Talking Michigan Transportation

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist on reimagining Michigan Avenue in Corktown

August 15, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 115
Talking Michigan Transportation
Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist on reimagining Michigan Avenue in Corktown
Show Notes Transcript

Late last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the City of Detroit would receive $25 million in a Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity RAISE grant toward a major project to modernize US-12 (Michigan Avenue) in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. 

On a new edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist talks about what this means to him as a neighbor of the corridor. 

Per the grant application:

MDOT and the city are collaborating on a project to rebuild a portion of Michigan Avenue to support a safe, innovative, and multimodal travel corridor. The project will re-apportion space in the right of way to accommodate several new and improved multimodal facilities, including:

  • Expanded sidewalks and pedestrian amenities like seating, lighting, and street trees.
  • Raised bike lanes at sidewalk level for areas with existing lanes, new dedicated and buffered bike lanes in downtown, and bike racks.
  • Two dedicated center-running lanes for transit vehicles and for connected and autonomous vehicles. Transit vehicles will have signal priority to limit waiting time.
  • Improved amenities, like concrete transit islands and new shelters.
  • Improved markings and islands for additional/enhanced midblock pedestrian crossings.
  • Two new traffic signals for intersections. 

Gilchrist talks about how these added benefits will transform the neighborhood and how the project spells good things to come for Corktown, a diverse neighborhood with a rich history.

Podcast photo: Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II. Photo courtesy of Lt. Gov. Gilchrist's Office.


Jeff Cranson: Hello, and welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: The US Department of Transportation gave us some exciting news last week with the awarded 25 million dollars to the Michigan Department of Transportation and the city of Detroit for what is a re-imagination of Michigan Avenue, also known as US-12, from downtown Detroit through the Corktown neighborhood. It's only two miles, but it's an important two miles, with lots of commercial and residential development, as well as Ford Motor Company’s investments, new mobility, and their plans for automated and electric vehicles, and other things that MDOT is doing in the area to help pedestrians, help connectivity, and focus on equity for all users. There's going to be dedicated transit lanes and all kinds of other things that don't exist now. So, to talk with us today, we have Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who lives very near the corridor and has a vested interest in its fatality. He knows the history, and he'll definitely be following the progress of the project closely. So, thank you for being a repeat guest on the podcast. I appreciate it. 

Garlin Gilchrist: Thank you, Jeff, for having me. This is such an exciting thing to talk about. But I do want to start, first and foremost, with saying to the listeners how much I appreciate all the professionals of the Michigan Department of Transportation and the work that they do every single day to keep folks safe and moving here in the state of Michigan. And you know, MDOT applied with partners for this grant. We're proud to bring these resources home to the state of Michigan, and this one in particular is special to me because it is in the neighborhood that I live in. And so, my family is looking forward to experiencing these. But we also had other RAISE grants that were awarded for other parts of our state: Sault Ste. Marie and the Kalamazoo and Cadillac area. So, we're really proud to see the federal government choosing to support the state of Michigan as we develop mobility solutions for the future.

Cranson: Yeah, and all of those involve something besides plain old roads and bridges. This one, obviously, has a lot of impact for transit users, people like yourself, who like to walk in the neighborhood, cyclists. And the one you mentioned in Cadillac is more money for a study of an Ann Arbor-Traverse City railroad line, passenger rail line. I’d love it if that could ever happen. I still wonder if the money can be found. But it's good that there's still momentum for it. Low-no buses is another one, which is a great idea for the environment. So yeah, these are all great grants. Talk a little about why this one is special to you. You've shared before, walking on the that Michigan Avenue corridor, and it still dates back to times when there were four lanes of traffic on each side, and cars were buzzing by. And now, it takes you, what, 15 minutes just to cross the street? That's probably an exaggeration, but. 

Gilchrist: Yeah, it's close though. And this is a big opportunity, whether it's the—I'm a Corktown resident, we love our cobblestones on Michigan Avenue, but I do think we have an opportunity now to modernize the experience that people have and the relationship that people have with this roadway. The reimagined future that, now the door has been opened to with this grant, is going to be safer for pedestrians like my own children, who I still have to—my twin eight-year-olds are able to cross Michigan Avenue by themselves now. But I basically just let them start doing that by themselves. Nine lanes of traffic is a lot, and people tend to drive pretty quickly. But I’m just thinking about this future where we have protected bike lanes, a median, dedicated transit lanes, the kind of, frankly, smarter vehicles, as well as better informed and better-connected drivers coming through, will be safer for pedestrians and for people who are riding bikes and experiencing the road on foot. And what I think this really speaks to is, this is gonna better connect both this neighborhood, and it's gonna better connect other cities and communities to this neighborhood. And people have a good experience as they come to and come through this part of Michigan Avenue. And I think it's gonna really set a floor, like lay a new foundation for the kinds of mobility solutions we're going to enable and the kind of connected mobility solutions that are going to be possible. And this is really a huge opportunity for the state of Michigan. I can't be more proud. 

Cranson: And you could probably say there's an overlap of philosophy with what we're doing with I-375 and connectivity. That's all connectivity, right, and restoring.

Gilchrist: 100%. I mean, this is about, Jeff, the opportunity to, with 375, this was like literally using a road to divide communities. And further, like in the name of connecting two places, you were disconnecting two others. And so, this is about bringing them together with the 375 project, and then so here at Michigan Avenue, again, it's about connecting people and changing relationships. And when we think about equitable access to every part of the city of Detroit, for example, that starts with having roadways that are inviting. They’re inviting to people who can get there through all kinds of modes of transportation and mobility, being welcoming to that. And so, again, this is about a new floor for how we design, how we build, how we think about the role that our railways play in connecting our communities.

Cranson: I want to get to the equity components of this in a minute but tell me this: as somebody who's lived down there for a while, obviously, my experiences with Corktown as a kid were going to Tiger Stadium. And it looks very different now than it did then. So, who's buying all those condos—what do those people do?

Gilchrist: Well, one of the things that is really exciting about this part of Corktown is the, certainly the deep investment that Ford Motor Companies made in Michigan Central Station and the reimagining of that, which was a national point of connection for people coming to the city of Detroit in the state of Michigan. My own grandfather, when he migrated up from Alabama, came through Michigan Central Station, for example, in the 50s. And so, there are a lot of people who are coming in associated not only with Ford directly, but also sort of for work that is adjacent to things happening with Michigan Central Station, and what will be happening there in terms of that being a technology hub for the entire midwestern region of the United States. We also have people who are coming, working in a wide range of fields that are choosing to live in the Corktown neighborhood that are medical professionals who may work at our hospital systems, like the Detroit Medical Center or Henry Ford Hospital system, folks who are working at the growing businesses in the technology sector, fintech and other spaces that have offices and locations in downtown Detroit. But also, people who are just deciding and recognizing that Michigan is a great place to live, period. And so, choosing to live here and work remotely. And it was the great residential neighborhood, nice park system, and things like that. And so, it's a really good place for quality of life for people raising families, like my wife and I are raising our family here in this neighborhood. It's a really diverse neighborhood, and it'll be better connected because of this investment in Michigan Avenue.

Cranson: Talk about that diversity a little bit because when you say diverse, you don't mean just black and white, right?

Gilchrist: No. I mean in terms of levels of income, representatives of social economic status, in terms of people who may be lifelong Detroiters and Michiganders, and people who are moving to the area, the city, the neighborhood, or the region for the first time. We have a very robust and growing immigrant community in this neighborhood. It's connected to the, it's directly next door to southwest Detroit in the Mexican town neighborhood. And so we have a very strong cultural identity with our Latino and Spanish speaking communities in Detroit. And so, this also is a neighborhood, historically, Corktown that has been a home for immigrants and people who would come to Michigan from different parts of the world, particularly in Europe. It's called Corktown named for Cork in Ireland. And so, we also have deep history with the Gaelic Society, as well as the Maltese Association has a location on Michigan Avenue, right in the part of the corridor that this grant is going to benefit. And so, again, it'll build on that rich heritage of being a connection point in place for people who've chosen to come and live in the city of Detroit, to have a place for them there. 

Cranson: It's just hard to imagine, 20 years ago, what this was going to look like, and how much it was going to take off despite a recession, despite a pandemic. The energy there, and in a couple more years, this project will be done. But we'll also have the Gordie Howe International Bridge just down the road. So, it's going to look very different all the way around in terms of transportation. Please stay tuned. We'll be back with more Talking Michigan Transportation right after this.

Narrator: Avoid the wait and remember the Mackinac Bridge is closed to traffic Labor Day for the Annual Bridge Walk starting at 6:30 am. Spend some extra time in the UP or take your time heading north since the bridge won't reopen to traffic until noon to allow walkers to clear the bridge. For more information, head to 

Cranson: So, talk about the equity components of this, and why you think this was important given the history of the neighborhood and where it rates in terms of poverty and some of the census tracts. How will this help with that?

Gilchrist: Well, again, communities that are better connected are more prosperous. And so for people being able to have it be made clear that they are welcome to live and welcome to come to and through a neighborhood is really important to that neighborhood's economic mentality. And so having a broad array of people having access to that is really what we mean. This will help us build a Corktown, a Detroit, and a Michigan where everyone sees a place for themselves. They don't feel like that's a road they can't turn down, it's a road they can't bike through, that's a place that they can't stop at a bus stop. And this is something that we will really be opening the door for with this kind of grant. It also enables people who want to have a more pedestrian experience to be able to fully enjoy themselves in this place and not feel nervous or safe about their interactions with the roadway. That's good for local businesses and entrepreneurs who have their ideas and putting them into the world of brick-and-mortar businesses all throughout this Michigan Avenue corridor. And so, I think that this will help Corktown be a place where people know that they can be, where they can come, they can be safe, they can be themselves, and that will go for anyone from any walk of life. And ultimately, that's where we want our city to get to. It's where we want our state to get to; a place where everyone feels safe and respected and protected and able to have a great time. 

Cranson: I like that emphasis on transportation and its role in place making, and how we do live safely, and how we protect vulnerable users. And I’m a cyclist, and I will say with all that's gone on in the state and Grand Rapids, where I live, and Traverse City and Ann Arbor with biking lanes and what they've done in Detroit, I still think the future is protected bike lanes. I just don't know that I’m ever going to feel safe knowing that that person is driving down the road next to me and they're on their phone.

Gilchrist: Yeah, and well, especially someone who likes to ride bikes with my kids, like I rode bikes with my kids up and down Trumble Avenue just last night, actually, and when the bike lanes are protected, you feel better. When my eight-year-olds are riding, they ride in mostly a straight line, right. You want to make sure that they're safe. And Michigan Avenue already has the distinction of having one of the longest, if not the longest, bike lane actually in the state of Michigan. And so, extending the protected nature of that and different parts of this corridor I think is going to be important to be a real good demonstration of what that does for safety, what that does for accessibility. And it gives everyone the peace of mind they need to be able to know that they can drive or ride with confidence.

Cranson: So, it's already a cool neighborhood, but talk a little bit about your experience and what your wife has even said about the idea of having some seating there.

Gilchrist: I mean, look, the best is yet to come. We certainly just were walking to pick up pizza from a local restaurant, Michigan and Trumbull, check it out, great take on deep dish style pizza. And coming home and seeing some Corktown, there's, every Wednesday night, there are these neighborhood concerts that happen with local musicians will just play on street corners. And since we don't have cafe seating at this point on Michigan Avenue, you have people kind of standing in parking spaces to watch these performers. But imagining having sidewalks that are wider and can accommodate seating and pedestrians in a way that's safer, that gives a chance for new residential and new entertainment experiences to be enabled. And so my wife was like, why don't we have this again? And so, it's nice to now be able to say that we are investing in delivering that kind of experience in Corktown and demonstrating that it's possible for other communities as well.

Cranson: Talk about how this fits with what the Biden administration and Secretary Buttigieg has talked about. I mean, this is part of his broader vision for transportation, right?

Gilchrist: Well, the Biden administration has definitely seen that transportation infrastructure presents an opportunity to deliver equitable experiences for people, that streets and railways are for people first. And so, this investment here in Detroit is a recognition of that. The partnership of 375 is going to be a recognition of that. And also, the chance to right a wrong where we have, again, in the past transportation infrastructure has been a tool for division, a tool that has enabled or accelerated segregation. And we have a chance, with these projects, to turn back that clock and to get that right going forward. And that's what this project represents.

Cranson: What have you heard from friends and neighbors about the plan? Because, like you said, a lot of people kind of are in love with the history of that cobblestone feel and the bricks, which makes for some real challenges for maintenance, you know, for plowing and clearing snow. So there's a good plan to reuse those, though.

Gilchrist: I mean, yeah, and so I think that there are folks who are going to miss cobblestones. And so that’s true, and so I appreciate that, again, the professionals at MDOT are being conscientious about that and have a plan to make sure that that can be reused in a way that pays homage to that important history. And this is one of the things that made our Corktown and this part of Michigan Avenue distinctive. And so we want to recognize how important that is to folks. And at the same time, recognize we have a chance to move forward honoring that heritage and building modern experiences for people.

Cranson: Yeah, I think that tying those in somehow into the project, so they're preserved for history, but then also coming up with some red pavers that still have a similar look. It's a really good plan. I’ll be curious to see how it's executed. So, looking forward, what else do you see coming? I mean, there's all kinds of good things happening in Detroit and in Michigan in terms of transportation. Obviously, a record number of roads and bridges being rebuilt, but also some really cool innovations like this. Do you feel like the best is yet to come? You keep saying that.

Gilchrist: Absolutely. I say it because that's absolutely how I feel. I am very excited about the stuff that we are doing when it comes to smarter and better-connected roadways because I see that also as a way to deliver on safety and equity for people. I’m excited about the technology innovation that's going to come for how the state of Michigan is really partnering with folks who are pushing the envelope when it's coming to the experience of electric vehicles on our roadways. The pilot that we're gonna run for the road that can charge the car inductively is super exciting, first of its kind in the country. And this is gonna push the industry forward. I’m excited about us building on our lead in terms of the miles of connected highway that we have and what that'll do for public safety and the experience of drivers of smarter and more connected vehicles. I am excited about how we can use transportation infrastructure to better serve people. And do that in a more holistic way, not just in getting people from point a to point b, which is important, but delivering more than that. So, there are a ton of creative people both in the Michigan Department of Transportation and private industry, and our job is to work together to deliver for the people we serve in our residence. 

Cranson: It's always been kind of a chicken and the egg thing. It's like, build it and they will come. Do we really know if we had reliable transit? I mean, we're going to have transit with signalized priority for the first time in this corridor Michigan Avenue, which is really cool. That's going to make it a much better experience, much more reliable. Things that are going to happen to make the q line better, so people can't like park on the tracks like I've seen people do. Certainly, with rail, with this ongoing study we mentioned between Traverse City and Ann Arbor, finally getting 110 mile per hour service between Detroit and Chicago, thanks to the ARRA money that came through 10 years ago now. It's taking a long time, but I do think that younger generations are saying, hey if you give me this stuff, I’ll do that. That's how I’ll get around. I can be on my phone or on my iPad or whatever.

Gilchrist: That's right, and, having lived in a couple of other cities beyond Detroit and in the country, and seeing even the version of those transportation experiences in 2005 or in 2009; what that looked like. And so for the idea that Detroit, Michigan can deliver the most modern versions of that is very exciting and very compelling, and it will continue to build the momentum that our city has in terms of being a place that people want to come and build their families and their futures. And so transitive structure has a role to play in that.

Cranson: This is very well said. Well, thank you for taking time to talk about this, and I’m excited for you and your neighborhood. And I can't wait till we're unveiling a brand-new Michigan Avenue. 

Gilchrist: No doubt about it. Thank you, Jeff, and thanks again to all our professionals in MDOT.


Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcast and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.