June Manning Thomas predicts relocation of Detroit home owners to better neighborhoods could be less complicated than before

June Manning Thomas, Centennial Professor of Urban and Regional, said Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s discussion about persuading residents to leave their homes for better neighborhoods may be less complicated this go round than previous similar projects undertaken by the city. Previous projects, near Coleman A. Young International Airport and the I-94 Industrial Park have remained controversial and uncompleted. Manning Thomas states that if not every site needs to be vacated, relocation projects may be seen as more successful.

A relocation policy has not yet been confirmed or finalized by the city of Detroit.

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Past attempts to remake parts of Detroit fall short

The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Dave Bing wants to save Detroit by persuading residents to leave their homes for better neighborhoods, but the city has struggled to accomplish the smallest of relocation projects — even when they involve cash incentives.

Two of the most recent initiatives that required moving residents have dragged on for several years, cost millions of dollars and prompted criticisms that the efforts exacerbated blight and left nearby neighborhoods in limbo.

In one case, the city has spent $19 million buying land for an industrial park on the east side that has attracted one tenant. In another, an effort to build a safety buffer near Coleman A. Young International Airport has cost at least $28 million and lasted 17 years, even though it was supposed to wrap up in 18 months.

Critics say the ongoing projects should be a warning to Bing, who plans to announce details in the next few months of his Detroit Works Project to possibly consolidate residents into seven to nine neighborhoods. It’s a larger scale than other land-use efforts, but the mayor has little cash to buy properties, won’t condemn land and may instead only offer residents tax-foreclosed homes in nicer neighborhoods.

“It is going to be tougher than he thinks,” said Alan Ackerman, a property rights attorney who questions whether non-monetary incentives will work. “Emotionally, people don’t want to be told where to move.”

City officials defend their record and said they’ve made good progress in the industrial park and safety buffer projects. They warn that comparisons to the Detroit Works Project are unfair because that effort will be voluntary. Residents who stay in their homes, however, may not receive full city services.

“They are two totally different projects, with different goals, guidelines and expected outcomes,” Bing spokesman Dan Lijana said.

Because Detroit Works is unprecedented, no comparisons are perfect. But experts said Bing must overcome bitterness about Detroit’s history of urban renewal and forced relocation.

The city’s past is rife with examples — the bulldozing of the Black Bottom neighborhood in the 1960s for the Chrysler Freeway; the relocation of thousands of Poletown residents in the 1980s for a General Motors Corp. plant and the clearing of Rivertown in the 1990s for a failed plan to cluster casinos near the Detroit River.

“There’s a historical layer of distrust that they will have to grapple with,” said Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies.

Industrial area goes fallow

It may be called the I-94 Industrial Park, but from Eddie Siedlarz’s front porch on St. Cyril Street, it looks more like a prairie.

Most neighborhood houses are gone, replaced by fields of tall grass, mounds of uprooted trees, tires, discarded Christmas trees and other garbage.

The 140-acre park was designed to cluster warehouses and industrial businesses. So far, it’s attracted three tenants — two of which were already in the neighborhood before the city bought out 200 property owners. The city needs to purchase another 90 parcels, mostly vacant lots and abandoned structures.

Siedlarz’s home is just outside the park’s boundary. He likes the country atmosphere but said he fears the house has lost its value. Siedlarz recently installed a new furnace and windows — but they may be worth more than the house, he said.

“People who have stayed here and struggled, they should pay them what they want,” Siedarlz said.
City officials acknowledge the economy and eminent domain laws have slowed progress. But they argue it’s what Detroit needs: a large tract of buildable land.

“The city has a lot of vacant land but very few are areas of 20 acres or more,” said Brian Holdwick, an executive vice president at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., which manages the I-94 Industrial Park.

“I’m confident now that the economy and the automotive industry are on the way back, the interest in a 140-acre industrial park that is in a tax-free zone and centrally located will pick up.”

The one tenant the park has attracted is large. Exel Logistics, a supply chain management company, built a 300,000-square-foot facility on 30 acres in 2004. The city sold the company the land for about $2.5 million and officials said the overall investment was $26 million. Much of the park was already city owned and blighted prior to the project’s launch, city officials said.

“This is long-term vision,” Holdwick said.

Airport project spurs ‘limbo’

But residents living near the city’s airport say the long process has hurt the neighborhood, said attorney Mark Demorest.

When the plan began in 1994, city officials hoped to buy out 500 property owners in 18 months. After 17 years, they still have 200 parcels to go.

Demorest has represented a dozen property owners who have challenged the city’s buyout offers and said the project has accelerated the decline of the east-side neighborhood.

“It made it very difficult for people involved to know how to live their lives,” Demorest said. “You are definitely in a limbo.”

John Denis, 83, and his wife, Vivian Denis, 81, are two of the last holdouts. They’ve lived in their 954-square-foot house for 50 years, raising nine children while John Denis worked for the city’s forestry department.

He said he wants $145,000 for his house and two other lots, including money to relocate. The city recently offered about $72,000.

Denis said he has documents proving a neighbor with a similar property got $136,500. The couple is the only one left on the block, surrounded by 13 vacant homes.

“I have no faith in these guys,” Denis said. “I’d like to know if they have some friends over here who got a good deal.

“When we bought the house we both said we want to die here, and I am not in any hurry to die.”
City officials wouldn’t respond to arguments from buffer zone critics because of pending litigation, but have said they relied on federal funds as they trickled in. The Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t pressed the city to complete the project because they said residents are in no immediate danger.
Demorest said the city’s struggles with the airport buffer could be a bad sign for the Detroit Works Project.

“It doesn’t give me much confidence they the can manage a bigger project well,” he said.

Project is different, city says

Detroit Works is different because it’s driven by data and has engaged residents with public meetings, said Lijana, the mayor’s spokesman.

“The Detroit Works Project will not fall victim to the same mistakes as past projects,” Lijana said.

June Manning Thomas, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan, said Bing’s project may be less complicated than other recent examples.

“It’s not that every last house has to be bought,” Thomas said. “That sort of takes the pressure off.”
“When they have to take everything out in the site, people know that and that’s when they tend to jack up the prices.”

Sallie Tyus is skeptical. The city bought the 66-year-old out of her house on Guthrie Street in 2004 for the industrial park for about $82,500. She agreed to the deal under the threat of condemnation and misses her home, its woodwork and rose bushes. Her lot is still vacant, and she can’t drive by it because concrete barriers block the streets.

“I even miss the trees,” said Tyus, who left the Guthrie house where she had lived for 33 years for another on the east side. “We don’t have a tree here.”

“I tolerate what I have now.”

She predicted that most residents won’t take Bing up on his offer.

“There are people who are comfortable where they are,” Tyus said. “I know I was.”