Detroiters hear new downtown development plans, ask what’s in it for us?
Detroiters who live near proposed sites for hotels, office buildings, restaurants and housing units billed as a $1.5 billion overhaul of the Illitch family’s vision for District Detroit have an opportunity to negotiate with developers to factor community benefits into the plan.
On Tuesday night, residents in the designated impact area around the planned development areas heard the first of what will be many legally-required presentations from the Ilitch family’s Detroit-based Olympia Development of Michigan and Stephen Ross’ New York City-based Related Cos. Detroiters at Detroit Cass Technical High School also had the chance to ask questions and air concerns about the projects, which will seek millions of dollars in tax breaks and other public financing deals with state and local government bodies.
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In short, the developers aim to build six new projects on surface lots and renovate five historic buildings over the next five years. This includes a combined 1.2 million square feet of office space, 146,000 square feet of retail space, 467 rooms at two new hotels and 865 residential units. Developers say the projects will create 12,000 temporary construction jobs and 6,000 permanent jobs. At least 20% of the residential units will be affordable for a two-person household earning an annual salary of $35,800 or less.
Several Detroiters expressed skepticism about the plans, since Olympia’s last promise of mega-developments around Little Caesars Arena failed to cross the finish line. One resident, a graduate of Cass Tech, recalled seeing news articles nearly three decades ago touting Ilitch’s concepts for the same area, remarking that those plans are now old enough to drive and go to college.
Developers pitched the new “District Detroit” vision as an evolution of the original plan to build on surface lots and restore aging buildings around downtown sports venues. The presentation featured glossy renderings of sharp architecture and bustling food traffic, but no details on what taxpayer-funded incentives the developers will seek.
Keith Bradford, president of Olympia Development of Michigan, said he “can’t predict the future” but there are two major differences between this plan and that of years past. The first is a downtown research campus for the University of Michigan dubbed the Detroit Center for Innovation, which Bradford described as a key anchor institution. The second is Olympia’s partnership with Related Cos., which Bradford said has a strong track record in building affordable housing.
“By and large, a lot of what you see today is still continuing that vision that was mapped out then,” Bradford said. “The paradigm should be, in my mind, what is the benefit of the vision we’re trying to build? Jobs, housing, those things are all happening here … The economy changes, things morph and this new master plan that we’re laying out here today is what I would ask you to think about as we go forward.”
Similar high cost projects have taken advantage of state and local deals to get financial subsidies and discounted tax bills, sometimes for decades, in exchange for commitments to create affordable housing and jobs for Detroiters. The approval of $60 million in tax breaks for Dan Gilbert’s Hudson’s site development, just a few blocks away from the District Detroit developments, spurred controversy this summer. Tax incentives for wealthy developers are strongly opposed by groups like the Detroit People’s Platform, which had representatives handing out flyers at Tuesday’s meeting.
Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Black caucus and a native Detroiter, explained the tension between residents and developers in just a few words.
“All I hear about jobs; folks come here, they want tax incentives,” Williams said during the meeting. “How do we close the wealth gap with these developments?”
Andrew Cantor, executive vice president of development for Related Cos., said no single development can solve that issue, but the creation of jobs, contracting opportunities, affordable housing and adding to Detroit’s wealth base will have a positive impact on residents.
Williams told BridgeDetroit after the presentation that he’s not convinced.
“We’re giving all these incentives and what has it gotten us?” Williams said. “Downtown is looking good, but go into the neighborhoods. I can take you up on Grand River right now, you can see poverty everywhere. Somebody’s got to speak truth to power now.”
Detroit’s Community Benefits Ordinance is one tool residents have to hold developers accountable to their promises. Over the next three months, weekly meetings will hash out quality of life guarantees and address the impact of the developments on residents and businesses nearby.
A nine-member Neighborhood Advisory Council will be established to represent Detroiters throughout the process. Any resident within the impact area and over the age of 18 is eligible to serve on the council. The project’s impact area – determined by the Detroit Planning and Development Department – is bounded by Martin Luther King Boulevard and Mack Avenue to the north; I-75 and I-375 to the east; Macomb and Monroe streets and Michigan Avenue to the south; and M-10 to the west.
Two members of the advisory council will be nominated and elected by residents at the next meeting on Dec. 6. Four others are selected by the planning department, two are picked by at-large City Council members Coleman Young and Mary Waters, and the final member is picked by Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who represents the project area.
The council and developers are tasked with negotiating a community benefits agreement, which is enforced by Detroit’s Civil Rights, Inclusion, and Opportunity Department.
Roderica James, owner of The Cochrane House Historic Inn, is looking to serve on the advisory council. She told BridgeDetroit Tuesday that her Brush Park business, located less than a mile from Ford Field, Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park, could be significantly impacted by the new developments.
“A lot of times, native Detroiters get lost in all the development that’s going on,” James said. “There needs to be a talk about how we can work as a community to try to get ownership or at least great rates on leases, because as the area becomes more expensive, a lot of times we get pushed out.”
James said Brush Park has changed a lot over the years, and those changes haven’t always benefited longtime residents. Financing for development is also an issue for Black Detroiters, she said. It took James five years to renovate the historic building that houses her family’s bed and breakfast business.
“A lot of times, for us, it takes time to do those kinds of things, and if you’re not able to get loans and try to finance everything with your credit card – which, historically, African Americans have had to go through – then it becomes difficult,” James said. “That needs to be recognized.”
James said parking capacity near Detroit’s sports and entertainment venues is already a concern, and it could get worse with increasing density in the area. She secured a lease for a surface lot this year so her guests are safe. Before that, James said, patrons had a difficult time finding places to park.
“I feel like serving on the Neighborhood Advisory Council will be beneficial to the community because now we can have a stake in what these developments look like and how we can continue to be an inclusive community,” James said.
Detroit Planning Director Antoine Bryant said the city is discussing permit parking options in the area and will hold public meetings focused on the topic.
Jonathan Kinloch, a Wayne County commissioner and Brush Park resident, said his neighborhood is already “overrun” with traffic coming to and from events in downtown Detroit. The Pistons hosted a basketball game at LCA Tuesday night, which caused visitors to the development meeting to seek alternate routes through streets that were blocked off. Kinloch said he has serious concerns about adding more traffic to the area without updating infrastructure.
Kinloch also expressed frustration with the shifting nature of Olympia’s plans in District Detroit.
“This is not our first time being presented various development ideas for this district,” Kinloch said. “We have consistently been made promises, and these changes have come without giving us advance notice as it relates to how they will impact our community.”
Sean Cook, who lives just north of Little Caesars Arena, is also interested in serving on the council. Cook said he’s keeping an eye on the impact of construction and accessibility to local streets and sidewalks during the development, as well as ensuring Detoriters have opportunities to enter retail spaces.
“The committee is all about finding the benefits; what are the tradeoffs for this development company and what is the community getting out of it,” Cook said. “I’m really just making sure there’s opportunities for people in the community to get something out of what we’re providing.”
The next CBO meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 6 at Cass Tech. Additional meetings will be held on the following dates in 2023:
- Jan. 10
- Jan. 17
- Jan. 24
- Jan. 31
- Feb. 7
- Feb. 14
- Feb. 21
- Feb. 28
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