There’s a sad article in the Detroit News about that city’s 250-acre Eliza Howell Park. The grandson of the benefactor who gave 138 acres of the park to the city is asking that it be given back to the family so that he can develop it into a big box grocery store and homes.
Kenneth Cheyne, the grandson, is suing the city, claiming that it is violating a 1936 deed restriction that says the land be maintained as a park. Because of Detroit’s dire financial condition, it stopped mowing Eliza Howell and 137 other parks this spring. But the park and its loop drive remain open to the public and although there are concerns of crime and disrepair, the space remains important to and used by some community members.
The irony of this situation is that Detroit is a city that has tons of land for development. In fact, according to the American Institute of Architects, 40 square miles of the 139-square-mile city are vacant. If a developer wants to build a grocery store (which the city is in dire need of) and housing there is plenty of space to do so.
This gets to the larger issue of Detroit’s development over the years. People often say the city is shrinking, but that’s only true in population numbers, not development. Metro Detroit is a classic case of sprawl without growth. The decline of the auto industry has not in itself caused the central city’s problems. Those are also due to sprawl from central city flight and the movement of migrants from rural areas to suburbs and exurbs. In 1950, Detroit had a population of 1,849,568. At that time, the metro had a population of 3,219,256. Today, the city has 912,062 people and the metro has 4,425,110. The metro population has grown about 30 percent more than the city has shrunk.
Detroit seems to be slowly turning into one huge suburb. Converting a classic urban park into a strip mall would represent one more step in that direction.