A group of developers, small business owners and longtime Detroiters were selected to advocate for neighborhoods being affected by a massive $1.5 billion development plan just north of downtown Detroit.
“District Detroit,” a 10-project development, is the latest in the lower Cass Corridor envisioned by the Illitch family and billionaire real estate mogul Stephen Ross, a Detroit native. A city law requires the developers – jointly known as Related Olympia Predevelopment Company, LLC – to negotiate a community benefits agreement. The city ordinance applies for projects valued at $75 million or higher and that seek $1 million or more in property tax abatements. District Detroit developers haven’t yet spoken publicly about tax incentives.
The nine-member Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) is responsible for representing residents within an “impact area” defined by the city’s Planning and Development Department. The group negotiates with the developers on proposed quality of life commitments, like affordable housing and job guarantees and recommends ways to prevent the project from negatively impacting residents and must ultimately approve a benefits agreement created by the city’s planning department.
Members of the NAC who spoke with BridgeDetroit said securing affordable housing and economic opportunities are major priorities. Ensuring the benefits agreement can be enforced, or “has teeth,” as some put it, is another goal.
NAC member Jonathan Kinloch is a Wayne County commissioner, Michigan Democratic Party official and Brush Park resident. He said the conversation should be centered on making sure future housing units are affordable for Detroiters. Kinloch argues no one should be paying more than 30% of their income on housing.
“We have to dissect the numbers and look at how we can come to an agreeable number where there is a sizable amount of units available for people who are not high-income earners,” he said. “This is a historical community. A lot of residents have lived here a long time … we have a responsibility to make sure that there’s a carve out and that there’s a security net for people who are not necessarily high-income earners to be able to live in this community.”
Terrance Reid and Henry Williams Jr. were elected to the NAC Dec. 6 by residents who live in the impact area. Eight other members, including one alternate, were selected by city officials from a list of resident volunteers:
- Deirdre Jackson – appointed by City Council Member Mary Waters
- Jonathan Kinloch – appointed by City Council Member Coleman A. Young II
- Barbrie Logan – appointed by City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero
- Chris Jackson – appointed by the Planning and Development Department
- Eddie Hall III – appointed by the Planning and Development Department
- Michael Essian II – appointed by the Planning and Development Department
- Rogelio Landin – appointed by the Planning and Development Department
- Steven Hawring – alternate, non-voting member appointed by Planning and Development Department
Plans for District Detroit include renovating office space at the Fox Theatre into a new hotel, building a new hotel next to Little Caesars Arena, office and residential buildings on Woodward near Comerica Park, a business incubator, and other mixed-use developments. Developers expect to create 1.25 million square feet of commercial office space, 146,000 square feet of retail space, 467 hotel rooms and 695 residential units.
District Detroit is the 13th project to undergo the community benefits process since the law was created in 2017. Several of the newly appointed members – Michael Essian, Chris Jackson and Rogelio Landin – have already served as neighborhood advisors in past projects.
Jackson is co-principal and managing partner of Queen Lillian, a local development firm that recently opened a $60 million residential building a few blocks from the proposed District Detroit developments. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Jackson touted the Woodward West project as an example of inclusive development. It received a $2.2 million loan from the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., along with a $5.3 million state grant. Jackson said he also lives there.
Jackson said during the December District Detroit meeting that he has deep ties to the area, and described himself as a fourth-generation alumnus of Cass Tech. He noted his professional experience, saying he will offer the perspective of a developer who tries to give back to the community.
Essian is vice president of American Community Developers, a property company that boasts a commitment to creating and preserving affordable housing. He’s also a board member on the Brush Park Community Development Corporation and Midtown Detroit, Inc., two nonprofit planning organizations.
Essian, also spoke at the December meeting, saying he would use his connections to gather feedback from residents. Essian noted that he’s felt the benefits and pressure points from developments in the area since LCA was finished in 2017.
Landin is president of PerformanceED, a Detroit-based data solutions company, and executive director of the Great Lakes Chapter for the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce. Last year, he mounted an unsuccessful write-in campaign for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. Landin said he was recently elected to serve on the Michigan Democratic Party’s senior caucus.
Detroit’s community benefits ordinance, he said, allows a diverse group of stakeholders to find solutions that work for everyone. Having developers make enforceable commitments to the community is vital to protecting low-income housing and other community needs, he said.
“You have to look at the history of what brought the community benefits ordinance to be and that was a general sense that developers were exploiting opportunities at the expense of the citizenry in the community,” Landin said in an interview. “I’m not saying I agree with that, but that seems to be the overriding perception.
“So many things are happening that are being balanced on the backs of the poor and vulnerable,” Landin added. “It really is time for us to take a look at ourselves, how we govern and how we pay for the things we say we’re giving them.”
Landin, who served on the NAC for billionaire Dan Gilbert’s downtown Hudson’s site project, said he’s a proponent of providing tax incentives to developers. The strategy attracted intense scrutiny last summer from community organizations that opposed the approval of a $60 million tax break for Gilbert’s project over the next 10 years. Landin said discounting a portion of tax revenue in the short-term is well worth the long-term gains that Detroit’s tax base receives thanks to new developments.
“These projects, each are gonna take five years before anybody makes a dime,” Landin said about District Detroit. “I’m not sure how fair it is to charge somebody taxes on something that isn’t generating any revenue. I don’t know anybody who would do that on a personal level; I don’t know why we would expect our commercial developments to do that.”
At-large Council Member Mary Waters told BridgeDetroit that she picked Deirdre Jackson to be a voice on the advisory committee for Detroiters with disabilities. Deirdre Jackson, who uses a wheelchair, described herself as a lifelong resident and senior. She teaches business classes as a part-time faculty member at Wayne County Community College District and her daughter is a Cass Tech graduate.
“Living in this community, I have been here to see when it was thriving and then watch its decline,” she said in December. “I’ve always been optimistic about the resurgence of the city and I believe I will bring a unique perspective to the board.”
Last month, residents in the designated impact zone had a lot of questions for project developers, particularly since past plans for “District Detroit” didn’t materialize.
Brush Park resident Eddie Hall is CEO of Hall Automotive Group, the only Black-owned auto dealer in the city. Hall said he’s a “big believer” that businesses cooperating with communities can create positive change.
Barbrie Logan is a native Detroiter and retired police officer who said she’s happy to see the revival of the city, but “us poor people kinda got left behind.” Logan said she lost her house in the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis and now lives in an apartment building on Woodward. She argues that the needs of seniors and people with disabilities haven’t been considered in past projects in the area.
“We’re getting pushed out of Detroit, and I’m kind of upset about it,” Logan said.
Waters said she wants the NAC to focus on preserving senior housing and creating new “truly affordable” housing for low-income residents. She said NAC members must have an eye for details and will pay close attention to the number of units offered below market rate.
Waters wants to see developers commit to charging rent that is realistic for people who earn between 30% and 60% of the median income in Detroit, which roughly ranges between $10,428 and $20,857. Developers said one-fifth of residential units will be affordable for residents earning $35,800 or less, which is 50% of the Wayne County median income.
“I put an emphasis on that because we just haven’t been properly dealing with affordable housing,” Waters said. “I don’t even know if I like the word anymore because the income that folks make here in this city just doesn’t work for the amount of money that (landlords) want to charge. That’s why evictions are so high.”
Waters said she’s met with the development team twice to talk about housing costs, but she still has questions about how many units will be discounted.
“Once the NAC is put together we will get a little more specific,” Waters said. “(City Council) can’t just tell the (NAC) what to do, but I certainly hope we put the right people in place. We want the NAC members to stand strong and be creative and ask for something that’s really good for the community.”
Steven Hawring is an alternate member of the NAC. He’s owner and CEO of Hexagon Creative, a graphic design company in Detroit, and lives within the impact area.