A nearly 100-year-old oak grove at Rouge Park, almost as old as the park itself, will lose a third of its trees when the Detroit Pistons recreation center is constructed next fall.
The 25,000-square-foot facility will bring the Cody-Rouge neighborhood its only indoor recreation center, which city officials say is sorely needed. Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores donated $20 million for the project. But construction next to Brennan Pool will split the century-old grove in half, uprooting 25 of the 75 trees that park advocates argue provide beauty and essential ecosystem services.
“We’re so supportive of getting a rec center in the park,” said Paul Stark, secretary of Friends of Rouge Park, a nonprofit founded in 2002 that seeks to protect and restore the park for the community. “As long as this landmark, this important natural feature, this incredible centennial forest, isn’t affected.”
Advocates were urging the city to reconsider the location before a scheduled Nov. 16 meeting, at which the city planned to present the design. On Tuesday, the city postponed the meeting and said a new date will be set at a later time.
Still, city officials said location plans are final.
“Making any changes will jeopardize the budget and completion timeline of the project,” Crystal Perkins, director of the city’s General Services Department, said by email.
Brad Dick, the city’s chief operating officer, said the city makes no apologies for prioritizing thousands of children over a few trees.
“We have more than 3,000 school-age children living in a west side area with no indoor recreation center,” he said in a statement. “We consider the recreational needs of Detroit children to be a much higher priority than preserving 25 trees in an already densely wooded area,” said Dick, noting that five new trees will be planted for every tree cut down.
The oak trees at Rouge Park help with flood control in an area affected by severe residential flooding, with each tree absorbing up to 40,000 gallons of water every year– meaning the loss of 25 trees could reduce the grove’s capacity to absorb runoff by a million gallons. Mature trees also absorb more carbon dioxide than young trees, an essential service in fighting climate change.
“At this point, as we are trying to come up with ingenious ways to fight climate change, we must remember the simple ones, like leaving the trees,” Detroit resident and local business owner Kinga Osz-Kemp said in a letter to the city, supporting a location change for the center. “We can’t buy the time it takes for trees to grow. We need big old trees to keep us healthy, as many as possible.”
Last year, the city began construction on a $40 million project to redirect millions of gallons of stormwater from homes surrounding Rouge Park into the Rouge River.
City officials said they want the center adjacent to Brennan Pool so that they would only have to staff one location, versus two, and for the outdoor pool to be covered in the future and allow for year-round use.
City staff said residents have not voiced concerns about the trees until recently.
“The issue of trees was brought up at the very first meeting during a one-off conversation…No additional concerns were brought to our attention until 15 months after the conversations started publicly,” Perkins said.
Plans to build the recreation center were announced in June 2022 and the first community meeting was held in August. But Stark said the community wasn’t informed that the plan would destroy 25 mature oak trees until the last community meeting on Sept. 25.
The Friends of Rouge Park board wrote a letter in October asking the city to consider two alternative locations: either on the east side of the Brennan parking lot or next to Dixon School on Trinity St., the latter of which would also make it more accessible to the community and the school, they argue. The vacant land surrounding it could also allow for the development of parking lots, an ice rink, or other amenities, according to the group.
“We have taken some of their suggestions into consideration,” said Perkins, noting suggestions were solicited from the wider community during the three city meetings on design, location, and programming.
The Pistons are deferring to the city on construction and location, according to Kevin Grigg, vice president of public relations for the Detroit Pistons.
“We’ve been at the meetings and we’ve been soliciting feedback specifically on the programming pieces inside the rec center to ensure that the internal design has the elements that the community is looking for,” said Grigg. “I would defer back to the city in terms of the exact location and construction.”
Construction is expected to begin in the summer or fall of 2024.