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Detroit City Council puts (temporary) brakes on jail land swap deal

The incomplete Wayne County jail.
Wayne County
Wayne County
The incomplete Wayne County jail.

The Detroit City Council on Tuesday put a short-term hold on plans to start a land swap that could provide a new location for the Wayne County jail.

The three-party property exchangewould set that plan in motion.

Right now, a half-finished jail is sitting on a piece of downtown Detroit real estate that developer Dan Gilbert wants. The project has been sitting idle since 2013, when Wayne County abandoned initial plans because of cost overruns.

Gilbert has long sought that property. In order to get it, he made an “unsolicited proposal” that his company, Rock Ventures, get the land in exchange for building the county a new jail and criminal justice complex.

But the county wants to keep the jail near downtown, and it needed a piece of land big enough to make it happen. So the land swap involving the city of Detroit, Wayne County, and eventually Gilbert’s Rock Ventures was constructed to facilitate the deal.  

The city of Detroit would swap a piece of property it owns on the edge of downtown (currently a warehouse site for the city’s transportation department), for a piece of county-owned property in northwest Detroit.

The county would then use that land for the new jail. Then, the county would pass the current jail site on to Rock Ventures, in exchange for building the new jail and courthouse facilities.

But first the Detroit City Council, and then the Wayne County Commission, need to approve the first two steps. And the council wasn’t ready to do that on Tuesday.

Janee Ayers was one of several council members who indicated they support the land swap in theory, but want to see more concrete details before moving ahead.

“I need to know more about what the community engagement is going to be, and what it has been up until now,” said Ayers, citing some community concerns about safety, traffic, and public health near the new jail site.

Ayers also believes the process is being rushed forward, with Council expected to sign off on a deal that’s still being negotiated, largely behind closed doors.

“Conceptually, I get it,” Ayers said. “But you still just need to come and talk to people prior to saying, 'Hey, this is where it’s gonna go.’”

Wayne County officials emphasize there’s no done deal yet. But they also say that for a variety of reasons, it’s important to get the land swap process moving as quickly as possible.

Deputy County Executive Khalil Rahal says the county is still “exploring our options that are on the table,” including the possibility of finishing the jail at the current site. In the meantime, they’re trying to hammer out a deal with Rock Ventures and get the land exchange process moving simultaneously.

“We’ve been trying to do our best to keep the public informed to the best of our ability,” Rahal said. “You obviously have to get far enough down the line to be able to tell them what is informative, while walking the line of putting yourself in the best position to negotiate.

“The longer though that we wait to come to a resolution [on] this, the more expensive it’s going to get for taxpayers.”

Rahal says just providing security and protective maintenance at the site costs more than $1 million a month. And the county says it has a deal with the contractor behind the half-built jail, Walsh Construction, to make a decision one way or the other by December 1.

The council is expected to take the issue up again next week.

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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