Advocates for Detroiters with disabilities scored a win Tuesday when the City Council delayed a vote on a proposal to fast-track permits for mobility projects in Corktown, citing the need for more community engagement.
The proposed ordinance change championed by Council Member Coleman Young II would turn southwest Detroit into a “sandbox” for self-driving cars, delivery drones and other transportation technologies as part of the city’s partnership with Ford Motor Co. to create a campus for mobility companies. But council members said that they’re not seeing enough support and inclusion from residents with disabilities and decided to push off the decision until next year.
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“As the chair of the Disability Task Force, there have been a number of concerns relative to this ordinance,” said Council Member Fred Durhal III. “There is a possibility for us to get there, but members of the Disability Task Force have reached out to me – some opposing, some asking more questions. Relative to engagement on this ordinance, I want to be in a place where I can support it. I can’t do so in good conscience today.”
If approved in January, the ordinance amendment would create a “transportation innovation zone” in Corktown where companies can get permits for mobility projects fast-tracked through the city’s Office of Mobility Innovation. City officials say streamlining mobility permits will give Detroit a competitive advantage to recruit start ups and create jobs on the campus, anchored by Ford’s redevelopment of the former Michigan Central Station.
Representatives with Detroit Disability Power, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the city moved ahead on the innovation zone plan without including residents. Advocates argue they weren’t given an opportunity to make recommendations and have sought a commitment from the city to obtain feedback from residents before permits are approved.
“We’re not saying ‘no,’ we’re saying ‘please slow down and incorporate our feedback before moving forward,’” said Kaci Messeder, a policy analyst with Detroit Disability Power.
Bob Roberts, president of the Corktown Business Association, is among those in favor of the innovation zone, but said “there was no engagement” between the city and his organization. Roberts also expressed concerns about language in the ordinance which allows for the blocking of public right of ways.
The administration disputed claims that public feedback wasn’t sought. According to the city, engagement began five years ago when the Michigan Central Station development worked out a Community Benefits Agreement with Corktown residents. However, documents from the 2018 Community Benefits Ordinance process don’t detail changes resulting from the innovation zone.
Ford committed to invest millions of dollars for city-managed affordable housing, neighborhood development and workforce training funds. The automaker also pledged to continue community engagement on mobility pilot projects and other developments.
Residents, through the CBO process, expressed a desire to improve sidewalks and create connections between Corktown and other areas of the city with bike lanes and bus routes, according to city documents. They also reported problems with fast traffic on Michigan Avenue and damaged sidewalks, which make the area less walkable.
Other engagement efforts the city pointed to include a February press conference about the public-private partnership at Michigan Central Station, events where Detroiters could ride electric scooters, council committee meetings this fall, an October presentation on Corktown’s neighborhood plan and meetings with urban farmers and the East End Corktown Block Club.
Young argued innovations that could come out of the zone will bring direct benefits to people with disabilities. Young said the zone will promote mobility inventions that “helps the blind to see, the deaf to hear and those who cannot walk to be able to walk.” He provided BridgeDetroit with several news articles about emerging technology, including mechanical exoskeletons that allow paralyzed individuals to walk, autonomous and firefighting drones, prosthetic limbs and water taxis.
Tim Slusser, chief of mobility innovation, also touted the potential impact of new technologies developed in southwest Detroit. However, besides Ford, city officials have not yet identified companies interested in setting up shop in the innovation zone.
“We’re talking about technologies that can make it far easier for individuals who are blind to navigate the City of Detroit,” Slusser said. “For example, it could be a solution at a bus stop that has voice-activated controls to allow an individual to ask what time the next bus is coming.
The purpose of the ordinance was written very broadly to allow us to look at a wide variety of potential solutions, and pilot them here in the City of Detroit for the benefit of our community,” he said.
Council President Pro Tem James Tate said the technology is exciting, but said he’s tempering his expectations because the government sometimes oversell the benefits of programs to the public. Council Member Mary Waters said she’s also skeptical.
“I am not seeing or hearing of any support from the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) community for this just yet,” Waters said. “I’m trying to myself understand it. How it’s going to help the blind to see and so forth. I need to see more support coming from the community for this, particularly the ADA community.”
Slusser said Detroit will miss out on grant opportunities that have a December application deadline. He advised the council that further delays in 2023 could risk other funding opportunities, though no city funding will go toward implementation of new pilots. Slusser didn’t say which specific grants Detroit would pursue.
Slusser said having his office lead the permitting process will make it easier for smaller companies that don’t have the resources to navigate the city’s complex regulations. It also allows for more flexible permitting, Slusser said, since new technologies may not fit within current definitions.
The innovation zone has long been a pillar of plans to bring 5,000 jobs to Ford’s 30-acre mobility campus. The automaker is investing $740 million to remake the train station into a hub for tech entrepreneurship and enhance the surrounding area with accessible green space, transit options and amenities. The innovation zone would be bounded by Grand River Avenue, the Lodge Freeway, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Fisher Freeway.
State documents show future investments rely on Detroit establishing the innovation zone. The state of Michigan committed to invest $126 million to support the envisioned “innovation district,” and already approved $207 million in tax breaks and a $7.5 million economic development grant. It’s also a component of the state’s 2022 electric vehicle plan, which describes the zone as having “streamlined permitting access for testing real-world mobility and electrification technology applications.”
If the ordinance is passed, the city will launch a dedicated page on its website with contact information for handling public feedback and concerns as well as any proposed and awarded pilots. Community engagement plans also will be created for each pilot, according to the city.
Permits will be reviewed and considered on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is no cap on the number of permits that can be issued in Detroit, though Slusser said the city expects 10-15 businesses will seek permits each year. The City Council must be notified before permits are issued or suspended, according to the proposed ordinance, and before the innovation zone boundary is changed.
Permits can be revoked immediately by the Chief of Mobility Innovation if it is found that awardees are not in compliance with the terms of their permit. The city’s mobility office also will track usage of public right of ways to gauge the potential for overcrowding.
Permits issued will be good for 180 days and can be renewed once by Slusser before requiring the council’s approval for additional extensions. Permits are not transferable to other companies and they can’t be applied in areas outside the innovation zone.