It takes Olga Stella, a mother of two, no more than seven minutes to drive to Children’s Hospital from her home in the Lafayette Park neighborhood thanks in part to Interstate 375. Those seven minutes, she said, could be lifesaving.
But Stella’s route to the emergency room could soon become a longer, more complicated drive once the depressed one-mile stretch of freeway gets converted into an urban boulevard complete with sidewalks, bike lanes, and stop lights.
“I don’t know how long it would take to get my kids to the hospital; that’s for [the Michigan Department of Transportation] to answer,” Stella told Bridge Detroit. “I shouldn’t have to speculate on how to navigate.”
Stella was just one of a contingent of residents who expressed concerns and confusion over the proposed boulevard design at an I-375 Reconnecting Communities Local Advisory Committee meeting on Tuesday. The meeting, intended to solicit feedback from the volunteers seated to advise on the project, was held at the Horatio Williams Foundation where MDOT officials delivered an updated presentation on the $300 million project that is expected to break ground in 2025.
“The current design is based on the feedback we’ve been getting,” Jonathan Loree, MDOT’s senior project manager, told Bridge Detroit. “We’ve made a lot of changes, but we can’t please everyone. We try our best to, and there’s certain things we can address, but we can’t change the entire design because one person has an issue with one particular thing.”
Besides the design, given the destructive history of the interstate, some residents fear that Black Detroiters will once again get the short end of the stick. I-375’s construction wrecked the vibrant predominantly Black Paradise Valley and Black Bottom neighborhoods in the ‘60s. It wasn’t lost on Tim Moore – a businessman and resident, who says he has a dual interest in the project – that most of the 40-some people who turned out for Tuesday’s meeting were white.
“Detroit is a predominantly Black city, and the turnout isn’t reflective of the community,” Moore said. “They have to get Black people and Black businesses involved. If not, this project will just be a continuation of the deletion of our history.”
Moore drew a comparison to a pizza shop in Huntington Place, formerly known as Cobo Hall, that he owned and operated for 35 years with his family until he was displaced a decade ago when the convention center was regionalized.
“Ask young people today about ‘Pizza Queen,’ and they never knew it existed,” he said. Moore, along with others, added that he wants to see Black Bottom and Paradise Valley memorialized on the new boulevard in some way. “These things are important for our children.”
Loree said the project management team still has a lot of work to do and having more diversity in future local advisory meetings is a priority, which means outreaching to more Black residents. He added that the department plans to engage small and disadvantaged businesses as possible construction contractors and that there are talks exploring ways to ensure Black business owners benefit from the $50 million worth of land that will become available after I-375 is demolished. “But we’re not there yet,” he said. Loree also floated the idea of naming the boulevard after Black Bottom and Paradise Valley during the meeting.
The advisory committee is divided into two councils, MDOT’s spokesperson Rob Morosi said. One team of advisors includes stakeholders such as local businesses and nonprofits. Residents representing neighborhoods and apartment buildings near I-375, like Stella, comprise the residential council.
Though both groups initially met during an orientation meeting in December, MDOT typically holds two separate meetings on the same days for both councils because, as Morosi explained, the more intimate the setting, the more likely people are to speak up and offer more in-depth feedback.
But the two-for-one meetings, such as the one that took place Tuesday, allow the stakeholders and residents to see that both groups are receiving the same information from MDOT. It’s the department’s way of promoting transparency, especially to the residents, Morosi said.
“If the residential council doesn’t feel we’re being transparent, then they’re not going to show up,” he explained. “If they feel that we are leaning or have weight toward the business owners, then we lose credibility.”
Moreover, Morosi said it’s important for both groups to hear each other’s point of view. MDOT and HNTB – the engineering consulting company assisting the department on the project – facilitated a break-out session that allowed the two councils to discuss the presentation, which included a timeline for the project and traffic operations during construction, in addition to the design.
Though the advisory council meetings aren’t intended for the larger public, the project management team uses the feedback from these sessions to prepare for upcoming public meetings. MDOT hosted its first public meeting at the Eastern Market last week. The department plans to host three more public meetings by the end of summer, Morosi said.
“Anyone can show up to the public meetings,” Morosi said. “But these advisory council meetings are for us to share information with the residents who live around the corridor and for them to share with us the feedback they are hearing from their neighbors.”
Moore, who lives in the area but isn’t on the committee, said he heard about Tuesday’s meeting while interviewing community activists for a segment on Detroit IPTV, where he is the president and CEO.
The next public meeting will take place in June. MDOT officials said the date has not yet been set.