A developer behind the planned $135 million transformation of the long-idled Fisher Body Plant has agreed to a range of community benefits negotiated with nearby residents as the project works to secure tax incentives from the city.
Under a community benefits agreement pending approval by the City Council, Fisher 21 Lofts, LLC, would contribute $500,000 to a community fund, evaluate the feasibility of a neighborhood farmers market, request an increase in bus lines serving the area and ensure Detroiters have preferred access to jobs, affordable housing units and commercial space. To address environmental concerns, the tentative benefits deal also would require the development team to control airborne contamination kicked up during construction, avoid transporting hazardous materials on residential streets and to share environmental reports with residents.
The project is expected to be one of the largest Black-led real estate developments in the country.
“The community has a broad perspective, so there was a number of different things voiced,” said Richard Hosey, a developer on the project.
Fisher 21 Lofts is seeking to buy the vacant auto body factory, located between I-94 and I-75 in the Medbury Park neighborhood, from the City of Detroit for $1 million. The council also set a public hearing for July 21 to hear the developer’s request for a brownfield plan, which would reimburse the developer $25 million for environmental cleanup and other eligible activities.
The project is expected to create an estimated 600,000 square feet of commercial and residential space, including 433 Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible housing units, amenities for residents, 139 interior parking spots and 646 adjacent surface parking spots.
One-fifth of the apartments would be set aside for residents earning 80% of the area median income for Wayne County, which is estimated at $50,160 for one person and $64,480 for a family of three. Three, two-bedroom units would also be set aside for people earning half of the area median income, which is $31,350 for a single person and $40,300 for a family of three.
Construction is slated to start in April 2023 and finish in 2025. The developer expects to create 350 temporary construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs.
The investment is considered a Tier 1 Development Project under the city’s Community Benefits Ordinance, requiring the project to be reviewed by a Neighborhood Advisory Council convened to represent community concerns about the project’s impact on Detroiters who live nearby.
“Certainly there was a section of folks focused on affordable housing, jobs, environmental concerns, and so the nice thing about this CBO agreement is each of those topics were things that individual neighborhood advisory council members really focused on,” Hosey added.
The impact area is bounded by Ferry Street to the south; I-75 to the east; Holbrook Street, East and West Grand Boulevard to the north; and Beaubien and Cass streets to the west. Area neighborhoods include Milwaukee Junction and Medbury Park, as well as parts of the North End and Art Center.
A public notice of the first meeting was mailed to 3,066 addresses within 300 feet of the impact area, posted online and sent to representatives of the City Council, Legislative Policy Division and the Department of Neighborhoods. Nine community meetings were held between April 12 and June 14.
The City Council on Tuesday voted to refer the proposed community benefits agreement and sales offer to its Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee for further review.
The Fisher Body Plant was founded in 1908 and historically produced a wide variety of General Motors automobile designs. The six-story factory was later purchased by an industrial painting company that went bankrupt and has been empty since 1993. It came under the city’s ownership in 2000 and eight years later the EPA began removing large quantities of contaminated soil, equipment and underground storage tanks.
It would take $5 million to clean lead and asbestos on the site and $2.6 million to perform demolition work, according to a brownfield plan submitted to the City Council last month. Total cleanup costs are estimated at $31 million, with the developer seeking to get back $25 million from tax revenues collected over 35 years.
“The EPA did a substantial amount of cleanup of the worst contaminants,” Hosey said. “That’s not to say there’s not plenty of asbestos and lead in the building, but the more worrisome things have already been cleaned up. (The project) would almost certainly be nonfeasible if that had not been accomplished.”
Hosey said there was an active conversation around iconic pieces of graffiti that have added to the building’s cultural identity since falling into disrepair. The Fisher Body Plant has become a destination for urban explorers and online content creators.
“From our perspective, we really focus on this building being a huge part of the Detroit economic engine and then it became a sign of disinvestment, this kind of constant reminder of disinvestment in the city,” Hosey said. “Returning it to being an economic engine of that area, bringing density and retail and jobs, was really something the community was interested in. Having an homage to that graffiti in there, where it’s appropriate, was about finding a good balance.”
Hosey said every piece of artwork painted on the building has been digitally scanned, allowing the developer to identify pieces of graffiti to preserve in the final product.
“It’s just a matter of how to place it and place it in the building because, there may be some great work that was done overlapping lead paint or some type of contaminant that needs to come off,” Hosey said. “Now that it’s digitized it could actually be cleaned up and actually showcased in its original form.”
Overall, Fisher 21 Lofts agreed to dozens of commitments related to the project’s construction schedule, environmental monitoring, communications with residents, workforce and hiring, the preservation of the iconic graffiti as art displays and retaining some space open to the public.
Most construction on the site will happen between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and residents will get 48-hour notice if construction occurs outside those times. The developer agreed to share environmental reports and results of monitoring with the neighborhood advisory council, and ensure routine testing of workers who could be exposed to hazardous materials during construction.
Fisher 21 Lofts also agreed to implement a fugitive dust plan to control airborne contamination during construction, and agreed to ensure removal of hazardous materials on the site is done with qualified professionals. Vehicles transporting hazardous materials must be secured and covered and the developer agreed to avoid transporting hazardous materials on residential streets.
Demolition and construction would be required to stop if any violations of environmental regulations occur, until they are corrected, it notes.
Fisher 21 Lofts also agreed to publicize rodent control plans to prevent infestations from spreading off-site and keep residents informed on construction progress, roadway closures, and environmental issues.
The benefits deal would require that project employees be paid a minimum of $17 per hour and that contractors and security employees are required to receive racial, disability and neurodivergence sensitivity training. The project developer also would partner with Detroit at Work and the Detroit Public Schools Community District to identify mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities.
Nearby residents secured commitments from the developer to investigate methods to reduce building’s carbon footprint, install high efficiency lighting and low water utilization appliances in all residential units to bring down utility costs.
The neighborhood advisory council in a June 27 letter signaled its support for the agreement. The council wrote it was satisfied with “extensive community outreach” during the process of drafting an agreement.
“Balancing the desire for robust community input while navigating the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fisher Body Plant 21 Neighborhood Advisory Council utilized a multi-layered and deliberate approach to ensure that residents residing in the impact area were informed and engaged,” the letter reads.
Halima Cassells, an alternate member of the neighborhood advisory council, told the City Council there wasn’t enough time to “negotiate the best on behalf of the community.” She said she wants to strengthen the environmental precautions as well as commitments to work with Detroit-based contractors before moving the deal forward.
Council President Mary Sheffield told BridgeDetroit Tuesday that she’s still reviewing the agreement to decide whether what has been negotiated is sufficient.
“The community benefits process is the time to secure the needs of the community,” Sheffield said. “(Getting) as much as we can get in writing is important. I’m looking forward to hearing what the residents have to say.”
Sheffield said redeveloping the former Fisher Body Plant is an exciting prospect.
“It’s a huge eyesore in Detroit and especially in my district,” Sheffield said. “I drive by quite often. To be able to transform that blighted property into a productive use that benefits Detroiters who reside here is important. I’m excited to see the revitalization of that site. The affordability that’s going to be a part of the project as well is important. I think it’s going to spur other development within that area.”
Letters of support for the brownfield plan were sent by representatives of Midtown Detroit, Inc., Develop Detroit, Vanguard Community Development and neighboring businesses like the Tangent Gallery/Hasting Street Ballroom.