Edith Floyd remembers when her neighborhood west of Detroit’s airport was thriving, with grocery stores, professional offices and happy young families.
Floyd has lived off Mt. Olivet Street on Detroit’s east side for nearly half a century. Since that time, she’s witnessed the slow death of her neighborhood as the city has bought up properties with the hope of creating a 750-foot safety buffer from the airport’s main runway, leaving much of the community uninhabited and residents relocating in search of safer, cleaner areas.
“It was real nice out here,” Floyd told BridgeDetroit Thursday as she stood on the edge of a community garden she maintains with other volunteers.
The City of Detroit plans to soon finish the decades-long effort by acquiring the remaining properties near the Coleman A. Young International Airport in preparation for a multi-million dollar redevelopment of the languishing airfield. Most homeowners are ready to move, Floyd said, citing overgrowth of trees and fields, poor city services and trash dumping.
Mayor Mike Duggan on Thursday gathered with other city officials, airport advocates and residents at the airport to unveil the city’s first Airport Layout Plan in three decades. Within the plan is Detroit’s intention to acquire the neighborhood’s 17 remaining occupied homes and the 53 other vacant parcels needed to create the federally-required safety buffer on the airport’s west side.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s September approval of the layout plan is expected to bring in more than $100 million in federal grants over the next decade to redevelop the airport for corporate fliers and to bring back the Benjamin O. Davis Aerospace Technical High School by 2025.
Duggan said he and other city officials recently met with residents in the buyout zone, dubbed the “French Road mini-take” area, to resume the land acquisition process. The mayor said he’s seeing “a lot of willingness to sell.”
“If you’ve been through that neighborhood, it has – through no fault of the neighbors – deteriorated badly over the years,” Duggan said. “We are making the owners good faith offers. They have a process by which they can accept the offer or challenge the offer … At least based on preliminary conversations, the folks who were there were very pleased.”
The development would render the Arthur L. Fletcher Playfield inaccessible, prompting Floyd and others to wonder whether the city will make new area park space available.
Lyvonne Cargil said she holds an annual reunion at the park to honor the life of her son, who died in 2010. She confronted Duggan at Thursday’s press conference about the park removal, prompting the mayor to promise his administration “will work with you to find an appropriate place in the neighborhood” for a new park.
Still, Cargil said she left the city’s Thursday announcement less than reassured.
“That’s a hurting thing,” Cargil said of the park’s removal. “That’s going to hurt all of us.”
City officials celebrated the anticipated new investment, saying it will bring economic benefits to Detroit as a whole. Disinvestment in the airport reached such a state that it became a home for four families of coyotes and birds that caused a “bio-hazard” from waste, according to a 2019 audit.
Airport Department Director Jason Watt said he expects the total redevelopment cost to range between $300 million and $500 million, with the bulk of the investment coming from private companies. Plans include building a new air traffic control tower; new hangars for executive business aircraft, twin-engine craft, single engine planes and space for community events; re-establishing onsite firefighting services and other safety enhancements.
Council Member Scott Benson, whose district includes the airport, said the valuable asset has sat “pretty fallow and uninvested” in recent decades.
“There have been promises to the community and residents in this area for a long time about what could happen, what’s going to happen,” he said. “Now it’s finally here and it’s happening … We’re seeing how we can use this infrastructure as an economic development revenue generator for the City of Detroit.”
Watt said downtown growth will help drive demand for the airport, which experienced a 40% increase in usage in 2017 with the opening of Little Caesars Arena. Watt said around 40,000 flights take off from the airport each year, compared to a high of 12,440 annual flights in 1998.
“Everybody who’s doing business in the downtown area should utilize this airport,” Watt said. “We’re literally, six minutes, seven minutes from downtown. Those are the people that we’re really targeting to try to make this airport world-class. They bring an infusion of large capital dollars for nice facilities, similar to what you have in Oakland County (International) Airport, and we anticipate being able to maximize that effort because of the development and growth we’re experiencing downtown.”
Watt said Thursday that he believes the airport could get back to 100,000 annual flights in the next decade. No environmental study was done to determine the impact on air quality in the area, but Watt said two public meetings were held to gather community input on the planning process.
Duggan said the airport plan signals the end of any hope that commercial flights would resume at the 95-year-old airport – a concept often raised in past years by some members of Detroit’s City Council. However, Duggan said those dreams effectively died long ago; a historic graveyard on the north side of the airport thwarts any chance of making the runway long enough to support commercial jets, he said.
“I know people are attached to the idea of having commercial service at this airport,” Duggan said. “But the fact is, you need a 10,000-foot runway for passenger planes. We have about 5,400 feet and there was no way it was viable. (The airport) was stuck in limbo for a long time because the City of Detroit was pushing something the FAA knew was not viable.”
The last commercial flight lifted off from Detroit 22 years ago. Today, the airport is used by private fliers, with hangar space leased to private and corporate planes. Other hangars were used to display and store airplanes as part of the World Heritage Air Museum until it closed in 2020.
Duggan also celebrated the FAA’s approval to decommission a smaller, crosswind runway used during windy conditions, as it will free up 80 acres of land for new development. That proposal has met some resistance from some pilots and airport advocates concerned it would create safety concerns.
“We do not have enough sites left in this city, as hard as that is to believe,” Duggan said. “Detroit is running out of sites large enough to attract manufacturing facilities. With this agreement, we’ve got 80 acres – what will be a prime site in the city – to bring hundreds of jobs to the east side of Detroit at the same time we build a first-class airport.”
Beverly Kindle-Walker, executive director of Friends of Detroit City Airport, challenged the mayor to find a developer that’s associated with the aviation industry.
“We want to see aviation-related industry come here,” Walker said. “Not just any old thing to come here. It’s got to be something to augment what we’re doing here.”
David Tarrant, executive director of the Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association, has opposed removal of the crosswind runway, arguing it’s a valuable training resource for new pilots and is also needed to make tricky landings during heavy winds.
“The aviation community knows that is a very important runway to have. The non-aviators decided to eliminate it,” Tarrant said.
Watt said it’s “not accurate” to suggest the airport is unsafe without the crosswind runway.
“The FAA would never approve anything that would make the airport unsafe,” Watt said. “The big issue is that when we get into maintaining that runway, it’s extremely expensive to do. Because of the length of it, the FAA is not going to participate in the revitalization of that runway. That decision was made whether we take it on ourselves or do we get rid of it. The decision was made to get rid of it because of financial concerns, and it has nothing to do with safety. Safety will never be compromised.”
Kindle-Walker also said the Detroit Public Schools Community District should “commit to our young people” with the reestablishment of aerospace technical high school, which has an FAA-certified aviation curriculum. The school was originally located near the airport, but was moved five miles away in 2013 under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager.
As for the residential buyout, the city had expected it would take 18 months to purchase 470 parcels between French Road and Gilbo Street when the effort was approved in 1994. But a lack of funding, changing plans and legal issues dragged the plan out for nearly 30 years. The remaining property owners should begin receiving offers in the next month, according to the city, and the process is expected to finish by fall of next year.
Kindle-Walker said the Tuskegee Airman played a vital role in pushing for the airport’s return to usefulness. In 2003, the airport was renamed in honor of Coleman A. Young, a Tuskegee Airman and Detroit’s first Black mayor. His son, Council Member Coleman Young II, noted Friday will be the 95th anniversary of the first plane landing on the airport on Oct. 14, 1927.
“We are standing on the foundation of success for now, and generations to come,” Young said.