Some Detroiters feel the state’s plans to replace I-375 with a boulevard are “a done deal” despite requests for public input. Others say the state should scrap it and try again.
Officially called the I-375 Reconnecting Communities Project, federal, state, and local officials have said it would be a “reparative” process to honor the Black business community displaced by the highway construction in the 1960s and benefit the community today.
Hilanius Phillips, who served the city for 33 years and was Detroit’s first Black head city planner, told the City Council Tuesday that the state should start over.
“The community will tell you and the community basically supports what me, as a community planner recommends, is that we start over again,” he said.
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Approximately 30 percent of the design process for the project is complete, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), which is leading the project. The city’s Planning and Development Department is working with MDOT on the framework plan, already gathering input from residents and stakeholders on signage, remembrances of Hastings Street, and what can be done with 31 acres of land that will open up when the highway is filled in.
But Tuesday was the first time the project was presented to the council, a fact Phillips said he was “dismayed” to learn.
“There is no way that the Planning and Development Department should be in the position that it is now on this proposal when the people and you, as our representatives, have not even seen it,” he told the council.
Phillips petitioned to speak before the council Tuesday after MDOT gave an update on the project during the panel’s formal session. The I-375 presentation was the second from MDOT within a week.
MDOT plans to replace the highway with a six-to-nine-lane boulevard by 2027, at the cost of $300 million. Construction is expected to start in 2025.
“I’m going on record today,” said Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway. “From what I’ve seen, I do not support the nine lanes. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
MDOT spokesperson Robert Morosi said there hadn’t been a request before now for the state to formally present to the council.
“MDOT has worked closely with the city throughout the project development, and has kept the district and at-large City Council members informed,” he said, throughout the start of the project, the planning and environmental study, and through the governmental advisory committee.
On Saturday, more than a hundred people filled the gymnasium of Chrysler Elementary Saturday for a town hall with MDOT hosted by state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit.
Attendees shared some of the same concerns they’ve had for nearly a year since MDOT started hosting in-person community and stakeholder meetings.
“I believe they’ve already made up their mind on what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it,” Lafayette Park resident Kimberly Brown said Saturday.
The most immediate concern is about access to residences, businesses, and emergency medical services during the construction. MDOT officials said they will be bringing in a construction team during the design phase to figure out how to best address the concerns.
Many shared Saturday that they felt MDOT wasn’t properly engaging the public.
Chang said she organized the town hall after hearing from a number of residents about the need for a space to share input. “I knew that there were a lot of folks who weren’t necessarily feeling heard by MDOT in their public engagement process,” she said.
Each month MDOT hosts local community and stakeholder advisory meetings to plan aspects of the project. The committees were chosen by MDOT, to the dismay of some who didn’t feel the selection process was equitable and transparent. The meetings are open to the public but are not heavily advertised. MDOT also holds public meetings to give updates and solicit input once a quarter. The last one was held on Aug. 9 at Eastern Market.
But attorney Dante Stella told MDOT and city representatives at the Saturday town hall that it seemed like the only thing the public was able to decide on was the median, sidewalks, and benches.
“Public participation and presentation of this is something of a done deal,” he said.
“A lot of this project has been predicated on the decaying bridges,” he added. “How is there an argument that this project is a good economic alternative to replacing three bridges?”
As the more than 60-year-old infrastructure and bridges reach the end of their lifespan, MDOT decided to fill in I-375 rather than repair or replace the 14 bridges along the freeway.
Other concerns remain focused on the design itself – that it won’t reconnect the community and the width presents safety concerns for pedestrians.
Until recently the public was told the width of the proposed boulevard would not change, despite concerns from local planning experts and residents about the safety risks of the boulevard, which would be one of the widest intersections in the city. MDOT previously said the boulevard needed to accommodate a certain amount of vehicle traffic, based on 2017 data.
But On Saturday, MDOT project manager Jonathan Loree said the department is now conducting another study of current traffic that could potentially make some of the intersections smaller.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “It’s not going to be a Hastings street that has one lane each direction, but we’re looking at how we can make those intersections smaller.”
The findings are expected to be available in February or March of next year, Loree said.
To learn more about the project and subscribe to the state’s updates, sign up here.
Malachi Barrett contributed to this story.