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This article is co-published by the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
As Detroit rebounds from the pandemic and the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, developers are increasingly seeing opportunity in a city where local officials are eager for economic recovery.
However, where developers see monetary value in land, neighbors are more concerned with the value of their lives.
The city has a history of what are known as “sacrifice zones” — places where developers have caused harm to residential areas in the name of economic development. For example, increased truck traffic not only creates greater air pollution for an area, but also increases the risk of cancer, asthma, heart attack, lung disease, bronchitis, and other health issues.
In 2016, Detroit adopted a Community Benefits Ordinance designed to secure benefits for communities facing high-impact developments that take advantage of city tax credits. The goal was to give residents in affected neighborhoods some power to negotiate with developers.
If a project is $75 million or more in value and either receives more than $1 million in tax breaks or is valued at $1 million or more at city land sale or transfer, the ordinance requires the establishment of a Neighborhood Advisory Council, which negotiates on behalf of the community with the developer.
But five years later, many question how effective the ordinance really is. And the Detroit City Council recently rejected a recommendation to expand the number of developments the ordinance applies to. The threshold would have increased to include projects of $50 million or more. Other amendments to the ordinance were approved, including an increase in the number of public meetings the City Council must hold before approving a project from one to five and an expansion of the area required for notifying residents of those meetings.
City Council member Raquel Castaneda Lopez, one of the few council members in favor of the revisions, expressed her concern for what she sees as developers’ continuous advantage in land negotiations.
“It’s saddening to hear that the thought of having to engage with community and meet with their requests — to which we already know that the vast majority of what they’re going to be — that this is seen as a detriment to development,” she said at the Sept. 7 hearing.
Local activists have been voicing their concerns about this disadvantage for years.
“We’ve been a part of many different groups that have been trying to change [the Community Benefits Ordinance] to make community benefits agreements more responsive to citizens of Detroit, because of the bad effects that communities have felt in a number of different developments,” said Karen Hammer, who lives near a planned Amazon distribution center at the former state fairgrounds site. Groups such as Detroit People’s Platform and Equitable Detroit are among advocates who have been a part of creating the original Community Benefits Ordinance and are also working to revise it.
When a development meets the requirements under the CBO, it is required to negotiate with a neighborhood advisory council, whose job is to voice the concerns of the impacted residents to the developer and city. The final outcome of that process, which is mediated by the city’s Civil Rights and Inclusion Office, is a Community Benefits Agreement, which details how the developer will improve and contribute to the neighborhood.
During a presentation given at a City Planning Commission meeting in April 2021, the civil rights office explained its role as being “responsible for monitoring, enforcing, and investigating the provisions within the Community Benefits Agreement.”
While the idea may sound promising, advocates say neighborhoods throughout the city are still being impacted negatively, voices of concern are being unheard, and developers are benefiting while neighborhoods continue to be sacrificed for development.
Planet Detroit took a look at some major developments in recent years to evaluate how communities and developers are — and aren’t — seeing eye-to-eye on how development should play out near neighborhoods.
The $400 million redevelopment of the historic state fairgrounds into an Amazon distribution center and transit hub did not trigger a Community Benefits Agreement because it received no tax incentives from the city, and the land was purchased for an arguable market value of $9 million.
One of the most troubling concerns for the community is the potential for increased air pollution caused by truck traffic associated with the distribution center.
Karen Hammer, who along with her husband, Frank, co-chairs the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition, said it’s going to be important for Amazon to be required to test the air quality on a regular basis. For now, the City Council passed a resolution where health assessments during pre-development, during construction, and phase two of construction were conducted to measure air quality. For now, there are no other air quality measurements in place.
“Once the 18-wheelers get going, particulate matter and the cancer-causing stuff in the air is going to be really high. And it doesn’t just stay in the fairgrounds, it’s going to be for the whole area,” Hammer said.
The State Fairgrounds Development Coalition and other area residents and groups worked together to create a plan for the site that would preserve historic features while serving as a sustainable asset to the area. Walkable urbanism, fair housing, sustainable green development, and local and regional businesses are among some of the things they mention supporting in their plan. But the plan has not been officially adopted or acknowledged by city officials.
City officials tout the project as a positive to Detroiters, claiming it will bring about 1,200 jobs, a new transit hub to replace the current one at the fairgrounds, and a minimum wage of $15 per hour for employees.
“This was the single largest development property left in the city of Detroit and what Detroiters need are jobs,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said at a news conference in 2020.
But Frank Hammer wonders, “What [is the city] prepared to do? To protect people’s health?”
The Stellantis plant expansion on Mack Avenue, formerly the Fiat Chrysler plant, did trigger the CBO. The plant covers 3,000,000 square feet and has been in operation on Detroit’s east side since 1991.
After a series of community meetings and information presented, the community negotiated an agreement for benefits including funds for home repair, community-chosen revitalization projects, and drought-resistant landscaping. The negotiation resulted in a signed agreement between the Neighborhood Advisory Council and Fiat Chrysler listing all benefits.
Though they received $800,000 for community-driven projects, funding for schools, and funding for home improvement grants, members of the impacted area met during early stages of negotiating to create a more extensive document of needs and their vision for their neighborhood.
An extensive list of needs from the neighborhood included projects that could be funded using $800,000 allocated as a part of the agreement. However, activities will be mediated by Invest Detroit, a nonprofit group headed by local industry leaders, as stated in this report. Other items listed include a community-controlled fund and the encouragement of urban agriculture.
Stellantis invested $2.5 billion in this expansion, and has promised over 4,000 jobs. The website Stellantis4Detroit.com offers information about the plant expansion and promising messages detailing the company’s commitment to creating a cleaner and more sustainable environment for the residents near the plant. The new plant will “have the lowest achievable volatile organic compounds (VOC) emission rate of any auto assembly plant in the country,” the website boasts.
One Neighborhood Advisory Council member argues that their health is being disregarded.
Jerry King is one of the advisory council members as a result of the Community Benefits Agreement triggered by the acquisition of additional land surrounding the Jefferson North Assembly Plant.
King says that the average amount of VOCs emitted from the plant has been about 600 tons annually. Though VOC emissions can be less harmful if produced on their own, nitrogen dioxide as a paired element leads to the production of ozone pollution — the main source responsible for the country’s air pollution. A hearing regarding modifications to the Mack and Jefferson North facility shows Jefferson North with the highest allowed amount of VOC emissions compared to other area auto plants.
“So, yes, the new operation is going to be lower in emissions, and as state of the art, yeah, it sounds good,” King said. “But you have a community that’s already impacted with a high rate of adult asthma cases, respiratory issues, and hospitalizations, and you have a population where children in a particular zip code have high respiratory rates.”
The continuous consumption of polluted air in minority communities is not only leading to a greater number of health disparities, as research shows, but also leads to a shorter lifespan. Data shows the area around the auto plant has one of the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the city.
Despite the commitment to lowering VOC emissions and helping to improve the quality of life of area residents, the newly expanded plant recently received an air quality violation from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Within Detroit People’s Platform’s report about the Community Benefits Ordinance, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib notes that being holistic in the agreement process also counters the jobs-centered messages of proponents of subsidizing development.
“Jobs don’t fix cancer,” she said. “When we talk about community benefits, we think they should wrap around other issues: environmental justice, housing, and so many other things.”
“There needs to be some thoughtfulness of how partnership with this community is handled and how to protect those that are most vulnerable. We need jobs but we also need respect for our health and well being,” King said. “And that’s our goal, to say how do you partner with local government, with additional stakeholders in this community, and philanthropists, to help mitigate the impact of this pollution?”
But areas with a long history of pollution and neglect are facing new threats, and many are outside the scope of the Community Benefits Ordinance. Community members are finding other ways to stand up for their neighborhoods.
Looking to the future: Can Nortown residents get ahead of development?
In neighborhoods like Northeast Detroit’s Nortown, members of Nortown CDC are imagining new uses for large commercial sites facing vacancy and neglect. Restore NED works collectively to advocate for their neighborhoods and is hoping to gain input on what will happen to the Bel-Air Shopping Center on Eight Mile just east of Van Dyke.
Pat Bosch, executive director of Nortown CDC, and Karen Washington, CEO of Emmanuel House, have growing concerns regarding the site since it’s been purchased by the Moroun family, who they say has a track record of shady business dealings in Detroit.
Right now they’re in the dark about what will happen to the site, outside of being informed of a demolition plan presented at a City Planning Commission meeting. The CBO was created to protect impacted areas when development occurs, but not much is offered for demolition. If new development comes to the site, they’re not sure if the CBO will be triggered, or at what point the community will be involved. But they’re hoping to find a way to be proactive.
“When you have a Community Benefits Agreement process kick in, the community is in a reactive position. They’re having to react to what the developers are planning,” Hammer said.
Pat Bosch, who’s lived and operated a nonprofit in the area for over 35 years, points to another demolition in the area, Cadillac Stamping Plant, that now has plans for industrial use. “A community’s ability to think creatively of what else could have happened there that might have been more supportive of residential living and uniqueness,” Bosch said.
The Nortown community has submitted a manifesto to Duggan, where they list suggestions for the Bel Air development site, suggesting uses other than demolition and industrial. Instead, they include suggestions such as a wellness facility and green space, encouraging walking paths and zen gardens. The manifesto was sent in June 2021, yet no response has been received yet.
Washington, who’s been in the neighborhood and running a nonprofit for over 35 years, reflects on their challenges: “Dealing with things being taken away from us as community residents who engage community issues, residential, our environment and the things that change? Our problem over the years is, is anybody really listening?”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify research on pollution impacts.