable and functional, we’ve got to figure out ways to use the land in a different way.

Especially in neighborhoods where we have high populations of poverty, there are very few grocery stores anywhere near and transportation is limited. I was just talking with one of our gardeners and he was telling me essentially they made the garden initially to make the community look better. What it turned into was a way to feed people. They provide a lot of food for the people in the neighborhood, and then they were able to sell the surplus at the Farmer’s Market and make some money that went right into the neighborhood again.

LSM: Are there other similar projects that are going on across the country that have inspired you, or have you followed any city’s model, or parts of their plan?

DK: One that jumps out right away is Richmond, Virginia, the “Neighborhood’s in Bloom” program. In some ways, Youngstown, Ohio, even though in Youngstown they have had some difficultly executing some things. They’ve been able to publicly acknowledge that their city is going to be smaller. They’ve come up with a plan to become smaller. I think they deserve a lot of credit, and I admire the mayor in Youngstown, Jay Williams, and I have learned a lot from my work there helping them to create a land bank.

I think unfortunately there aren’t a lot of real strong initiatives for cities like Flint that have been successful. Our ideas are actually quite new. I don’t mean to imply that we have it all figured out. In some ways, we’ve benefitted from the mistakes that other communities have made in putting together our work more than anything else.


The “after” of a newly renovated rental property with the help of the Genesee Land Bank Authority

LSM: Because you have to think outside the box, you are the one creating a model that other cities with similar issues can look at and ask, how does that apply to us?

DK: We’ve been assisting communities across the country in replicating our work. The Ford Foundation at Harvard University has been working with us to educate public leader on how to use the same set of tools in their own community. Right now we are working with 15 communities across the country to take these ideas that we’ve created here and apply them in other conditions, in other places. Mostly those communities are in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and also in Baltimore, MD and Detroit, Knoxville, TN, Nashville, TN, Little Rock, AK – a lot of communities that wisely want to benefit from our process of basically trial and error to come up with ideas that are workable.


Interview by Jennifer Eberbach