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Meet the District Detroit’s defender

Francis Grunow is trying to hold Olympia Development accountable to the promises it made Detroiters

With the constant drone of construction, bumper-to-bumper traffic and flurry of development announcements, it’s obvious something is going on in “The District Detroit,” the name for the area the Ilitches are developing around Little Caesars Arena. But it’s not always clear what that something is, apart from the lineup of games and big-name concerts.

Enter Francis GrunowNain Rouge creator, former Preservation Wayne executive director and the new chair of the little-discussed Neighborhood Advisory Committee, the public’s voice in the District Detroit project. Grunow knows the ins-and-outs of the incremental progress around the arena, and is trying to hold Olympia Development accountable to the promises it made in exchange for $320 million in public money.

The NAC, made up of a dozen residents who live or work in or near the arena’s footprint, was formed in 2014 as part of the city’s land transfer deal for the arena. It has no formal powers, and often isn’t apprised of LCA news before the public, giving them no chance to weigh in. The committee’s relationship with Olympia has been collegial, but not exactly collaborative. “It seems like we’re a box to check,” Grunow told Detour.

The NAC has been quietly meeting for several years, but their task is getting more urgent. 1. Now that the arena is open, development of the outer areas should start to take shape, and 2, they’re authorized to exist for under two more years. So Grunow is working against the clock to use the influence they do have to steer public opinion and offer guidance to City Council so taxpayers get what they paid for. That’s why Grunow began sending weekly updates to the Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee he began this spring, which he is also sharing via email with followers who aren’t at the meetings. They’re short and sweet reads that tackle the District’s impact on the community it’s supposed to be improving.

But the improvement isn’t materializing. The major problem, as Grunow sees it, is “cognitive dissonance” between how Olympia sold the project and the reality on the ground.

The development has already failed to live up to its agreement — the arena was supposed to be built with 51 percent of the work done by city residents, but Detroiter labor was used for less than half that. With the arena complete, Grunow laid out three major goals for the next year in his commentary last month: “advocating for real change on three interconnected issues — affordable housing, preservation of existing building stock, and reasonable parking and traffic management.”

The original plan described five new neighborhoods where people could live, start businesses and explore “independent shops, local markets and galleries.” In reality, Grunow said, there are fewer businesses and residents than when the Ilitiches moved in, with no new housing units or rehabs. Instead, you can see their priorities in what’s being built: the arena, the beginnings of some outbuildings and lots and lots of parking.

“They’re operating like a large entertainment company that needs to pull in a ton of people and then push them out, and that’s what you see,” Grunow said. “We know its a huge undertaking, but … when you’re only doing stuff to create even more of a deficit, then it’s not a good trend line.”

Last month, Grunow implored City Council’s planning committee to be proactive:
“I’m counting on you to not forget … our subsequent responsibility to everyday Detroiters to create policy that works to serve the public good, even while billionaires still make a profit.”

Want to stay clued in? Email Grunow and ask to get added to his NAC Statement list, and keep reading Detour.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is a writer and editor at Detour.

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