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With Citizens District Councils eliminated, Detroiters talk how to move forward on development

Detroit residents met Monday night for a discussion on how to move forward after the elimination of Citizens District Councils (CDCs).

CDCs have been around since the Blighted Area Rehabilitation Act of 1945 granted Michigan cities the right to acquire blighted properties using the power of eminent domain.

The councils are merely advisory, and staffed by volunteers--CDCs in Detroit haven’t received any public funding since the 1990s. They’re meant to empower citizens in designated “urban renewal zones” by providing them with a direct line to city government, and a voice in how local development progresses.

But last month—in one of his final acts as the city’s fully-empowered emergency manager--Kevyn Orr issued an order abolishing CDCs in Detroit.

CDCs “no longer align with the City’s urban renewal strategy, and, in some cases, present a barrier to the effective and efficient development of blighted areas of the City,” the order reads.

The move came as a surprise to many, and provoked mixed reactions from people involved in community-based development in Detroit.  

“It could be, in the long term, a good thing in terms of streamlining how citizens and local government interact,” said Francis Grunow, a Detroit resident and public policy consultant. “But that remains to be seen.”

But Grunow also called the order the move “[an] unfortunate...loss of community input at the most basic local level.”

Though CDCs had no real authority, some observers suggest they had become “obstructionist” and short-sighted impediments to development progress. Others argue they had simply become irrelevant.

Mark Crowley, head of the CDC in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, disagrees. He said business owners and leaders in Corktown still seek out the group’s advice and approval on their plans.

Crowley said the Monday meeting was meant, in part, to strategize ways to forward the mission of the CDCs after their elimination.

“If this is legally going to stand--which most people think it is just because of the EM’s powers--then how do we reorganize? And what do we call ourselves?” said Crowley.

One option includes reforming some CDCs as non-profit organizations. Crowley said there’s also been talk of replacing them with other, similar types of councils—but with appointed, rather than elected members.

“I think that’s the way they want to go--they want to get rid of the elections process and just appoint people,” said Crowley. “Other people have referred to it as being kind of a cookie-cutter way to go about getting community input. It’s definitely going to be, I think, less representative.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hasn’t taken a clear public stand on the issue of CDCs, referring all questions about the issue to Orr’s office.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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