Maurice Cox. [Submitted]

Maurice Cox had only been in Detroit a few months when he declared in 2016 that Motor City  would become the “most bike-friendly city in America.”

The promise shocked Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition bike advocacy group. Scott said he was even more surprised when Cox followed through on his promise.

Detroit now tallies almost 81 miles of bike lanes, including more than 25 miles of the barrier-protected lanes — all of which were added since Cox was appointed to lead the city’s Planning and Development Department in 2015, according to the Greenways Coalition.

“He was a man of his word,” Scott said. “He offered a much grander vision than what Detroiters were used to…and he pushed very hard for it.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot tapped Cox Aug. 7 as her pick to be the next commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, calling him “uniquely qualified to help create a city where development addresses the fundamental needs of every neighborhood.”

Detroit’s unprecedented bike lane expansion was a hallmark of Cox’s radical and ambitious approach to urban planning, which also centered on building out pedestrian spaces and targeting specific neighborhoods for dense development, according to multiple people who interacted with him during his time in the city.

But while the initiatives earned Cox accolades from policy experts and national observers, reactions from Detroiters were more mixed.

One of Cox’s first signature projects, which added parking-protected lanes to the city’s busy Cass Corridor, resulted in frequent traffic jams and a limited field of vision for drivers, according to Tristan Taylor, a volunteer organizer with the Charlevoix Village Association neighborhood group.

“Maurice Cox was just like, ‘we’re going to build these bike lanes,’ and they got built,” Taylor said. “It was always an approach of, ‘I’m going to tell you, the citizen, why I’m the expert and you should listen to me.’”

It was part of a pattern in Detroit for Cox, who was often criticized for a prescriptive, top-down approach that left neighbors and even some elected officials feeling excluded from the planning process, according to local officials, planners and organizers in the city

The professor-planner

Born in Brooklyn, Cox entered public service after a decades-long career in academia. He taught architecture courses at Syracuse University, the University of Virginia and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and his time at Syracuse even sent him on a six-year stint teaching in Florence, Italy. 

While in Virginia, Cox took a run at the Charlottesville City Council in 1996, earning the most votes out of four candidates in an open election for three at-large seats. He was reelected in 2000 and became mayor of the city in 2002, all while advocating for denser development around Downtown — and while keeping his teaching job at the University of Virginia.

After his time in office, Cox joined the Tulane University School of Architecture in 2012 as an associate dean. But three years later, Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan plucked him from academia to lead the city’s Planning and Development Department, where his salary started at $147,500, according to a 2015 letter published by Crain’s Detroit Business.

Cox took office promising to make Detroit “the first city to make a robust recovery” from post-industrial decline and create “gentrification without displacement” in neighborhoods throughout the city, according to Los Angeles-based architect R. Steven Lewis, whom Cox recruited to help oversee his sweeping plan.

Cox tripled the department’s staff from 12 full-time employees to 36, bringing in planners and architects he had met during his globe-trotting career. That approach did not please Detroit-based designers, Lewis said.

“He got a lot of pushback from local firms about all the global talent he brought into Detroit, and some folks felt left out of the picture,” Lewis said. “But Maurice recognized that when you’re trying to enact real change after 40 years of nothing, the architecture has to rise to that challenge.”

Cox’s team of outsiders chose about a half-dozen “tipping-point communities” where they set out to attract new residents with streetscape overhauls and mixed-use development proposals. The goal was to create what Cox called “20-minute neighborhoods” — urban pockets dense enough for any resident to access all their daily needs within 20 minutes.

The planners set out on a multi-year community engagement campaign, carrying “the mantra that nothing about us, without us, is for us,” Lewis said.

But not everyone felt heard in the process.

Organizers with the Charlevoix Village Association have pressed developers and city leaders to carve affordable housing and community benefit agreements into proposals rolled out in the city’s Near East Side, which developers and a city-designed master plan have rebranded “Islandview.”

When a developer proposed a 92-unit apartment complex backed by city tax credits in the neighborhood last year, the association did not hear about it from local officials until the project appeared on the agenda for approval. Organizers, wary of being pushed out of their neighborhood, also sent a list of demands for community benefits, Taylor said. They were never answered.

Half the units in the development were reserved for renters who earn between 50 percent and 80 percent of the region’s area median income, but even that’s out of reach for most neighbors, Taylor said.

“The neighborhoods that are slated for investment are the ones where white people, particularly white middle class people, are being anchored to go to,” Taylor said. “When you have a city with such a deep history of systemic racism, and you’re not coming in with a perspective on how to address that, you’re guaranteeing that what’s being developed down the line is going to be separate and unequal.”

In an email, Cox told The Daily Line that the details of the apartment development sprung from a year-long community input process, and that developers “further shared the project’s final development at a number of stages” during the zoning process.

“Despite that level of engagement there remained groups that did not agree with the decision to promote the transition of the corridor to a local shopping, higher density district,” Cox wrote.

Fault lines

Cox’s professorial style also put him at odds with some Detroit elected officials.

In 2017, the planner teamed up with the privately-funded Downtown Detroit Partnership to create Spirit of Detroit Plaza, temporarily closing off a Downtown street to traffic in the process. But Cox did not seek approval from the City Council before doing so, earning him a rebuke from Councilman Andre Spivey during a November 2017 meeting, according to The Detroit News.

“We like you here, man,” Spivey was quoted as telling Cox. “But sometimes, I think you look at us as a city, as a council, in a very condescending way. That you came from New Orleans and Virginia and you know everything about urban planning, and I don’t think you do.”

The council ultimately voted this year to make the pedestrian-only space permanent.

The plaza “was not rolled out as well as we had hoped,” fellow Councilman Gabe Leland told The Daily Line.

“It happened a bit too quickly,” Leland said. “The Planning and Development Department could have walked the floors a little more before the rollout.”

However, Leland said Cox treated the confrontation as a “learning experience,” and that Cox always answered his phone when Leland called.

“I think [Cox] brought a very different philosophy for planning than this city had ever seen before, and there’s just a natural fault line when someone goes and tries to get their feet wet somewhere new,” Leland said. “I was skeptical at first, but I’ve really come to appreciate him and his expertise…so I’m sorry to see him go.”

Cox’s style has already raised suspicion from at least one of Chicago’s notoriously territorial aldermen, who tend to chafe at any plan rolled out for their ward that hasn’t been first been vetted by their offices.

Aldermen also sometimes clashed with former Department of Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman — especially during his controversial push to create new tax increment financing districts for the Lincoln Yards and The 78 megadevelopments this spring. However, Reifman was always careful to court aldermen’s backing, since Chicago’s longstanding and mostly unwritten practice of aldermanic prerogative meant neither he nor former Mayor Rahm Emanuel had the final say on the fate of high-profile projects.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), a vocal critic of Lightfoot’s campaign to erode aldermen’s power over development in their wards, didn’t miss an opportunity to lob an early warning at Cox last week. The day after Lightfoot announced the nomination, Lopez quote-tweeted the Detroit News article with a repetition of Spivey’s “condescending” comment, adding no other commentary.

A question of equity

A headstrong planning director may be the only way for Lightfoot to push her ambitious transportation agenda, which promised  to create 100 miles of new bike lanes and plan 50 miles of new dedicated bus lanes by the end of her first term. City officials shelved a 2015 proposal to add bus lanes to Ashland Avenue amid protests from neighbors and business owners.

But Cox’s appointment could mean that more proposals like the Ashland lanes could end up back on the table, according to Kyle Whitehead, director of public affairs for the advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance.

“The fact that [Cox] has experience linking transportation improvements with community development is really encouraging,” Whitehead said.

In an email on Friday, Cox told the The Daily Line that nearly a third of Detroit residents don’t own a car, “thus high quality protected bike lanes is a question of equity.”

Cox otherwise declined to comment for this article, referring questions to Lightfoot’s press office. 

But back in 2006, in an interview with The Hook magazine, the professor-turned-mayor-turned-planner summarized his approach to public policy in Charlottesville:

“My vision of where we needed to go was so clear, I sometimes would charge ahead before the public was ready.” Cox told the magazine when asked if he would have done anything differently. “I tried to keep City Council business in the news constantly. You need to keep people’s attention, sometimes through controversy.”