AEROTROPOLIS: Airport city is difficult to get off the ground
Planners must get over many hurdles before work starts
April 14, 2006
BY JOHN GALLAGHER
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
Will an aerotropolis fly?
Of all the development on the boards in southeast Michigan, none comes close to matching the scope and ambitions of the futuristic airport city local officials hope to see rise around Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports.
A vast assemblage of logistics firms, warehouses, industrial production and other businesses that rely on rapid air delivery, the aerotropolis has been a shimmering vision since county officials proposed it several years ago.
But this high-flying vision faces down-to-earth obstacles. Those include potential political squabbles over control and the need to find money to pay for roads, sewers and other infrastructure.
In January, students from the University of Michigan engaged in a planning session to sketch out possible development scenarios. Those ideas gave the aerotropolis concept an aura of reality.
Clearly, though, the aerotropolis is a long-term vision, not a short-term plan, says Timothy Keyes, director of economic development for the City of Romulus and one of the officials involved in trying to make an airport city a reality.
"If we could get 15 to 20% of this vision completed in 10 years, I'd be thrilled," he said this week.
The scope is colossal. The aerotropolis district covers at least 25,000 acres between Willow Run and Metro airports. It would encompass parts of Wayne and Washtenaw counties and cross the borders of Romulus, Belleville, Van Buren Township, Taylor, Ypsilanti and other communities. It would create many thousands of jobs, but how many depends on what actually gets built.
Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, chief backer of the vision, says an aerotropolis is necessary for the region's economic survival.
"It's no longer location, location, location. It's speed, speed, speed that's going to make a difference in how we react to the global economy," Ficano said recently.
Mulugetta Birru, Ficano's director of economic development, added, "You can't change the universe with the same kinds of ideas."
What the aerotropolis vision has going for it, Ficano and Birru say, is the vast amount of undeveloped land that surrounds Detroit Metro and Willow Run, two airports that offer 11 runways between them.
That combination of raw land and airport infrastructure is unmatched anywhere in the nation and perhaps in the world, they say. Other cites in this country are hoping to do the same sort of airport-centered development, but no one is very far along yet.
"Speed and agility have become extremely important," Birru said. "So we have here an opportunity in this region that no other city has."
But to turn this vision into reality, planners must overcome at least four key obstacles:
All the major players, including Wayne and Washtenaw counties and several cities and townships, agree on the general concept. But that doesn't mean they agree on the details.
The full vision of an airport city calls for a single legal district or authority to oversee all development. All construction would adhere to a single zoning code, and the district would have the power to override certain local municipal decisions.
"There needs to be a branding of the area, which will require gateway entrances and basically the type of architecture and landscape design that will let people know they're going into the aerotropolis and not just any other area," said John Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina and the nation's leading authority on the aerotropolis.
He serves as a consultant to the Wayne County effort as well as to several other cities.
"What is important is that the area itself be laid out in a way that is functionally integrated and administered as a functional unit, not as a myriad of tiny municipalities that aren't at all coordinated in their development," he added.
But that might be tough to sell in a state as dedicated to local home rule as Michigan. Then, too, there is always the potential problem of not-in-my-backyard resistance to the plans.
"Everybody has a say in what we're looking for out of this," Keyes says. "Sometimes everybody's dreams aren't the same."
With most of the land in question undeveloped, the proposed airport city would require new roads, sewers, utility lines and other infrastructure.
Paying for all that would be difficult at best, given the hefty bill for ongoing road and sewer repairs already confronting southeast Michigan.
Birru and Ficano say that completion of a rapid-transit rail link connecting Ann Arbor, the two airports and Detroit is essential to the success of the aerotropolis.
The planning agency Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, or SEMCOG, is completing a $100-million federally funded study of various routes.
But if recent history is any guide, a new mass-transit line will be a hard thing to pull off. Detroit and its suburbs have feuded for years over its fragmented bus transportation, let alone creation of a new rapid transit system.
Most of the new development in metro Detroit over the past half-century has gone north of Detroit, into the sprawling communities of Oakland and Macomb counties. Relatively less growth has gone west toward the airports or Downriver.
Backers of the aerotropolis say an environmentally sensitive design and a host of tax and development incentives will draw new development its way. But is there enough to fill up all that space?
"It's going to take a lot of growth to support such a large development," Jim Rogers, SEMCOG's data center manager, said.
"I think the fundamental thing is the ability of this area to generate jobs in the future. That's really the key. And frankly that's something there's more uncertainty about now than there was a few years ago."
One reason it's hard to envision what an aerotropolis might be like is that there are so few examples around the world. Lots of airports sit amid suburban sprawl, like Chicago's O'Hare International. But few, if any, in this country have linked their new development to air transport as envisioned by an aerotropolis.
To make the airport city a reality, Birru is drafting an agreement calling for creation of a legal district or authority to oversee the creation of an aerotropolis.
He expects it to take a year or more to reach agreement on the legal framework.
As an enticement, Birru describes the airport city not just as an enormous industrial park, but a living laboratory for all sorts of green-building techniques.
Pedestrian paths would run throughout the district, and construction methods, he says, would be the most environmentally sensitive in the nation.
For all the obstacles, everyone agrees the airport city just might produce the next great growth opportunity for a region that is seeing the business model of the past hundred years fading away.
"It's a big vision," Rogers agreed. "I hope we're around to check this out when something has really happened."