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Do Private Foundations Wield Too Much Power in Rust Belt Cities?

13 July 2011 No Comment

The Wall Street Journal is carrying a fascinating story right now about a standoff between Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation and Mayor Dave Bing in Detroit.

Kresge Foundation head Rip Rapson stands in the middle of Woodward Avenue, a position that shows him literally blocking plans to run a train down the middle of the street. Photo: WSJ

Kresge is part of a coalition of private donors who had committed $100 million to the Woodward light rail line, around which the city of Detroit is staking its revitalization plans.

But Rapson and his fellow investors, part of the M1 coalition, are balking over plans to run the line down the center of the street. Our friends at Transport Michigan have been arguing for this approach, which is safer for pedestrians and moves transit users to their destination faster, as center-running rail lines do not have to contend with vehicle traffic.

Meanwhile, the folks at M1 favored curb-running streetcar, which have the potential to increase real estate values in gentrifying Midtown.

Investors like Rapson weren’t elected by the people of Detroit. He came to Detroit a few years ago from the McKinght Foundation in Minneapolis. He lives in some fancy suburb outside Troy.

But as the Wall Street Journal points out, private individuals like Mr. Rapson are wielding a lot of power in Detroit. They are threatening to dictate the terms of a project that will nonetheless be funded 4-1 by public money.

From the article:

Mr. Rapson counters that more outside voices are needed in Detroit to help local leaders who, he suggests, aren’t up to the challenge of remapping the city. “The idea that the folks who have been trained a certain way for the last 20 years and who have never had the opportunity to apply that training in another community could figure all that out de novo seems crazy,” he said in an interview.

But city leaders say mapping out the city’s future—including deciding which neighborhoods will survive Mr. Bing’s consolidation effort and which ones won’t—is a task for local leaders and voters.

“People want to know that their interests are being represented,” says Marja Winters, the city’s deputy planning chief and co-leader of Detroit Works. “Someone who doesn’t live here can’t accurately represent their interests.”

We’ve written at Streetsblog how this issue raises equity questions. Who is the transit project for: low-income Detroiters who depend on public transit? Or wealthy gentrifiers and real estate interests?

It’s clear what side Kresge is coming down on. Meanwhile, Bing’s loyalties are elsewhere.

The WSJ cites the Kresge’s “foundation-knows-best attitude.” I have to say, this whole thing reminds me a lot of Cleveland. We have a strong philanthropic sector who does a lot of good things. But sometimes I wonder if they aren’t perverting the processes of private markets and democracy. Often times they seem to be motivated by a desire for praise in the national press more than impact on the ground. After all, foundations are self-interested beings, just as are government agencies and businesses.

What do you guys think? Foundations in Rust Belt cities. Can they become a problem?

-A.S.