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Chicago’s New Planning Chief Known For Big Ideas In His Last Job

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Spirit Plaza in Detroit

Maurice Cox championed the development of Spirit Plaza, a pedestrian plaza on streets permanently blocked off in downtown Detroit. After some initial pushback, the Detroit City Council approved the plaza.

Natalie Moore

DETROIT — Maurice Cox blew into Detroit with big ideas to lead the city’s planning department. He’s described as creative, professorial and full of gravitas. An architect, Cox champions 20-minute neighborhoods — where residents can find amenities within a 20-minute walk. He put in bike lanes, repurposed idle land into public gathering spaces and turned vacant land into tree farms.

But Detroiters love their cars. And they sometimes bristled at this outsider and his style of prettying their city.

Now, Cox is in Chicago. Mayor Lori Lightfoot tapped him to lead the Department of Planning and Development — the key place for the mayor to keep her promises around equitable neighborhood development. It’s where decisions are made about land, investment and the doling out of resources in the city.

Cox led strategic plans for a number of Detroit neighborhoods. Detroit is singing a comeback song. But so much of that city looks like the most disinvested parts of Chicago’s South and West sides. And those areas are often the blackest parts of town. The two cities share the biggest challenges, just on different scales.

A darling of the foundation and urban design world, Cox has taught design at the university level, worked in New Orleans and served as mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia between 2002 and 2004. He came to Detroit in 2015. The following year he represented the city when it was showcased at the prestigious Venice Biennale international art festival. At the time, he said associating Detroit with decay was an old story that no longer applied. Cox was helping to shape a new narrative about the city — not a drab, post-industrial wasteland but a canvas awaiting new strokes of creativity.

And equity was often talked about, too.

“As we’re planning in these neighborhoods ... and we’re setting a platform for investment to happen that is inclusive and that we’re not inadvertently creating a playground for people to come in and displace longtime residents and long-time folks that have been here,” said Derric Scott, CEO of East Jefferson Development Corporation. “One of the things I can appreciate about Maurice is as he approaches any neighborhood, he’s sensitive to those things.”

Scott’s group serves a number of neighborhoods, just east of downtown Detroit, grappling with vacant land and lack of retail. Detroit tapped this area for redevelopment.

“Maurice has been a real big champion of tactical preservation and thinking about how we can bring properties online slowly,” said Scott, as he stood in front of the Vanity Ballroom, a boarded-up building nearly 100 years old, once for whites only. Decades later, it hosted techno and garage rock concerts. Redevelopment is long-term and costly, but Cox helped stabilize it by supporting pop-up retail on the first floor.

On Detroit’s West Side, a cacophony of construction rings out on Livernois Avenue. A massive streetscaping improvement project will widen the sidewalks to 24 feet and reduce car lanes.

“I was one of the ones opposed to taking Livernois down to one lane. That was a major concern of mine. The city decided that they wanted to do this, so that’s what happened,” said Dolphin Michael, president of the Avenue of Fashion Business Association.

He said the city and Cox didn’t listen to concerns that the construction delayed the opening of some new businesses and shuttered others down. However, Michael admits that the city is paying attention to the area and that the changes will beautify the corridor and provide a boulevard feel.

“He was a very polarizing person. You could sit in a room and absolutely love everything he’s saying and then you could go to the next meeting with him and you couldn’t stand his guts. But he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind,” said Lisa Johanan, executive director of Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation. “Maurice came in larger than life with a big agenda to plan the city as a whole, and he went and hired 36 planners from all over the world.”

Planning included Johanan’s service area, which serves two low-income ZIP codes with a $22,000 median income. She said some ideas were simple — like straightening out the boulevard named after Rosa Parks. Others were complex, like creating a pavilion and a corridor that runs to the Detroit River.

“And now we’re in year two of implementation, and we haven’t seen much implementation yet,” Johanan said.

Cox’s penchant for speaking his mind came to a head in Detroit City Council. At issue, Spirit Plaza, in downtown Detroit, a pedestrian plaza on streets permanently blocked off. At lunchtime food trucks will arrive.

“There was somewhat a famous dressing down of Mr. Cox by a council member for his arrogance and his presumptuousness of having to push this through without city council approval,” said Louis Aguilar, a reporter at The Detroit News.

He said City Council went through convulsions but ultimately passed the measure to allow the pedestrian plaza.

“Many of the big ideas that [Cox has] proposed have not been fully executed, and it’s too soon to know whether they will play out the way he has hoped they will play out. What he did do is to bring the idea of design and large planning back to the city,” Aguilar said.

Scott of the East Jefferson Development Corporation has Chicago roots and offers a warning to Cox.

“It’s a very political environment, and there’s a lot of hierarchy, a lot of bureaucracy,” Scott said. “I’m hoping he won’t have to spend as much time trying to think through how he balances the political landscape of Chicago, and he can focus on just doing planning.”

Cox started in Chicago as acting commissioner in September. That’s when Mayor Lightfoot introduced his appointment to the Chicago City Council. The vote to confirm his appointment is expected at the City Council’s October meeting.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.

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