In several years, Detroit’s short stretch of I-375 will be a street-level boulevard, complete with bike lanes and sidewalks. And the highway interchanges, medians, and barriers of today will become 25 to 31 acres of highly valued vacant land.
The real estate, near downtown, the riverfront, Eastern Market, and several grocery stores, is valued around $50 million, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation. Already, homes in the adjacent Brush Park neighborhood are listed for an average of $724,000, compared to the citywide average of $75,000, according to realtor.com.
“Twenty-five to 30 acres next to downtown allows for a lot of development. It’s basically a whole neighborhood, and if construction costs went back to being reasonable, it would be a very desirable plot of land,” said real estate developer Richard Hosey who will revitalize the Fisher Body plant.
The prime land could be used for anything from retail to greenspace to housing, or a mix of uses. The question is, who gets the land, and what will it be used for?
When I-375 was constructed in the 1960s through Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, two thriving Black epicenters, it destroyed the rich history and culture of the neighborhood, displaced more than 100,000 residents, and led to the closure of a number of Black-owned businesses. An untold amount of intergenerational wealth was lost when residents were displaced and businesses were demolished. Given the history, many want to see profit from the land, or the land itself, returned to descendants of those who lived or worked in the area destroyed to make way for the highway.
“This is going to be some of the most valuable land in the city of Detroit,” said city-based real estate developer Chase Cantrell. “The city has an opportunity now to turn to that community, especially Black developers, to build something new on that site.”
The opportunity is “very rare,” said Cantrell, noting Detroit hasn’t had this much vacant land close to the downtown core since the stadiums were built and it gives the city a chance to address its past mistakes.
Discussions about land use for the site have begun after federal officials in March gave MDOT approval for the project. MDOT is in the design stage of the process and one of the first steps is working on an agreement with the city to establish an executive board of five members. That board will make the final decision over land disposition and contracts, and it will be informed by MDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and community engagement
MDOT also will put together a community advisory committee to give input on the boulevard design, and work with that committee to create and implement a community enhancement plan, informed by a land use study. By June, MDOT and the city plan to have the committee formed. They are expected to begin meeting later in the summer, said Jonathan Loree, senior project manager for MDOT.
MDOT committed to forming the advisory committee and the community enhancement plan to address the historical impact of I-375 on Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. MDOT has stated they will use the value of the 31 acres to fund community priorities.
“It’s a huge opportunity to make a giant stride and repair to the descendants of people that were displaced by the highway,” said Lauren Hood, chairwoman of the City Planning Commission.
“The (planning) commission doesn’t have an official role yet, but at the grassroots level things are happening,” said Hood, a reparations expert.
Reparations is a three-part process, she said: acknowledgement, redress of compensation, and assurance that it won’t happen again.
“That third piece is where you engage the residents,” she said. Determining what policies and procedures should be put in place to ensure harm isn’t caused again when the boulevard is created is a conversation that needs to happen with residents, Hood said.
To Cantrell, housing is a priority for the new real estate.
“We need to ensure that we have affordable, accessible quality housing as a mix in this project,” he said, to avoid the trap of the “two Detroits” narrative where the affluent downtown receives significant investment and development, surrounded by the rest of the city’s neighborhoods in disrepair that don’t.
“If we’re thinking about equity – these were thriving Black neighborhoods that were demolished,” Cantrell said. “It only makes sense that we’re being very thoughtful about how Black people are involved in the regeneration of this area.”
The city has so far expressed similar sentiments. Mayor Mike Duggan in March said Black businesses today should benefit from the “enormous development opportunities” the project will bring.
“The equity of who participates will be just as important as how the new boulevard ultimately will look,” Duggan said.
Antoine Bryant, director of the city’s Planning and Development Department, told BridgeDetroit that the project could help “reknit” the neighborhoods.
“As far as where the land is going to go, we’re still very much at the beginning,” he said. “But it is our opinion to try to ensure we find a way that is most advantageous to Detroiters.”
Years ago, longtime Detroit real estate developer and art dealer George N’Namdi attended one of the first community meetings that was held about the removal of I-375. Repurposing the land in a way that reflects the history of Black Bottom will be important, he told BridgeDetroit, through “having assistance for African American developers and for African American businesses that may end up reflecting some of the Black Bottom values and purposes that they had there.
“It could also make for a unique district for the city,” he added.
N’Namdi envisions a park or trail as a priority that would connect to the city’s downtown and make Lafayette Park more of a downtown place. A greenway, he said, not only improves the vibrancy of a city and the quality of life, but it also has beneficial environmental impacts.
“Having a beautiful park-like place and a community there that really connects with an expanded downtown in a livable district – I just think that’ll be so great for the city,” he said.