Bringing New Life to the Neighborhoods of Detroit

Kim Dowdell

Kimberly Dowdell in the Sugar Hill area of midtown Detroit, which was the site of her B.Arch. thesis. She is currently working on redeveloping the site as a mixed-use area with multifamily housing, retail, and parking. photo / Bryan Mitchell

April 26, 2016

A profile of Kimberly Dowdell (B.Arch. '06) that originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of AAP News.

When she was 11 years old, Kim Dowdell decided she wanted to become an architect.

"I was standing in downtown Detroit during the mid-90s, which was one of the worst periods for the city," she says. "Everywhere I looked there were boarded-up and abandoned buildings. I thought that if I could fix the buildings, I could start to fix the city." Twenty years later, in the summer of 2015, she returned to her hometown to help tackle the daunting task of bringing Detroit back to life.

In July, Dowdell joined the City of Detroit's Housing and Revitalization Department. Her role as an executive manager of public-private partnerships is an amalgamation of her B.Arch. studies, her passion for sustainable urban development, and her master of public administration focused on urban policy and real estate from Harvard University. She is finally doing the work she has always wanted to do in the place she has wanted to do it — and her involvement comes at a pivotal time.

"In Detroit, we're seeing that long-term residents are tired of the conditions and just want to save enough money to leave," she says. "At the same time, there is an influx of younger people who are moving into the city. They are excited about some of the development and changes, and recognize that Detroit is much more affordable than places like New York City, DC, and Chicago — it's a way for the millennial generation to have their piece of the American Dream."

The American Dream was what originally brought Dowdell's family to Detroit. In 1946, her grandparents moved to the city from Georgia in search of a better life. Dowdell's early childhood years were spent in the home her grandparents bought on the east side of the city shortly after they arrived. By the time she was nine, the area around that home had deteriorated so much that her family decided to move for safety reasons. Dowdell's original east-side home as well as the house her family moved to in northwest Detroit have both since been demolished.

Shortly after the move to northwest Detroit, during a middle school art class, Dowdell first learned about the field of architecture. She saw a way to help her city recover.

With a career path in mind, Dowdell looked for a high school that would help prepare her to become an architect. She received a scholarship to attend Cranbrook Kingswood, a boarding school in neighboring Bloomfield Hills, and during her junior year received a copy of the Big Red Book in the mail. "I read that book cover to cover," she says. She visited campus during the summer before her senior year and that "sealed the deal." She was accepted early decision, and arrived on campus in the fall of 2001.

Once Dowdell reached Cornell, she became immersed in the education and studio culture — "there were a lot of late nights, and it was very rigorous" — but also took the opportunity to pursue activities outside of Rand Hall. She was active in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, joined the National Organization of Minority Architects, spent a semester at Cornell in Rome, and was elected to the Sphinx Head Society, Cornell's oldest senior honor society.

She also spent a semester at Cornell in Washington, which eventually led to the creation of the now thriving organization SEED — Social Economic Environmental Design.

SEED began at the end of her semester in Washington, when Dowdell took an internship at the Office of the Chief Architect at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). There, she was tasked with researching a variety of topics, including sustainability.

"GSA had just signed a commitment saying that all of their new federal buildings would be LEED certified," she says. "And it struck me that what we needed was a LEED for social issues — something that would be beneficial in places like Detroit — so that developers have a responsibility to think about job creation and improving the community around the area they're developing." Dowdell shared that idea with her supervisor, Steve Lewis, who thought it showed merit and presented the concept at a Harvard Loeb Fellowship roundtable later that year. Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) emerged, and is still growing in relevance.

After graduation, Dowdell spent a few months working to get SEED up and running, and then went to work first for Ayers Saint Gross in Washington, DC, and then moved to New York City to work for HOK, where her path took its first turn away from the traditional architecture route — and into marketing.

"I started blogging for HOK Life, the firm's blog, and received some attention firm wide with my posts," Dowdell says. She was invited to join the marketing team. "I was feeling distracted by the traditional CAD work, and since I knew I wanted to eventually do something different, something with innovative design and development, I decided to take the opportunity to learn about marketing."

Dowdell became a communications manager, and after a year and a half was recruited to do marketing for the real estate project management firm Levien & Company.

"The deal I made with Ken Levien was that I would be the director of marketing, but I also wanted to manage development projects," Dowdell says. "I needed to really understand how those projects came together, and Ken gave me that opportunity." Dowdell stayed with Levien & Company for three years, and oversaw the renovation of Military Park in Newark, and a church renovation in Manhattan. But she still felt far away from her original plan of affecting meaningful improvement in Detroit.

"Levien was great, but there I was, super distracted, 20 years after deciding to become an architect so that I could help my city — and I wasn't doing it," she says. A friend who was attending the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard recommended the program to her, and she saw a way to learn more about community development and a path toward her goal to help Detroit. Her experience at Harvard was augmented by her fellowship in the Center for Public Leadership, where she was in the first cohort of Sheila C. Johnson Fellows.

During her final semester at Harvard, through a colleague at Levien, Dowdell was connected with Arthur Jemison, the director of the Housing and Revitalization Department in Detroit. He offered Dowdell a job, and in July 2015, she moved back to her hometown.

The mission assigned to Jemison and Dowdell's team is formidable but clear. "As a department, we are looking at ways to create housing stock that will bring people not just downtown or midtown, but into the neighborhoods that don't get as much attention as downtown," she says.

Dowdell currently oversees eight projects, most of which focus on revitalizing those neighborhoods. Downtown Detroit has garnered a lot of press in recent years because of Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans, and his efforts to develop and revitalize the core downtown area — "The '7.2 miles' as it's become known," says Dowdell. "But Detroit as a city is 139 square miles. What my team is trying to do is give some love to the other 132."

Working with the city planning director Maurice Cox — who was part of the original group that helped move SEED forward — Arthur Jemison and the Mayor's Office have identified specific neighborhoods that show promise and the ability to be revitalized. One such neighborhood is Livernois/McNichols, located in northwest Detroit. Dowdell's team is exploring how they can partner with private and philanthropic organizations to revive the commercial corridor, design and build effective landscape interventions on vacant lots, demolish homes that can't be salvaged, and renovate the vacant homes that are salvageable, with a goal of getting them back on the city tax rolls as owned or rented residential units.

In the future, Dowdell hopes to develop strategies to revitalize not just areas of Detroit, but other cities around the country. "Urban blight solutions can have a framework that can be replicable. Every site will have a unique feel, but when it comes to working with the multiple disciplines in different sectors and figuring out a viable financial and design strategy, that's the kind of solution we're looking to create that we hope other cities will be able to borrow."

Dowdell is confident that her work with developers in Detroit will be aided by relationships she formed during her undergraduate years and her current position on the AAP Advisory Council. "Former classmates and current council members are working in companies that could really have a positive impact on what we're trying to do here," she says. "Having the AAP connection makes it easy to pick up the phone and renew relationships with some of the real estate and architect mentors I met at AAP."

By Rebecca Bowes

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