As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in the Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Gregory, chief planning and public spaces officer, Downtown Detroit Partnership.
Gregory is recognized nationally as a leading expert in public spaces. In his 20-year career at the Downtown Detroit Partnership, a nonprofit organization responsible for and at the forefront of transforming downtown Detroit into an exciting, vibrant, prosperous, clean and safe place, he has led the creation of Campus Martius Park, Beacon Park and Cadillac Square, among others. In collaboration with the City of Detroit, Downtown Detroit Partnership has established itself as a leader in creating a wide array of engaging initiatives, cultural events and programming, as well as in managing and operating downtown Detroit’s historic and world-class public spaces and urban parks.
Thanks in large part to Gregory’s expertise, Detroit has become a leader in developing and using public spaces to create vibrancy and define a neighborhood’s culture. Through the Downtown Detroit Partnership’s existing networks and knowledge of the best practices and places internationally, Gregory and his team continue to innovate and create new experiences for Detroit’s public spaces for both visitors and Detroiters.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Detroit, and have witnessed a lot of the City’s ups and downs. Those turbulent times in Detroit and others across the country led to my desire of working in urban development, planning and real estate.
My father was an executive at J.L. Hudson Company, Detroit’s iconic downtown department store, and I worked there during college breaks. I watched that store go from the №1 place to shop to being drained by suburban sprawl.
I also spent some time in Manhattan working in stage production management on Broadway ⎯ getting the real “big city” experiences. Theatre production, my second love, gave me some valuable experience that I have applied in my public space work.
My first professional job out of college was at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which led to an exciting opportunity at General Motors (GM) headquarters. There, I led a $250 million, multiyear, successful and award-winning revitalization effort of GM’s 16-square-block commercial and residential neighborhood in the downtown New Center area.
My first forays in public space development and programming include the creation, management and programming of several small-scale spaces in New Center, as well as related work in retail, restaurants, bars, hotels and at the Fisher Theatre, Detroit’s Broadway house.
This Detroit work was happening at the very beginnings of the placemaking efforts nationwide, led by Holly Whyte and New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS) founded by Fred Kent. I consulted with PPS while at GM and, later, with Campus Martius Park.
My career at GM expanded to the real estate leadership team with Detroit revitalization and other corporate nationwide responsibilities, including commercial office buildings, dealerships and technical center planning. Eventually, I left GM after 20 years to focus on urban development and consulting in greater downtown.
In January 2000, I was asked to join a new effort to create Campus Martius Park, a legacy gift as part of Detroit’s 300th birthday. I led efforts to create the vision, program, design and construction of Campus Martius Park, which opened in November 2004 as Detroit’s signature public space.
The success of Campus Martius Park over the past 15 years has transformed and revitalized downtown Detroit, catalyzing more than $4 billion in new development and winning continuing international accolades as one of the top tier urban public spaces.
Today, Downtown Detroit Partnership’s public space portfolio has grown to six downtown historic and brand-new spaces, and we continue our presence as one of the leading public space experts worldwide.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
To design and create a world class fountain to be the centerpiece of Campus Martius Park, we hired one of the best water feature designers in the world, Mark Fuller, to be a part of our consulting team. The plan was for the fountain to include a feature that would shoot water up to 10 stories in the air for a “wow” factor. In concept, this sounded amazing, but in reality, what we got can only be described as a high performance race car that can only drive in a 50 mph zone.
The fountain at Campus Martius Park is beautiful, but early on we discovered the hard way that we could not turn the water shooters all the way up to its full blast mode. When we did, like on special nights such as the Detroit Tigers playing in the World Series, water sprayed everywhere and the entire park was completely soaked. During one particular cold evening, water that sprayed onto nearby cars turned to ice.
The lesson learned here is that there is a time and a place for everything and that sometimes less is more.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Two landmark books by renowned urbanists have shaped my career and continue to be top utilized guideposts for urban development and public spaces.
The first is Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, originally published in 1961, which many call an essential framework for assessing the vitality of all cities. The second is William “Holly” Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, originally published in 1980. The book, and the accompanying film, are used in urban planning, sociology, environmental design and architecture studies worldwide.
Both focus on how cities and spaces work effectively and successfully at the street and public space level ⎯ both are highly reliant on the social interaction and behaviors of people ⎯ individuals, groups and businesses. They also both go into great detail about what works and what doesn’t to make streets, neighborhoods and public spaces vibrant and sustainable.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision and purpose when I began was working passionately to return Detroit to a vibrant and economically and socially sustainable city, with a focus on the downtown as the state’s center of business, culture, sports and entertainment and image.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
There are many principles that guide me, such as being patient, resilient and flexible.
With respect to Detroit’s parks and public spaces, I focus on the customer/visitor experience by putting myself in their shoes.
But overall, my guiding principle and that of my team is to strive, in everything we do, to be the best in the world, while at the same time staying uniquely Detroit.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Being isolated from family and my young grandson has been a challenge. We have spent many hours on Zoom or FaceTime to stay in touch, which has helped. Only recently have we been slowly and carefully engaging in person. We just make certain to gather outdoors, keep our distance, wear masks and maintain good hygiene before and after visits.
Additionally, since the start of the pandemic, residents in my neighborhood, who gather twice a year for block parties, have been coming together weekly on Saturdays for Happy Hour. It’s been a wonderful way to connect with people, share experiences and build closer friendships.
My role and my team’s role at the Downtown Detroit Partnership is to manage physical real estate in places where people gather and connect with each other, so that has been another challenge. Downtown Detroit parks and public spaces bring so much joy to city residents and visitors beyond, so they have remained open through the pandemic and are in use by the public every day. We couldn’t afford to completely close the parks, because so many people rely on them for their own physical and mental well-being. Of course, there was work to be done, such as cleaning, maintaining the landscape and planting flowers in the gardens, so we physically were in the parks to meet with staff and partners and oversee some of those beautification efforts.
We also had to be on-site to determine what health and safety protocols were needed so everyone could feel confident reengaging with Downtown Detroit parks and public space and experience their many offerings for free throughout the year.
Since the gradual reopening of our state, we have resumed our regular programming and events, with many safety and health measures in place, and are seeing daily life return to the downtown, which is a good thing.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Having to create and study all the safety protocols that would be needed to keep ourselves and visitors safe was one of the biggest work-related challenges. It was back to basics for me and my team. We looked at every activity and program we do annually to determine how we could do it in a COVID-19 world, benchmarking it across the world, then having it reviewed and approved by health and city officials.
On a positive note, the pandemic has given us the chance to take some things we have done and innovate and create new opportunities, including adding some that are virtual. For us, we have not only been pivoting for the short-term but also working to determine what all of this looks like for 2021 and beyond a COVID world.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Very few people have ever lived through a pandemic or crisis like this. Everyone is trying to figure this out. There are opportunities to work through that isolation and innovate to get things done, whether it is using Zoom or Skype. People feel more comfortable to come back outside.
I’ve been reassuring family, friends and colleagues by reminding them of how resilient Detroit has been. There was 9/11, the recession in 2008, Detroit’s bankruptcy in 2013 and we are now making our way through a pandemic. We’ve gotten very good at focusing on the long-term gain and staying positive. That’s helped relieve some of the uncertainty and anxiety for many of us.
Of course, I also recommend that people get outside, take a walk around the block or relax and recharge at one of Downtown Detroit’s parks.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There has been a heightened appreciation by the public for being outdoors and in Downtown Detroit’s parks and public spaces throughout this time. For cities, parks are vital to making it work right now. We also hope there is an appreciation by the funding community that will want to invest and support them in the future.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Every time in history that there’s been an event like this, people project and anticipate that cities will be irrelevant and people will never want to attend a gathering again. Some things will become permanent, no doubt. I think we all will continue being more cautious when out in public and hygiene conscious, making certain safety and health protocols are in place everywhere and then follow them. I don’t think it will be as dramatic as people never wanting to live in a big city again.
My advice to everyone is to not confuse the short-term need to get through this with a long-term outlook. We’re not going to exist in a pandemic forever.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
It’s going to be important more than ever to attract the workforce back downtown. Downtown Detroit is the heart of the city with an international presence, with many cultural assets that are unique and you can’t get many other places. Downtown parks are free and open to all. We have been intentional from the beginning about building a diversity of programming and attracting a wide variety of ages and ethnicities to enjoy the spaces. We need to be reminding people of just these facts.
Beautiful parks and public spaces, art museums, a vibrant nightlife with restaurants and professional sports ⎯ people still want these things. We need to advocate for the critical importance of public spaces more so in the future, and make sure our political and government leaders and our community at large know that they are funded properly.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to let our government and city officials know how they use the parks and public spaces and how important they are to them. We encourage people, when they feel ready and comfortable, to mask up and come out to safely experience the parks and enjoy the many programs and events we have, as well as to support the arts, local businesses and restaurants in the city.
We don’t want people to lose sight of why Downtown Detroit is such an important place or to discount what the parks and public spaces offer.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
From “Holly” Whyte’s book: “I end then in praise of small spaces. The multiplier effect is tremendous. It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or even the larger number who feel better about the city center for knowledge of them. For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost. They are built of a set of basics and they are right in front of our noses. If we will look.”
Knowing that Detroiters and visitors from around the world feel so positive and better because of our work in creating and managing Campus Martius Park and several other downtown spaces gives me great personal satisfaction. Nearly every day, our local TV stations open or close their news broadcasts with a live look at Campus Martius Park, bringing that pride that Whyte spoke about to the millions of residents in the City and to metro Detroit.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers can visit the Downtown Detroit Partnership website at downtowndetroit.org or @DowntownDet on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.