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Push for stronger community benefits process in Detroit as big projects move forward

The former Hudson's site, prime real estate along Woodward in the heart of downtown Detroit, has been a city-owned underground parking garage since the Hudson's building was demolished in 1998.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
The former Hudson's site, prime real estate along Woodward in the heart of downtown Detroit, has been a city-owned underground parking garage since the Hudson's building was demolished in 1998.

Detroit has a city ordinance that requires most big project developers to negotiate benefits packages with neighborhood groups.

But some members of those groups say the process has been a sham so far. They’re calling on the Detroit City Council to give the ordinance more teeth.

Detroit voters approved one of two competing community benefits agreement last year.

It requires developers of big projects receiving public funds to work with groups called Neighborhood Advisory Councils and negotiate community benefits agreements. They can include things like jobs, green space, and affordable housing for residents of the area.

But those agreements are non-binding.

George Adams is a NAC member who’s been involved with the community benefits process surrounding the Herman Kiefer redevelopment project.

Adams said the whole process was “rushed,” and that NAC members were not given proper training or requested documents. “I think it’s important for us to have that information in order to effectively make those decisions and negotiate for the community," he said.

In the Herman Kiefer project, Adams said it appeared the city was the actor throwing up roadblocks. “The developer appeared to be more willing to do some things and give the information than the city,” he said. “So that was unusual.”

Amina Kirk, a legal advisor with the group Detroit People’s Platform, says versions of that same story have played out in virtually every negotiation process so far.

“There’s no true negotiation. There’s no give and take,” Kirk said.

Kirk said the city hasn’t encouraged developers to take the process seriously, so “they don’t take it upon themselves to actually truly negotiate for the community, and try to address some of their concerns and meet some of their needs, in exchange for the tax abatements and subsidies that they’re getting.”

Kirk, Adams and other advocates want the Detroit City Council to revise and strengthen the ordinance so developers take it seriously. In the meantime, they want the Council to reject plans that use public dollars for big developments.

Their push comes as Council is taking up plans for one of Detroit’s biggest planned redevelopment projects: Quicken Loans CEO and real estate mogul Dan Gilbert’s plans for a central portion of downtown Detroit, including the site of the former Hudson’s department store.

The proposed $2.1 billion in projects would be financed in part by capturing new property, sales and income taxes that would otherwise go to the state or Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority.

Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for Gilbert’s real estate group Bedrock Ventures, called the community benefits negotiation process a “valuable experience for Bedrock,” and said the company is taking community input seriously.

“Numerous members of the Bedrock team have been involved in walking through these large, transformational projects, taking the points the Neighborhood Advisory Council brings into question and thoughtfully incorporating those questions into the projects we are working on,” Eichinger said via email. “Questions that have come up like parking, green space, public access, and affordability are all so important, and we are incorporating the ideas from the NAC into our planning.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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