Detroiters spent years imagining the State Fairgro...

Detroiters spent years imagining the State Fairgrounds’ future. Why didn’t the city listen?

The city is selling the prized land to developers, but their plans don’t match the community’s.

An aerial photo of the State Fairgrounds site at Detroit's northern border. The site is set to be redeveloped.

An aerial photo of the State Fairgrounds site in Detroit.

For years, Frank and Karen Hammer have had a difficult time getting their ideas accepted by city and state officials. 

The husband and wife team have lived in Detroit’s Green Acres neighborhood, across Woodward Avenue from the State Fairgrounds, for 40 years. After Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced the closure of the State Fair in 2009, which had been operating at the 160-acre site every year since 1905, the Hammers started a petition drive to keep it running. 

“Granholm said, ‘If you get me over 50,000 signatures, we’ll keep it open,’” Frank Hammer said.

They got over 65,000 signatures. It still closed.

Soon after, the Hammers formed the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition (SFDC) and have been continuously organizing around potential uses for the site. But now, a proposed new development is once again at odds with what they had hoped to see there.

Overview of proposed development at State Fairgrounds site in Detroit
Overview of proposed redevelopment plan for State Fairgrounds site. Courtesy City of Detroit

The new plan for the State Fairgrounds: Amazon, jobs and industrial

In early August, the city of Detroit announced that it would be selling its 140-acre holding at the Fairgrounds to Newco, LLC — comprised of Detroit-based development firm The Sterling Group and Dallas,Texas-based Hillwood Investment Properties — for $9 million. The centerpiece of the new development will be a $400 million Amazon distribution center that’s going to add at least 1,200 jobs in the city. The purchase agreement also outlines a 300,000-square-foot industrial building to be built within four years. And the city will construct a $7 million transit center featuring an indoor waiting area with bathroom and free Wi-Fi. 

Many hailed this news as a victory for the city. A long-vacant anchor property at a major intersection will be developed to create lots of jobs. Moreover, no subsidies from the city or state will be used in the sale of the site or construction of the facilities — a fairly unique arrangement for big developments in Detroit, which almost always require abatements to make them financially viable.

The Hammers, however, remain skeptical. SFDC held conferences and countless community meetings over the past decade to create a forward-thinking vision of possible uses for the Fairgrounds. While their proposal for a “Meta Expo” seems ambitious, other elements of the concept seem feasible. They say they’ve gotten pro bono work from local architects and designers and believe it’s possible to develop the site in a sustainable way as a regional tech and transit hub, all while preserving the historic structures. 

But few of their proposals are part of the developer’s plans. 

What’s missing from the development proposal

The couple doesn’t diminish the importance of jobs to a city that’s had unemployment numbers consistently higher than the state and national average. But the proposed jobs at the Detroit warehouse will be a mixed bag. They do come with benefits and pay $15 per hour (which is at or slightly below living wage for a family in Detroit).

But labor activists have been criticizing work conditions at Amazon distribution centers for years. Just this month, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell toured an Amazon warehouse in Romulus and found “unacceptable and unsafe conditions.” Moreover, there’s no guarantee the jobs will go to Detroiters or that they’ll even get to apply first, as was the case with FCA’s new factory on the east side. 

The city is planning to mobilize residents through its Detroit At Work hiring program and pilot an Entrepreneurship Training Academy where graduates can become a “delivery service partner.”

Placemaking, once at the center of the State Fairgrounds, has been mostly left out of the new development. The transit center will be tucked inside the site at a less accessible location away from Woodward Avenue. The historic structures — three of which are on the National Register of Historic Places — will likely be demolished. And the new buildings themselves are going to be light industrial with no housing or public space. Though Kim Tandy, city manager for District 2, said on a recent call about the development that the city would build a “park or recreation center” partially funded by the sale of the property in a nearby neighborhood.

Rendering of transit center proposed for State Fairgrounds site. Courtesy City of Detroit

Neighbors ask: what about community input?

But this isn’t just about their ideas being dismissed. The Hammers are mostly concerned with the lack of community involvement — the city didn’t even release a request for proposals or take bids for the sale. 

In a strongly worded letter to District 2 Councilman Roy McCallister, who supports the city plan, the Hammers expressed dismay at the process:

The residents of our great City were publicly promised by the Duggan administration in July 2018 — when the Detroit City Council approved the City’s purchase of 142 acres of the Fairgrounds — that there would be “participation and input” from the community during the redevelopment process.

In the two years since, the administration did just the opposite, secretly choosing developers and negotiating a purchase agreement behind closed doors.

Photo of Frank and Karen Hammer, residents of the Green Acres neighborhood in Detroit who helped organize community ideas for redeveloping the State Fairgrounds site.
Frank and Karen Hammer, co-chairs of the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition. Courtesy The Monthly Standard

“We first learned of the deal the day before Duggan’s press conference,” Karen Hammer said.

“We had one meeting two years ago with the District 2 manager and that was it,” Frank added. “Since then, there has been no consultation, no effort to get community input.”

Because Sterling Group and Hillwood bought the land at value and aren’t receiving any subsidies, they’re able to sidestep the city’s Community Benefits Ordinance and don’t have to make concessions to residents. Developers and representatives from the city have made themselves available at several public Zoom events to answer questions. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to Sam Butler, executive director for Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit, which has been consulting with SFDC. “There are certain ways the development could be improved to benefit the community at little or no additional cost to the developer,” he said.

Some of those improvements SDFC is pushing for include a community fund generated out of proceeds from the land sale, guaranteed “first review” of Detroit applicants for the Amazon jobs, and reorienting the transit center to preserve the historic structures. 

“This is the largest piece of publicly owned property that we, the Detroit taxpayers, own,” Butler said. “And it historically was a regional destination. Therefore the sale of the property should translate to direct [community] benefits.”

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A ‘once in a generation development’

The city’s position on the project is fairly straightforward: The development will be a big net positive, especially at a site that required something expensive and too specific to incorporate agricultural buildings from the 1920s. 

“A 1,200 employee facility outside the auto industry is a once in a generation development,” Nick Khouri, group executive for Jobs and the Economy for the city, said to The Dig by email. “No employer of this size has ever been landed by an RFP put out on the city’s timetable. The State Fairgrounds property has been vacant and publicly available for proposals for over 10 years. During that period there have been no financially viable development plans presented for the property.”

The sale of the property will go before City Council on Friday, Sept. 25. A vote is expected by the end of the month. 

In the meantime, the Hammers will continue to organize and press for concessions from the city and developers. “We’re still going out and canvassing in the neighborhood now,” Karen Hammer said. “The purchase agreement can be amended. We’re not giving up.”

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.