Following building development in Detroit can be a daunting task. It’s a full-time job keeping tabs on what’s been announced, seeking city approval, in the middle of a community benefits process, under construction or behind schedule.
But Detour Detroit is betting that not only can it monitor most developments, but also that it can provide this information to the public—for free—on a website that will be updated regularly. (Disclosure: The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate, was originally published by Detour Detroit.)
Last month, Detour Detroit was awarded a $20,000 institutional fellowship from the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, with Detour co-founder Kate Abbey-Lambertz as the lead fellow. As part of the fellowship, Detour plans to create the Detroit Development Tracker, a tool that will provide users with information about the cost, location, timeline, size and more for building developments in the city. To build it out, Abbey-Lambertz is partnering with Jimmy McBroom, a veteran data engineer who works with the city’s Open Data Portal.
At the outset, Abbey-Lambertz said, they will focus on larger developments—those that have some kind of subsidy or have been through the city’s request for proposals or community benefits process. They expect high interest in those projects, and the details should be easier to find. But as the tracker progresses, they’d like to include “pretty much any new build and commercial or multifamily rehabs,” she told Outlier.
To learn more about how this tracker is being built and the potential it has for accountability, we spoke with Abbey-Lambertz and McBroom.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Outlier Media: What were the origins of this project?
Abbey-Lambertz: Back when we were starting The Dig and figuring out what we wanted to do for our development coverage, we put a callout to readers, asking them what they’d like Detour to be publishing. Jimmy reached out and said, “Hey, I’m working on this tracker. What do you think?” I thought it was amazing and that I would rely on it every day as a reporter. And, actually, this would be helpful for a lot of people.
So, we applied for the innovation fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism institute and got accepted. The goal is to build this tool that will be really useful for our local audience and the Detroit community at-large, but also to come up with learnings about how to use public data in both journalism and people’s lives.
Outlier Media: What kinds of attributes will you track?
Abbey-Lambertz: There will be information about cost and square footage and basic things like that. But some of it is just about getting it all in one place to see who’s developing what, especially for projects that aren’t Hudson’s or getting covered constantly. We’ve also got a bunch of stuff on the wishlist, like public funding: Is this project receiving tax incentives? Alongside that, is there an affordability component? Also community benefits: What was negotiated, and are developers living up to that? Then, there are other things, like environmental remediation or parking minimums, which may be a little outside the scope of the tracker, but we’ll still look at initially to see what’s possible.
McBroom: I go to Toronto a lot, and every time a new development happens, they put up a giant placard on the edge of the property with a little rendering that says there will be this many units, this much parking, this much commercial space, etc. I would love to have that sort of thing replicated for projects in the city, along with all the ancillary stuff on our wishlist. Most projects here have a public meeting component, whether there’s a land sale or public appeal, and having that sort of info would be nice as well.
Outlier Media: That’s a lot of projects to keep track of. How will the mechanics of this work?
McBroom: There are a bunch of different sources to find this information: Crain’s Detroit Business, the city’s website, neighborhood sites, to name a few. Certainly, to start, there will be a lot of manual entry from PDFs, news articles or wherever this information lives now. But once we’ve built it, hopefully there are people out there interested in this sort of thing who can contribute in some way. I’m hoping that eventually a lot of this work gets crowdsourced by people interested in development or their neighborhood.
Outlier Media: What are some potential applications for this tool? How do you see people using it?
Abbey-Lambertz: My goal is for this to be available for people interested in development, including residents and neighborhood groups. A second layer to this process would be for a layperson to be able to filter the information—say for public subsidized projects in District 7 or for projects over a certain cost or those that have gone through the community benefits process. It’s hard to hold anyone accountable if you don’t know who they are and don’t know what they should be accountable for. We’re also going to include developers’ contact information, so people have a direct way to get in touch if they have questions.
McBroom: Once you have the main database of projects, there are all sorts of additional entries you can hang off that data. Take, for example, the new townhomes on Merrick Street being built by Robertson Homes, who are also building the Pullman Parc development. The tracker could eventually be a way to dig into the entities that are behind a lot of these developments, whether that’s understanding the landscape or holding them accountable. I have no idea how many proposals Dennis Kefallinos has floated for all his buildings. But if they’re in the tracker, you could see the scale of his promises and how many have actually come to fruition.
Outlier Media: What will the final product look like?
McBroom: Ultimately, this data has to live somewhere. Right now, I’m building it out in Airtable, which makes it very easy to relate data and different tables together. That’s the back end. And the front end will be a website, which we can regularly republish as we enter data.
It’s pretty raw right now; we have a beta version. And we’re working with a front-end designer to make the website nice and accessible and easy for people to use on all sorts of devices.
Outlier Media: When will it be available?
Abbey-Lambertz: We should have a public-facing beta website out to use and get feedback for Round 2 in early 2022.
McBroom (joking): We’re getting our Brownfield Tax Credits in order.
Abbey-Lambertz: And we’ll be doing community meetings throughout. I want to talk to people who want to know more about development—whether that’s residents, community groups or maybe even developers themselves. Anyone who’s interested to share how they might use it or how it could be helpful. Readers can shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.