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Detroit revival

"The villains are the rules of the game," he said. "Developers find it far more profitable to build in farmland in the suburbs than in vacant land in the urban core. It's easier to acquire big sites without worrying about hidden basements, or gas stations, or a reputation for violence, or corruption or inefficiency or the potential racism of your customers."

It makes financial sense for developers, but it is disemboweling the city, he said. Which is why he believes that without reform to housing and development laws, neither Mr. Gilbert nor the emergency manager, nor any combination of earthly forces, can salvage Detroit.

Mr. Gilbert espouses a philosophy of instilling fun in the workplace, one piece of an elaborate corporate culture that he has fine-tuned over the years, and describes, every few months, in a surprisingly entertaining, seven-hour monologue to new employees. One of more than a dozen core principles described in "Isms in Action," as the lecture is titled, is summed up as "Obsessed with finding a better way."

That could work as a pretty good motto for Opportunity Detroit. It is being designed and unveiled with the city's past missteps in mind. One of the most infamous is the Renaissance Center, a huge, mirrored complex of towers built in 1977 and currently the headquarters of General Motors.

"One critic said it was the pre-eminent example of terrible urban planning," said Mr. Cullen of Rock Ventures, who formerly worked for G.M. and helped champion the idea of buying the RenCen, as everyone here calls it, and moving the company in. "The building basically sucked the remaining people out of downtown and stuck them in a fortress."

Mr. Gilbert wants to return the area to the pedestrian haven that it was decades ago. If he succeeds -- he expects significant results within four or five years -- the place will again resemble the scene captured in a photograph that is plastered on a wall not far from his office. It is a huge, sepia-toned shot of Campus Martius, snapped in 1917. Looking at the picture, you realize that it includes the neighborhood where you are standing, though at a time when it bustled with men and women in hats, strolling amid billboards, retailers and a lineup of trolley cars.


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