In 1981, the city of Detroit bought a toxic, derelict industrial site near Belle Isle in hopes it would soon be part of the budding revival of the riverfront.
Thirty-nine years later, the dream of reviving the 42-acre “Uniroyal property” is still a dream.
But, for the first time, a real estate plan is on the verge of becoming reality that will transform a small slice of the land. The development: a link of the Riverwalk pedestrian/bicycle path that will connect 3.5 miles of riverfront from Belle Isle to just past the TCF Center.
Environmental work began in mid-August to clean up the riverfront part of the Uniroyal site. The property remains one of the most toxic threats to the Detroit River, according to state and federal environmental data. A seven-foot thick barrier must be built to ensure poisons don’t flow into the river.
“This is definitely one of the most complex pieces of land we’ve had to deal with,” said Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the nonprofit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy that oversees the RiverWalk.
An estimated 3 million people visit the RiverWalk every year, making it one of Detroit’s most popular attractions. In this summer of COVID, visits are up 28 percent, conservancy officials said.
The Uniroyal link is expected to open in June 2022.
For the rest of the site, a development team that includes Jerome Bettis, a Hall-of-Fame NFL player and Detroit native, has had sole rights to figure out what to do with the property since 2005. Its latest plan would take until 2038 to complete, according to city documents.
The struggle to revive the Uniroyal site reflects the dangerous legacy of Detroit’s manufacturing past and the volatile nature of the city’s real estate plans.
There also has been some visionary thinking.
“I know the site has a lot of interesting history, but there’s also been a lot of Black leadership and others who have been working on this for years,” Wallace said.
A history of the Uniroyal site
The property is named after a massive Uniroyal Tire plant that operated from 1941 to 1978.
The 42 acres is between the Detroit River and East Jefferson Avenue. Along Jefferson, the property is next to the west side of MacArthur Bridge, which leads to Belle Isle. The site is fenced off with black covering that hides the property from public view.
A number of heavy industrial facilities operated there dating to at least 1860, according to various historical documents. That’s when a factory opened that produced cast-iron stoves. In 1906, a maker of bicycle tires set up shop on another part of the site.
From 1917 through 1941, the middle section of the site was owned by the U.S. Rubber Co., a predecessor to Uniroyal Tires, according to city documents. Uniroyal Tire took over the already large tire-making plant and expanded. During its peak in the mid-1940s, 10,000 workers produced 60,000 tires per day, according to various historical records.
Separately, on the east side of the site Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. operated a plant for decades that converted coal to gas.
No major industry has operated on the site for over 40 years.
A toxic legacy
The danger is embedded in the ground underneath the site. Below the topsoil is arsenic, lead, cyanide, metals, oils, grease and coal char, among other things, according to state and federal documents.
Several years ago, the state environmental agency took a sample of the sediment from the Detroit River near the Uniroyal site. The sample was put in a clear plastic container. The sediment “eroded” the container, said Sam Noffke, an aquatic biologist for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Noffke made the statement last year at an environmental conference in Windsor, Canada.
The Uniroyal plant was not the worst polluter, said Raymond Scott, deputy director for the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Departments. “The most contaminated portion of the site is where the coal-gas plant operated,” Scott said. He’s been helping find ways to clean up the Uniroyal site since 1998.
The industrial facilities that operated on the site weren’t breaking the law by producing such a toxic mess — there were few laws at the time about the environmental dangers, Scott and others said.
More than $35 million has been spent cleaning up about one-third of the site, according to city documents. The private developer will help pay for the rest of the cleanup once work on the site begins.
Big development ambitions
It was Mayor Coleman A. Young who began the quest to transform the site. In many ways, it reflects the complex legacy of Detroit’s first Black mayor.
During his 20-year reign as mayor, Young sought to build coalitions with white corporate leaders and other wealthy investors, to stop the hemorrhaging of private capital leaving the city.
“What is good for the rich people of this city is good for the poor people of this city,” he once said during his first term, which began in 1974.
Young thought downtown and riverfront development, including riverfront casinos, was key to an economic rebound. The city bought the Uniroyal site for $5 million in 1981. With a mix of local and federal funds, the city spent another $3.6 million to demolish structures and clear the land.
Young had scored a string of high-profile development wins when the Uniroyal site was purchased. The mayor had allied himself with such corporate barons as Henry Ford II, Mike and Marian Ilitch, Peter Stroh and A. Alfred Taubman. It resulted in such developments as the Joe Louis Arena, the Riverfront Towers, the Stroh River Place and the corporate headquarters of Little Caesars pizza relocation to a renovated Fox Theatre.
Young was open to many ideas for the Uniroyal site.
In 1986, New York developer Donald Trump toured the Uniroyal site by helicopter. Trump and Young apparently met in person, according to newspaper accounts of the day. Nothing came of it.
In 1987, a group that included bankers and the construction firm Walbridge Aldinger, now known as Walbridge, proposed a quasi-independent “town within a city.” The town would have its own police force and school system. The plan was called Partnership to Reinvest in Detroit’s Excellence, PRIDE. The group wanted 754 acres, including the Uniroyal site. Young had discussions with the group. It didn’t get past the concept phase.
The Young administration pitched the Uniroyal site for years to no avail.
Nasty politics at play
In 1993, Young promised the site to local businessman Larry Mongo. He never got it . Instead, the failed deal ignited Mongo’s 10-year political battle with the two mayors who succeeded Young.
The feud ended, Mongo contends, when he whispered the word Uniroyal to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on the day Kilpatrick was sentenced to prison.
These days, Mongo is owner of one the city’s most celebrated bars, Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy in downtown Capitol Park. His charm has wooed the likes of actor Ryan Gosling, who cast Mongo in a film; director Quentin Tarantino and reporters from around the globe.
For decades, he and his wife Dianne Mongo ran a string of beauty salons and other small Detroit businesses. Young became a customer at the former Jack’s Barber Lounge in Lafayette Park. Lafayette Park is the eastside neighborhood created by demolishing Black Bottom— a foundation for many Black Detroiters — in the name of progress.
Dianne was the mayor’s favorite barber, the Mongos said. There’s plenty of photos of Dianne cutting his hair.
The pair forged a special relationship with Young. Larry said he was the mayor’s “connection to the underworld”, as he told the podcast Crimetown last year. As Dianne cut his hair, Young would pass messages to her that he would give to Larry.
“When the mayor needed information from the street that he couldn’t get from official channels, I helped him,” Mongo told BridgeDetroit. One of those favors was helping police identify the men who broke into the northwest Detroit home of Aretha Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Rev. Franklin was shot twice during the break-in and lingered in a coma for five years before his death in 1984.
In the early ’90s, Young was getting his haircut by Dianne, when Larry asked him a question: “‘I said ‘Your honor, can I have the Uniroyal site?’ He almost fell out his chair laughing. He said ‘G **amn boy’. ” The mayor also told Mongo if he could put a development team together, he’d give him a chance.
The team that Mongo put together included the Bingham Farms-based Lockwood Group. They proposed a $10 million residential community. Later, Miami-based Carnival Hotels and Casinos agreed to be a partner, Mongo said. Media accounts of the day back Mongo’s claims.
The plan grew to include building a riverboat casino, a 500-room hotel and major housing development.
‘I told you I’d get you.’
Mongo’s potential deal quickly died when Mayor Dennis Archer took office in 1994. Mongo turned his anger into political action. He was a member of a group of influential Black business leaders called African American Men’s Organization, AAMO. Several members felt spurned by Archer’s decision to select non-Black owners for the city’s three casinos, Mongo contends.
“We raised money to get Archer out of office,” Mongo said.
Enter Kwame Kilpatrick and his father, Bernard Kilpatrick. Mongo said Bernard promised him the Uniroyal site if Mongo helped Kwame get elected.
Kwame Kiplatrick was first elected mayor in 2001. Mongo never got the Uniroyal site.
“That was pure betrayal,” Mongo said. He wasn’t the only Black business leader who felt “crossed” by the Kilpatricks, Mongo said. That’s why many didn’t support the Kilpatricks when federal investigations began, he contends.
“I put together a team of informants,” to help the federal investigation, Mongo said.
In 2013, Mongo was in the courtroom when Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison for running a criminal enterprise through the mayor’s office. (Mongo gave multiple courthouse interviews on the day.)
“He saw me and he had a big smile,” Mongo said of the day. “None of his supporters were there. He was thinking I was going to hug him. I walked right up to him, I said ‘I told you I’d get you. Uniroyal.’ He almost went ballistic.”
The Bettis/Betters plans
The group Kilpatrick selected as the Uniroyal’s business saviors included a hometown sports hero. The choice was hailed as a feel-good victory by the press and the Kilpatrick administration.
Jerome “The Bus” Bettis is a Detroit Mackenzie High School graduate who went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His final game was a Super Bowl XL championship at Detroit’s Ford Field in 2006.
The Uniroyal site was to be one of Bettis’ first big wins in business. He teamed up with Pittsburgh developer C.J. Betters for the Uniroyal site.
The choice paid off immediately for Kilpatrick. The day after being named as the team that will revive the site, Bettis and Betters each donated $3,400 to Kilpatrick’s re-election fund, The Detroit News reported at the time. Then a few days later, each gave another $2,500, the News reported.
The Bettis/Betters team has had development rights to the property for 15 years. Development rights mean the city has given the pair the exclusive opportunity to work on a real estate plan. The city retains ownership of the property until the developers persuade officials the plan will work.
Initially, the group touted an estimated $500 million plan with 2,000 residential units plus retail. Work on the site was to start in 2005 and be completed in 2011.
Delays set in quickly. Because the site had so many different previous owners, it took six years to figure out who should pay for the environmental clean up. Along the way, the Great Recession killed many real estate developments nationwide.
In the late 2010s, after more than a decade of setbacks, the group sought out more financial partners, various city documents show. One was the powerhouse real estate firm that controls a major part of downtown: Bedrock.
In 2018, an affiliate of Bedrock, became an official development partner with Bettis/Betters for the Uniroyal site, according to documents of the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority.
The Bedrock partnership is over, said a city spokeswoman for the economic development agency. It’s not clear how long it lasted.
Bettis and Betters didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did Bedrock.
The Bettis/Betters team gave city officials its latest update in early March. It’s less ambitious than its original plan, but still a major development. The estimated cost is $325 million with over a 1 million square feet built, which would include housing and commercial. The number of residences isn’t specified in the documents.
Phase 1 is an estimated $25 million project with work starting September 2021 and completed 2025.
New target date for the entire Uniroyal development to be finished: 2038.
If the current plan happens, it will have taken 57 years to fully realize the dream started by Coleman Young to find new life for the dead property.
Why the RiverWalk is a success
Throughout the decades of drama and delays, others steadily worked on figuring out how to make the contaminated land safe so that it can be used again. It’s their dedication and vision, which include elected officials, government workers and others in the corporate and nonprofit sector that make the idea of overhauling the Uniroyal site possible, said Mark Wallace, head of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.
City of Detroit environmental specialist Raymond Scott has been dealing with the Uniroyal site for 22 years now. “Back then, there wasn’t really a legal mechanism to figure out how to clean up sites like the Uniroyal. ” Scott said. “When I first started on this, much of the riverfront was inaccessible to the public. It’s very gratifying to see the riverfront now. To see work begin on the Uniroyal site, that’s really something.”
It’s fitting the RiverWalk and the nonprofit Riverfront Conservancy are the first to navigate through the complexities to get something done at the Uniroyal site, Scott and others said.
The Riverwalk has been a game-changer in transforming the downtown riverfront, said Conrad Kickert, an urban design professor who wrote a book about the history of downtown Detroit development.
The idea of making the riverfront an inviting public space has been pursued by many for decades, Kickert said. But those plans often came at the expense of building money-making developments, which the city sorely needs, he said.
“It’s successful because [the RiverWalk] helps spur private development. That’s the pitch behind it, not just civic pride, but a solid business investment,” said Kickert, an urban design professor at the University of Cincinnati.
As for the rest of the Uniroyal site, the Bettis/Betters still needs to get various city approvals to move forward on its latest plan.