The Airport City charette has garnered a lot of media attention as Michigan grasps for any signs of economic revival. Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, discusses the project and the prospects for the growing region.
Each year, students from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning participate in practical design projects, known as charrettes. This year’s charette concentrates on the geographical area between Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Willow Run Airport, know as Airport City.
The Michigan Daily: Can you talk about what the concept of Airport City is?
Doug Kelbaugh: Airport City, or Aerotropolis as it is sometimes called, is exploiting the fact that we have two airports – a very busy passenger airport in DTW and a busy cargo airport (Willow Run) – just seven miles apart. There are a lot of people who want to locate near one of both of those. There is just a lot of undeveloped or under-developed land between the two and around each of them so it’s a remarkable economic opportunity.
TMD: Why did you choose to get involved in that region?
DK: It could be the economic engine that the seaport was in the 19th century or the cities that developed around railroad stations were in the last century. It’s sort of a no-brainer in international, global economic advantage to be near an international airport. It’s an opportunity in a time where the state is desperately looking for one.
TMD: Can you describe the University’s involvement in the project?
DK: Each year we do a design charrette. Typically we do downtown Detroit; we’ve done seven in a row in downtown Detroit because that’s an area which needs, deserves and wants attention. This just seemed like such a no-brainer as a good idea that we shifted and did it in Ypsilanti.
TMD: Who is involved in these projects?
DK: We invite six nationally known design professionals – architects, landscape architects and urban planners and hook them up with six local, distinguished professionals. We divide into three teams with about 20 students on them. Students are typically from architecture and urban planning, but also from School of Natural Resources and a few business and law students.
TMD: How much of an influence do the students have on the final outcome of the project area?
DK: The students often come up with the best ideas and they do all the drawings. Students are essential. It would be impossible to do these without students. In any case, they really feel good at the end. It’s a great service. It’s significant, it has real value. These studies would cost the client hundreds of thousands of dollars to get an equivalent amount of work. And sometimes it influences what gets built.
I wouldn’t say it’s directly translated into physical plans. It sort of gets a lot of ideas on the table that consultants don’t always have time to get turned over. It gives a head start to anyone who has to make real plans. It’s as much inspirational as it is pragmatic.
TMD: What is your vision for the Airport City area?
DK: (Currently,) there’s lots of low-density development that’s not adding up to a whole greater than the sum of the parts. Our attempt is to make it more compact, more walkable, more mixed-use and more transit-oriented, rather than just to serve as a random collection of random warehouses or office buildings or corporate headquarters.
TMD: Do you think it can help save the automotive companies that have facilities in that region?
DK: Whether it will help the auto industry, I don’t know. It may be as much about a post-industrial economy as an industrial one.
TMD: What were the visions that were most popular with student teams?
DK: (They want it to be) a real town, or a real city. They want it to be a dense place, not suburban, where there’s a lot of activity. It’s not about subdivisions and malls and office parks. There might be some of those, but it’s more about building a place – preferably near the (Amtrak) commuter rail line – where there is real action and some of the action that might be unique to this site.
TMD: How successful do you expect the Airport City concept to be?
DK: The Aerotropolis is not a silver bullet. It’s not going to solve all the problems that the area has. It’s got economic potential, it’s got physical potential. A healthy airport is good for the cities of Detroit, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Air travel is not going away. The global economy is going to require more travel, so it’s kind of been sitting under our nose.
TMD: Where might you focus the charettes in the future?
DK: We are very adamant that whatever development there is there, it should not be at the expense of Detroit. Our first priority is Detroit, to the extent that this helps with Detroit. We would rather see existing cities reinforced.