Keith Rodgerson had planned on attending a virtual meeting for Detroit’s planning and economic committee on Jan. 14, but he was distracted by a demolition crew cutting down trees planted in a vacant lot near his house. The trees had been planted by the Greening of Detroit on the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Toledo Street in Detroit’s Hubbard Richard neighborhood between 2012 and 2014 as part of a dendro-remediation project to clean contaminated soils. Although the site was never intended to become a park, children and families began using it as open space.
But now, Moroun-owned Crown Enterprises was cleaning the lot out and fencing it in with barbed wire after acquiring it as part of the city’s effort to assemble land for the expanded Fiat Chrysler Automobiles facilities on the east side.
While Rodgerson, who is chair of the 25th Street Block Club, was trying to stop the demolition crew, Detroit City Councilmember Scott Benson was proposing a shift in zoning policy for a swath of land from the Fisher Service Drive to Livernois Avenue, including the Toledo and West Grand Boulevard site. This area was due to be changed from M4 (intensive industrial) to R5 (residential) and M1 (limited industrial). These changes reflected the city’s Master Plan, which seeks to lessen the impact of industry on residential areas.
Benson’s proposed changes would have shifted the rezoning to the more intensive M2 (restricted industrial), giving business owners in the area like the Morouns more leeway to do things like maintain a container freight yard without seeking conditional approval.
“One council member in a committee meeting literally goes and changes acres and acres and acres of zoning,” Rodgerson told Planet Detroit. “And we’re all, as usual in Southwest Detroit, being thrown majorly on the defensive.”
The dispute brings into focus the impact of Michigan’s eminent domain law, which was changed by a ballot measure in 2006. The change limited the “taking of private property by governments for transfer to a private entity for the purpose of economic development or enhancement of tax revenues.”
In practice, the change can result in situations like the FCA deal, where a city government that needs land to create jobs and score a political win ends up trading away land in other neighborhoods, potentially creating new problems with pollution and industry in areas that weren’t even part of the original project.
Neighbors stand up
Dozens of residents voiced their concerns about asthma, air quality and negative impacts on small businesses from a higher level of industrial zoning at a February 11 online public hearing. They expressed concern about a possible increase in trucking and industrial activity should Benson’s zoning proposal pass.
A relatively small number of people, including Michael Samhat, president for Crown Enterprises, defended the push for M2 zoning.
“Aggressive downzoning efforts, particularly when there is not a large, imminent new project, greatly impedes future investment and job creation,” he said. Samhat declined Planet Detroit’s request for an interview.
Ultimately, concerned residents won the day. City Council — including Benson — voted 8 to 0 on Feb. 16 to adopt the M1 and R5 zoning.
The issue highlighted what Rodgerson called an “ongoing assault” on the neighborhood as a result of trucking activity and blight violations at Moroun-owned properties on Toledo, Ruskin, 23rd and 24th streets, as well as other issues like the recent proposal to move hazardous materials across the Moroun-owned Ambassador Bridge.
The office of Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-Lopez, who represents District 6 where the rezoning occurred, shared an email with Planet Detroit from Detroit’s Building, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department BSEED citing storage violations for Moroun-owned properties at 2220 24th Street and 3320 Ruskin Street as of Feb. 12. Rodgerson also noted a recent increase in truck storage on the Moroun-owned land near Toledo and 25th Street.
Similar concerns were raised in 2015 when the city traded land to the Detroit International Bridge Company for 5 acres and $3 million dollars to upgrade Riverfront Park, giving the company an opening to put together land for a second span of the bridge. In the case of the land traded for the FCA deal, Southwest Detroit and Hubbard Richard were not part of that project’s community benefits agreement, even though their neighborhoods were a part of the land swap.
“If we continue to sacrifice people’s well-being, their health (and) their quality of life in exchange for jobs, we continually are failing them,” said Casteñada-Lopez. “It’s very short sighted.”
Castañeda-Lopez said that the prevalence of truck traffic in the community contributes to poor air quality and a high incidence of asthma, as well as more overlooked issues like noise pollution, traffic accidents and damaged roadways. Air pollution was cited frequently in public comment at the February 11 meeting, perhaps because it can have an outsize effect on children. “My child has asthma,” Rodgerson said. “Every kid I know in the neighborhood has asthma.”
Raquel Garcia, executive director for Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, lives in the neighborhood and told Planet Detroit that she has had to deal with between five and 10 trucks an hour driving down her side street, as well as loud noises coming from a nearby storage yard for postal vehicles and Boulevard and Trumbull Towing’s facility. She’s worried about the effect that even more truck traffic could have in the dense, residential area with a high number of children. “They’re young and developing,” she said. “They have an opportunity to have a really good experience right in a walkable area.”
Garcia also questioned how allowing more truck traffic or industrial use in an area fit in with Mayor Mike Duggan’s stated goal of reducing population decline in the city. “A handful of happy residents will draw many more residents,” she said. “And it takes courage to help the residents build that kind of neighborhood.”
The recent rezoning decision might not do much to allay Garcia’s concerns. Businesses like Crown or Boulevard and Trumbull Towing will have certain industrial uses grandfathered in, although new ones would require conditional approval. Only if the land is sold would new owners have to follow current zoning regulations.
And the conditional land use process still provides an opening for industry, meaning that residents will likely have to remain vigilant against proposed uses going forward. Conditional approval is granted by BSEED and involves a public hearing with public notice.
Legacy of Poletown
Chris Gulock, a staff member with the city’s planning commission, presented the rezoning not so much as a downzoning, but as a move “to make the zoning more consistent with the city’s Master Plan, which was updated in 2009 to limit the influence of intensive industrial uses adjacent to residential areas and to allow mixed use where practical.”
The FCA land swap and Benson’s intervention threw a curveball into the planning process. Crown acquired the 3.1-acre lot at 3600 Toledo as part of a deal where the Morouns gave the city an 82.2-acre parking lot for the FCA project. In total, the Morouns received 116 acres of city-owned land and $43.5 million for the trade.
John Mogk, a Wayne State law professor and expert on land use and urban development, said that Michigan’s strict eminent domain laws make it difficult for the city to seize land for economic development — unless there is blight — requiring the city to negotiate with individual sellers, even for vacant properties.
“You’ve got a situation where you have handed the keys to the speculators and investors that are all over the city,” he said. This situation allows property owners to, in Mogk’s words, “request almost any price” or else they’re able to block the project.
He said that the limitation on eminent domain — which was added to the state constitution in 2006 with a ballot measure — was part of a chain reaction of legal cases that followed the destruction of much of Detroit’s Poletown neighborhood in 1981 for the construction of General Motors’ Detroit Hamtramck/Assembly Plant. While some may have viewed the amendment as a way to protect homeowners and neighborhoods, it’s had the unintended consequence of potentially exposing areas like Southwest Detroit and Hubbard Richard to more industry on account of land the city felt compelled to trade.
“I didn’t support the FCA deal,” Castañeda-Lopez said. “And part of it was just this lack of transparency, offering parcels of land throughout the city without really engaging people in those neighborhoods. I thought that was really shady and disingenuous.”
Mogk said that a better way forward for Michigan might be to adopt eminent domain rules more like California’s that protect homeowners who have lived in their home for more than one year from land seizures, but that rule out speculators. In the absence of such reforms, he suggested that the city consider paying more money for parcels, rather than making land swaps that affect other communities.
Rodgerson believes that residents also need to take action by continuing to organize and pressuring elected officials to push for environmental justice. He noted that during the 2017 city council election, Benson received $1,919 from the Moroun-backed Turn Around Wayne County Super PAC, albeit a relatively small share of the total $200,000 the various Moroun-backed political action committees spent on candidates during that election.
“We need to lean on the clergy and on community organizers in other districts where there are council people that are under the impression that being cozy with the Maroons is a politically expeditious thing,” Rodgerson said. “We need to make it un-politically expeditious.”