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Detroit City Council will vote on land transfer for bridge--but it might not matter

Sep 9, 2014

Homes in Delray
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The Detroit City Council is poised to vote today on a land deal that makes way for a new bridge to Canada—but their decision might not matter.

The proposal would transfer 301 parcels of mostly unoccupied, city-owned land to the Michigan land bank for $1.4 million.

It’s just the start of the US-based land acquisition process for the proposed new bridge between Detroit and Windsor. Canada is footing the bill for the project.

At a meeting Monday, several Council members were openly skeptical about elements of the deal—particularly about a lack of guaranteed benefits for residents of the Delray host community in southwest Detroit.

And they expressed concerns that the community’s—and the city’s—interests aren’t being aggressively advocated by the state in negotiations with the Canadian government.

State and city officials countered that they’ve drawn up a Neighborhood Development Agreement, which does contain some provisions to address neighborhood concerns—including the creation of a formal Community Advisory Group to advocate community interests as the project moves forward.

But they admit it’s too early in the process to lock down many guarantees, and ultimately the Canadian government will have to be the one to make them.

Andrew Doctoroff, the state’s senior advisor on transportation initiatives, said there are few specific guarantees on paper yet, but Council members should take “a lot of comfort” in promises Canada has already made for steps like environmental remediation and mitigation.

“This administration is very much committed to making sure that the voices of this city and community are heard,” Doctoroff said.

“There aren’t guarantees about additional community enhancements beyond those provisions. And that is where there will have to aggressive lobbying by the state of Michigan, [and] by this city.”

But some Council members and residents blasted the state for not pushing aggressively enough on the community’s behalf.

Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who represents the district that includes southwest Detroit, called the negotiation process that led to the Neighborhood Development Agreed “incredibly paternalistic” and “not very transparent.”

“It’s a flawed process that the state continues to support, only engaging with the mayor and only engaging with the Council president, and not engaging with the community or its elected representative,” Castaneda-Lopez said.

But even if the Council votes to reject the current deal, emergency manager Kevyn Orr can overrule them.

Orr’s chief operating officer, Gary Brown, told Council Monday that he’s prepared to do that.

“He [Orr] will approve this land transfer, and it may not have a community benefits agreement attached to it,” Brown said. “It certainly wouldn’t be any better than the one on the table right now.”

That sparked outrage from Detroit state representative Rashida Tlaib, who accused the Canadian government of working with Orr and the state to sidestep addressing community concerns.

“If they want to deal with us through the middle person of the state, forget it,” said Tlaib, who urged the Council to come up with an alternative land transfer deal, even if it has no hope of being approved by Lansing.  “Oh Canada…if you want to come over here and deal with us, come over and deal with us directly.”

The Council also received a last-minute offer to buy the land from the Detroit International Bridge Company. That company, which owns the Ambassador Bridge, has fought against the proposed new span for years.  

DIBC offered $1.5 million for the land, and an additional $1 million for unspecified “community redevelopment.”

But city lawyers dismissed the offer as “incomplete” and “not proper.”