There’s a wall in the Hubbard Richard neighborhood that separates a row of homes from a sea of trucks flowing from the Ambassador Bridge.
Day and night, the muffled hum of engines can be heard. An older brick section of the barrier sits in an alley behind Reuben Romero’s house, where he’s lived nearly 40 years.
Romero, 61, remembers when the customs plaza on the other side of the wall was a neighborhood. Standing on the front porch of his 123-year-old home, Romero remembers his family organizing neighbors against the Detroit International Bridge Company’s expansion.
“I live right up against the wall,” Romero said. “I’ve been fighting that bridge forever. I’m getting too old.”
A younger generation of residents has taken up the defense of the community. Negotiations between the Hubbard Richard Resident Association and the Bridge Company, owned by the billionaire Moroun family, yielded an agreement in October to shield residents from future land grabs. The deal establishes a boundary where DIBC can’t acquire properties, in exchange for allowing the truck plaza to expand on two parcels. It’s expected to become legally binding once the City Council approves it next year.
“There used to be a desire to work around residents,” said Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who represents Southwest Detroit and helped negotiate the deal. “This is my hope: A new beginning, an opportunity to be able to work together. We are getting assurances, a seat at the table and an opportunity to design things moving forward.”
The agreement marks a victory for residents who hope for more productive partnerships with the bridge company. Hubbard Richard Resident Association President Sam Butler said the deal isn’t perfect, but sets important boundaries and serves as a foundation for future conversations. The agreement commits DIBC to donating 10 properties plus $20,000 per lot to the resident association.
“There’s a very solid community here – just through sheer grit and resilience have they been able to hold on, despite being next to the bridge company, the years of industrialization and economic turmoil that the city has faced,” said Butler, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade. “Hopefully, with this agreement, the threat of continued expansion is laid to rest and homeowners can feel confident investing in their own homes.
“They (DIBC) have used land holdings as leverage over us,” he added. “We wanted to make sure we were able to get land that could effectively blockade further plaza expansion deeper into our residential neighborhood.”
Butler said the new agreement requires DIBC to go through a community benefits process if it seeks to build a second span of the Ambassador Bridge. Creating commitments to keep residents involved in future plans was an important precedent to establish, he said.
“When developers have a controversial project, if they’re able to form a dialogue with community members and reach a community benefits agreement, that’s going to save time and effort later,” Butler said. “Whatever headache they experienced going through the negotiations is going to pale in comparison to the headache and conflicts that they might face later on.”
DIBC Chairman Matthew Moroun promised to work out an agreement with residents earlier this year when the neighborhood fought a land transfer ultimately approved by the council. The land swap was part of a 2015 agreement with the city.
Moroun said the earlier commitment must be honored before he would agree to another negotiation process, but Butler and other residents argued the land swap would weaken their leverage. Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett said the bridge company would likely win a lawsuit against the city if the deal wasn’t honored.
The council voted 6-3 in February to approve the land swap after securing a commitment for Moroun to negotiate a community benefits deal if a second bridge span is added.
Residents fear the expansion of the Ambassador Bridge’s customs plaza and closure of St. Anne Street will bring more truck traffic, noise, and air pollution into the residential area. The neighborhood includes a recreation center, grocery stores and restaurants.
Santiago-Romero said Hubbard Richard is thriving, despite the challenges. The redevelopment of Michigan Central Station, expansion of the Detroit Riverwalk and Southwest Greenway, new housing developments and other changes are proof that residents remain resilient.
Part of St. Anne Street is closing under the agreement, cutting off one route into the neighborhood. The customs plaza expansion would be adjacent to the basilica of St. Anne de Detroit, a historic Catholic church that’s long anchored the community.
“It seems counter-productive to expand industrial use in a strong residential neighborhood,” said Dom Korzecke, a Hubbard Richard resident who has owned a home two blocks from the wall for the last seven years.
The agreement notably leaves a section of St. Anne Street out of the protective boundary where DIBC is blocked from purchasing property. Butler said the exemption of roughly a block on the west side of St. Anne was “one of my biggest disappointments with this agreement.”
“(DIBC) has told us that if they are able to buy out all those people, they want to move the wall closer to St. Anne street and use that space for additional lanes, which we are vehemently against. We have no intention of sacrificing those houses. We have no intention of letting the bridge company move forward with rezoning properties if they were to get them.”
The boundary line starts just south of Austin Street and leaves out a group of vacant parcels and occupied homes adjacent to the wall. Residents expect the Bridge Company to continue buying homes down the block.
“The removal of houses has been a sore spot,” said Pat Irwin, who owns a home in the neighborhood. “Everywhere you see a freeway there were (once) thousands of houses. Getting the historic context of what the freeways have done, and then you put on top of that the increasing expansion of the bridge, you can get a perspective of the concern about development that doesn’t involve community input.”
Another lot owned by the Bridge Company will be turned over to the city and added to the Roberto Clemente Recreation Center’s footprint. DIBC also agreed to demolish a former Greyhound warehouse and donate part of the land to the resident association. Industrial development on the site would be prohibited once the agreement is approved.
The deal commits DIBC to contribute $430,000 for landscaping, sidewalks and lighting improvements on city right of ways if it expands the truck plaza. The agreement ensures commercial trucks won’t park or idle on a piece of land owned by DIBC at the corner of Fort and 18th streets. It also reopens a portion of 16th Street and protects public access to 18th Street.
Moroun called the deal a “win-win” for the resident association, city of Detroit, and DIBC. It also demonstrates his commitment to improving relationships, Moroun said in an October press release announcing the agreement.
Mayor Mike Duggan said the agreement signals a “major turning point” for relations between the Bridge Company and Detroiters.
“Their willingness to work together resulted in an agreement to build a badly needed plaza expansion in a way that respects the residential character of the community and provides it some real benefits,” Duggan said in a press release.
But some residents are less sure.
“I was born and raised in Detroit, so I’ve seen the beautification and I’ve also seen the gentrification and companies doing whatever they want to our communities,” said Hubbard Richard resident Ana Sandoval. “The hope is that (the agreement) protects us from further invasion.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath. I don’t know, I just don’t trust the Bridge Company.”
Several residents who spoke with BridgeDetroit said Moroun has been easier to work with compared to his father Manuel, who oversaw a long history of influence tactics in Southwest Detroit.
DIBC fought bitterly against the creation of a competing, publicly-owned, international bridge. In one infamous stunt, a political organization aligned with DIBC’s campaign posted fake eviction notices on homes in the Delray neighborhood.
At the same time, the Morouns were systematically buying land in the Hubbard Richard neighborhood. The Detroit News tallied 266 property purchases over decades. Romero and Butler said some homeowners sold their properties without realizing they were being paid by the bridge company.
“A lot of their properties they own in the are not maintained very well,” Korzecke said. “They own a lot of parcels in this community and let them go to shit.”
A similar story unfolded on the Canadian side of the Detroit River. The Moroun family spent tens of millions of dollars to buy up properties to make way for a truck plaza. A Canadian ruled DIBC deliberately allowed the homes to fall into disrepair, creating neighborhood blight.
Butler said the residents association’s approach is also different. He’s been careful in describing Moroun and the mayor as partners.
“We are not an anti-bridge company, we are just pro-Hubbard Richard,” Butler said. “In the past, City Council and past mayors were able to ignore us because they viewed the community as obstructionist. This time around, we worked very hard to make sure that nobody could cast us as just obstructionists.
“At every point along the way we were saying ‘we’re willing to come to the table,’” he said. “That was able to reach more sympathetic ears within City Hall.”
Romero said he’s glad to see some protections in place but the future remains uncertain. The Ambassador Bridge isn’t going anywhere. Romero said what’s good for the Bridge Company is bad for him.
“They’re going to come through there one way or another,” Romero said. “You’re not just buying our property, you’re buying our blood sweat and tears. They saved my area, that’s fine. But what about the people on the other side? I wish they were able to save a lot of other places.”