Detroiters have a short window to join a neighborhood team that will negotiate community benefits with a trio of entities planning a $3 billion development near New Center.
Henry Ford Health, Michigan State University and the Detroit Pistons are partnering on a massive project to expand hospital facilities, build a medical research center and add housing to an area straddling the Lodge Freeway and West Grand Boulevard. The size of the investment, and an anticipated request for large tax abatements, trigger a city law requiring developers to meet with residents over several weeks to negotiate protections from the impact of construction and secure other community benefits.
Residents who wish to represent their neighborhood must physically appear at a community meeting on Oct. 10. The nine-member neighborhood advisory council will be comprised of adults living between I-94, Rosa Parks, Euclid Street and Woodward Avenue.
Two members will be selected by a vote of residents who show up in-person next week, while four members are selected by Detroit Planning Director Antoine Bryant. City Council President Mary Sheffield and at-large Council Members Mary Waters and Coleman Young II will each select one of the remaining three members.
“We can talk about what’s going on in Detroit, we can complain, or we can show up and be part of the solution,” Sheffield said Tuesday. “I’ve seen the long hours, the numerous documents that you all have to read and digest and so in advance, I say thank you to the residents who are going to step up and are willing to serve and represent their community.”
More than 100 residents attended the first Tuesday meeting required by the community benefits ordinance, which largely served as an introduction to the process and overview of the project. Each meeting will be held Tuesdays at 6 p.m. at University Prep High School, 610 Antoinette St.
Attendees voiced concerns about the impact of several years of construction, a desire for affordable housing for low-income families and demand to do something with vacant buildings owned by Henry Ford Health.
Tamara Blue, who lives less than a mile from Henry Ford’s campus, said she’s worried that more development will push lower-income residents out. She lives by herself in a one-bedroom apartment that costs $835 per month.
“I see growth, I see new buildings coming up – What I don’t see is enough low-income housing to help everybody,” Blue said.
Big changes for New Center
Each of the three organizations is taking on different aspects of the “Future of Health” project, which combine to form the overall $3 billion development. Projects are expected to finish construction between 2027 and 2029.
Spokespersons declined to say how much they will seek in tax abatements to help finance the project, but those details will be shared publicly at the Oct. 24 meeting.
The project is expected to create 8,200 construction jobs and 700 post-construction positions. Construction is required to ensure Detroiters make up 51% of the work hours or pay a fine that becomes more expensive based on how far contractors are from meeting the goal.
City Council members have given strong preference to approving tax breaks for development projects that promise to create jobs for residents.
The Detroit Pistons will take ownership of Henry Ford’s administrative headquarters at One Ford Place and redevelop the building into apartments. Two other residential buildings are planned to be built across the street, adding at least 600 units of mixed-income housing to the area.
Twenty percent of the units, around 120, will be offered at reduced rent meant to be affordable for residents earning 50 percent of the area median income for Southeast Michigan. That equates to monthly rent set at $828 or lower for a studio apartment, $888 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,066 for a two-bedroom unit.
“None of us are doing this to make money,” said Pistons Chief Operating Officer Rich Haddad. “This is a development from partners who are coming together to try and make the biggest impact we can.”
Haddad said the goal is to build a walkable, connected neighborhood that will attract new residents to the city and build on community benefits provided by the Pistons Performance Center.
“The goal here is to build a center of gravity that’s going to attract more investors, more development that’s going to bring more good things to this neighborhood and to the city,” Haddad said. “It’s all about building an inclusive community here. Our goal is to provide housing for all the people who are going to fill all the jobs that this project is going to create.”
The Pistons completed a community benefits agreement in 2017 when it built the Performance Center. The New Center complex contains a training center for the basketball team and a sports medicine facility used by Henry Ford.
Haddad said the Performance Center included amenities like a Planet Fitness gym and Plum Market because residents expressed a lack of exercise facilities and grocery options. Resident feedback will help guide future plans for the surrounding developments, he said.
Henry Ford Health is primarily focused on expanding its hospital campus to the south side of Grand Boulevard and east side of I-94. A new emergency department meant to reduce wait times and provide more comfort to patients would be twice the size of the current facility and will include private rooms.
“We don’t necessarily have the ability to put everyone in the place that we want to, sometimes that means people are treated in a hallway or treated in an environment that doesn’t give them the space they need,” said Denise Brooks-Williams, executive vice president and CEO of care delivery system operations at Henry Ford.
The emergency department would be housed within a patient tower that will include space for surgeries, radiology, diagnostics and other high intensity services. The nonprofit hospital also plans to build a second parking garage, a shared services building and a green energy facility providing clean power to the campus.
“We have outgrown our space and our ability to accommodate the newest technologies in the future,” said Jerry Darby, vice president of planning, development and design at Henry Ford. “This will allow us to be much more efficient and continue to grow and advance our technologies.”
Henry Ford officials said the 800-space parking deck would consolidate surface lots in the area. The hospital would boast the largest health care facility powered by green energy in the country as it seeks to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Residents at Tuesday’s meeting applauded when they heard Henry Ford would be moving its helipad to the top of the patient tower, which is expected to stand taller than the nearby Fisher Building. Helicopter noise is a nuisance for those living by the hospital, according to several residents.
Michigan State University is planning to build its largest research facility yet on a parking lot on the east side of I-94 along Third Avenue. MSU officials said the facility will focus on cancer and hypertension research.
“The focus here really is driven by cancer disparities and health equity,” said Norman Hubbard, senior associate vice president of the MSU Office of Health Sciences. “African American males are more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer. (Black) women are more than one and a half times as likely to die of breast cancer.”
The Gilbert Family Foundation also announced a $375 million donation to add three floors to the patient tower for a 72-bed inpatient rehabilitation facility and a research lab inside the MSU facility that will work to find a cure for neurofibromatosis. Nick Gilbert, son of the billionaire founders of the foundation, died in May after living 26 years with the condition.
Thirteen mega-developments have completed Detroit’s community benefits process, which ends with a signed agreement between the neighborhood advisory council and developers outlining commitments to benefit nearby residents.
Community organizations like the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative (WGBC) and Detroit People’s Platform are critical of the process.
Linda Campbell, director of the Detroit People’s Platform, raised concerns at Tuesday’s meeting about potential conflicts of interest that could arise on the neighborhood council.
Daniel Washington, president of Northwest Goldberg Cares, asked whether residents who work for organizations that received grant funding from Henry Ford, MSU or the Pistons would be excluded.
Bryan Coe, a resident in the impact area and senior assistant corporation counsel for the Detroit Law Department, said participants can’t be an employee or “agent” of the three organizations. The city likely wouldn’t disqualify someone who received grant funding, Coe said, but residents should disclose if they feel their relationship could influence their conduct.
Members of the neighborhood council must sign an affidavit attesting to known conflicts of interest. Campbell said that’s not good enough. The city should have a more rigorous process to prevent advisory council members from being influenced by financial partnerships.
Organizers also said the impact area, which designates what residents are eligible to participate on the neighborhood council, is too small. Tonya Myers-Phillips, an attorney with the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, said Detroit should expand the impact area to include groups like the 15th Street Block Club.
Jo Adams signed up to seek a position on the neighborhood council. She criticized the escalation of “corporate welfare” that divert tax dollars from public services to massive development projects. Adams said MSU and Henry Ford also “extracted” wealth from the community to fuel endowment funds, which was used by MSU to purchase a majority stake in the Fisher Building earlier this year.
“I don’t think we should walk ourselves into an environment where we have overlords providing us with resources,” Adams said. “We’ve got capable people in the community that just need the funding to do the job for ourselves.”
Adams also lamented that residents who aren’t retired like she is won’t have time to get involved in the negotiations with developers.
David Graff, another resident in the impact area who expressed interest in joining the neighborhood council, said the project seems like a “nice addition to the neighborhood” overall. He said developers should focus on reducing the footprint of parking lots.
Steve Waldrop, who owns four properties in the impact area, was among several residents who asked about Henry Ford’s plans for the former Fairbanks Elementary School, which is located east of the Lodge Freeway near the hospital. Neighbors said the building is crumbling due to neglect.
Darby said “multiple people” are interested in buying the former school, but no plans have been set.
“It is certainly something that we’re looking to get redeveloped as quickly as possible and as part of the project,” he said.
Jeff Cowin, a member of the Virginia Park Historic District Block Club, said a woman who lived across from the school for 35 years recently moved because she could no longer stomach living next to the blighted site.
“The last 10 years of her life, she looked at a cesspool of grown weeds, trees, graffiti, garbage piled up,” Cowin said. “I don’t know how many times the (Detroit) Department Neighborhoods bosses have heard our complaints and you still don’t see Henry Ford pick up the soft that’s been by the front door for years.”
Cowin said the neighborhood council should work with the City Council’s Reparations Task Force to find initiatives that address past harms done to longtime residents in the neighborhood. Much of the property that looks “effed up” in Detroit, he said, is owned by people who don’t live in the city and never did.
“I really encourage you to talk with the Detroiters who moved into New Center in the 80s and 90s to work in General Motors plants,” Cowin said. “They’re still here. GM abandoned them but they’re still here and this is an opportunity for the calvary to arrive.”
Darby said traffic studies are being conducted with the city to determine the impact on I-94 and a stormwater management plan to prevent flooding. Officials said they plan to engage local businesses, block clubs, churches, community groups and residents to reduce the impact of construction.
“All of us in the impact zone are going to be living in a giant construction site for the next seven years,” said Matthew Naimi, owner of a recycling center, art studio complex and housing development in the Elijah McCoy neighborhood.