TROY, MI-The beginning of the University of Michigan/Urban Land Institute Forum this morning was a brisk and rough wake-up call for a few hundred commercial real estate professionals, as a few presenters reminded people here that the Detroit market is near the bottom in terms of development, investment and housing. The annual conference, concentrating on urban transit and real estate, is being held here at the Management and Education Center here Wednesday and Thursday, with tours of Troy and Birmingham, two of the most popular suburbs in the struggling Detroit area.

Charles DiRocco, managing director of industry trends and analysis with ULI, apologized for the bad news he was detailing as part of the group’s recent Emerging Trends in Real Estate report. Of the 600 commercial real estate professionals surveyed for the annual report, most put Detroit as 45th out of the 45 national markets. “There’s just not really anyone that sees any growth opportunity in Detroit right now,” DiRocco said.

However, one of the key speakers of the day is spearheading a large development project in Troy, the Pavilions of Troy. Hunter Richardson with the Richardson Development Group is working with the city to bring in a $300-million redevelopment project on the site of the 900,000-sf former Kmart headquarters. The project is anticipated to have up to 600,000 sf of retail, 300,000 sf of office, a 250-room hotel and 750 multifamily units. In a private interview at the forum, Richardson tells that he’s still bullish about the development and the City of Troy, though he’s still not sure how the housing part will pan out. “With condos not doing as well, it may be that we just make more of the units apartments,” he says. He hopes to have the project completed by 2010.

The theme of the forum is Connecting the Dots: Linking Suburban & Urban Town Centers Via Transit, an idea that the automobile-heavy Motor City has been averse to accomplish for decades. The problem with transit in the community is also one of a massive urban sprawl pattern, said Myron Orfield, a professor with the University of Minnesota and the Brookings Institution. “Job centers are less clustered here than in most parts of the country,” he said, referring to how jobs and communities are too widely spread across Southeast Michigan, instead of having a few core job centers. “Two-thirds of Detroit jobs are not in a clustered area.”

Another issue that Detroit must overcome is the flock of its finest minds from its prestigious universities, including the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. The colleges draw high-level students from across the nation, but most don’t want to stick around when they graduate, according to Peter Allen, a faculty member of the UM’s Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and president of Peter Allen & Associates. He’s also the founder of the UM/ULI Forum. In a private interview at the conference this morning, he tells that communities have to do more to keep these great minds from leaving. “We need to face reality here in Michigan,” Allen says. “We have to pull together and find solutions around urban losses. We have to attract the 25 to 35 year olds.”

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