Southwest Detroit residents convened last week at Donovan’s Pub seeking answers about recent activity at a property belonging to the Moroun-owned real estate company Crown Enterprises at Toledo and 25th Street.
“We’re desperate,” said Keith Rodgerson, who, along with his children, developed asthma since moving to the area eight years ago, a condition associated with diesel truck emissions. He and his neighbors are looking to push back on trucking in the neighborhood and prevent any yard expansion where trailers are currently stored.
People living in the primarily residential neighborhood say the situation has escalated since 2019, when the city transferred parcels it owned off Toledo to Crown in exchange for properties needed for the Stellantis expansion on Detroit’s east side. This was part of a larger package of deals that benefited several property owners, including Crown, who walked away with $43.5 million in cash and $10.5 million in land.
After taking over the properties, the company cut trees down on the lots at the corner of Toledo and West Grand Boulevard, which had operated as an unofficial green space for the neighborhood.
Crown then fenced in the parcels and lined them with barbed wire. In late November, the ground was leveled, leading neighbors to wonder if the company is preparing the site for more trucks.
Yet, one of these parcels, located at 3600 Toledo, is zoned residential, according to a Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED) official. That puts the current fencing and any future truck activity in violation of city zoning rules.
The property was rezoned from M1 (light industrial) to R5 (residential) in 2021, part of a larger downzoning in the area that former city council member Raquel Castañeda-López said better reflected the residential nature of the neighborhoods. Despite the rezoning, it appears Crown is continuing to treat the parcel as if it were zoned light industrial.
Rodgerson is helping organize residents opposed to more trucking, dust, and impacts to air quality in an area that is already close to major highways and polluting industries. He said the group plans to make its presence known at city council meetings and aims to draw attention to money lawmakers have received from the Morouns, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge.
In 2017, for example, the family used super PACs to give almost $200,000 to City Council campaigns, far more than any other donor. However, the spending wasn’t revealed until after that year’s election, following a complex investigation by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. A year and half later, city officials approved the land transfers for Stellantis, then known as Fiat Chrysler. Rodgerson believes that by making the Morouns’ donations visible, he can weaken the influence that they have over city leadership.
“I think if we can make the money radioactive that will help us in the long-run, when it comes to weakening structures that are making it impossible for people in Southwest Detroit to get positive environmental outcomes,” Rodgerson said.
Erin Stanley, director of climate equity for the Eastside Community Network (ECN), lives near the 25th street yard, while also organizing around environmental impacts from another Moroun truck yard that recently expanded on the east side, off of East Jefferson between Clairpointe and St. Jean.
“It’s concerning because there’s a residential neighborhood right across the street,” she said of the facility, which is next to the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. “They filled in green space with impervious surface in a community over-burdened by flooding and air pollution.”
Stanley said ECN is looking to work with groups like the Ecology Center and Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision to “build some kind of cross-city power” to push back on threats to air quality from trucking.
At the Donovan’s Pub meeting, residents wanted to know if the company was violating zoning rules with its activity. Those at the meeting also wondered why there were “no truck” signs on Toledo, where trucks regularly travel, and if these were supported by any law or ordinance.
Georgette Johnson, spokesperson for Detroit’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED), confirmed to Planet Detroit by email that the parcel at the corner of Toledo and West Grand Boulevard is owned by Crown and zoned R5 or “medium density residential.” She also confirmed that this zoning prohibits barbed wire fencing, like what is currently on the site, and would not allow for trucking. There has been no request to rezone the parcel. A representative for Crown did not reply to a request for information on their plans for the site.
Raquel Garcia, executive director for the nonprofit Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, lives near the impacted area and says residents badly need information on what to expect, especially because Detroiters are already so affected by poor air quality. In Southwest, diesel trucks bring dust and particulate matter and emit nitrogen oxides at ground level in front of homes, businesses and schools, pollution that contributes to the formation of ozone, a major driver for heart disease, asthma and other lung problems.
Garcia says the lack of communication and protective action from city officials is especially troubling in light of the 2022 report from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America that ranked Detroit as the nation’s top “asthma capital.”
“Nobody from the city is saying, ‘hey, you need to cut down on dust and you need to have your wheels washed,’ all the things that would help the situation,” Garcia said. She wants city officials to convene a group of stakeholders in the neighborhood to discuss what kind of actions could help protect residents.
Possible strategies Garcia mentioned could include enforcing existing rules that limit truck traffic on certain streets between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m, putting new truck routes in place and replacing the city’s flawed anti-idling ordinance with one that would actually be enforceable.
But having better citywide ordinances may not make a substantial difference for those living near Crown’s truck yard if the operation expands significantly, bringing additional trucks right into their neighborhood. And there’s no guarantee the city will take decisive action against the company for present or future violations of city ordinances.
In the past, Moroun-owned businesses have closed portions of 23rd street without permits and several of the parcels received in the Stellantis exchange were within the Ambassador Bridge’s footprint, meaning the company had been using them for years without paying taxes.
And yet, the city has continued to cut deals with the Morouns. Most recently, the city reached a $50,000 settlement with Crown over blight and inspection fees related to nearly 2,000 properties, which drew criticism from Gregg Ward, president of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry.
“Side deals for those with political leverage and significant legal resources create confusion and opportunities for misconduct,” Ward said of the settlement.
Rodgerson acknowledges that it will be an uphill battle to influence what’s happening in his neighborhood but believes there may be a way to draw support from across the city.
“We have a lot of allies in the religious community,” he said, adding that officials are “very responsive” when churches in their districts are “exerting pressure upon the council people to do the right thing.”
Angela Lugo-Thomas contributed reporting to this piece.