December 10, 2007 at 1:00 am

City airport area becomes wasteland

Failed effort to buy out property owners leaves neighborhood in limbo.

The remains of a house on Elgin Street characterize the landscape that surrounds the airport, an area peppered with dilapidated homes and vacant lots full of trash. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

DETROIT -- The city's plan to buy out nearly 500 property owners for a safety buffer alongside Coleman A. Young International Airport has stretched from an expected 18 months to more than 13 years, leaving the remaining residents in limbo, surrounded by dilapidated houses and sprawling, empty lots.

When approved by the Detroit City Council in 1994, city officials said the federally recommended project -- called the French Road Mini-Take -- would move quickly and promised residents wouldn't be left in a no-man's land. But city officials say the effort to acquire the area's vacant and occupied properties is only about half-finished, with anywhere from 100 to 150 occupied homes remaining.

Critics maintain Detroit is foot-dragging on the project and that the inaction in expanding the struggling airport has exacerbated the decline of the east side neighborhood.

"They've screwed around so long, they could have bought people out years ago and made that a real airport," said Mary Ramirez, who has lived in the area for close to 40 years and has seen her neighbors gradually replaced by empty lots.

"We've been seeing this for so long and nothing, nothing changes," she said.

The city's last three mayors have made promises to expand the airport, formerly known as City Airport, but all the pledges have fallen short. About a dozen commercial airlines have pulled passenger service since 1975, and the only planes using it now are private, corporate and cargo. Still, some aviation experts see the airport as a key piece in the city's revitalization.

Aides to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick say the city cannot afford to buy the properties for the safety buffer itself and has to rely on federal funds as they trickle in. They say the city has speeded up the land acquisition, spending $2 million to buy property and demolish old structures in recent years.

"We've made a lot of progress," said airport director Delbert Brown.

But the remaining homesteaders are left isolated on blocks with few occupied houses. The area is peppered with vacant homes -- many are fire damaged -- and large empty fields that are attractive sites for the illegal dumping of trash, furniture, tires and even boats. Grass has grown so wild that, in spots, it has overtaken sidewalks and curbs.

The project's slow pace is "highly unusual," said Wayne State University law professor John Mogk, who specializes in urban development. "It may set a record," Mogk said.

Goal is to create buffer

The 1994 French Road Mini-Take was intended to create a safety buffer at least 750 feet from the center of the airport's main runway. City officials decided to buy the properties beyond 750 feet, all the way to Gilbo Street, as a natural barrier. The cost at the time was estimated at $17 million.

The goal is to create more of a buffer from buildings in case of a plane crash, as well from as other hazards such as vibrations and fumes.

Federal Aviation Administration officials say they still want the area cleared, but they haven't pressed the city to complete the project sooner because residents are in no immediate danger.

FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency has limited money for projects like this. So "as long as we see progress," federal officials aren't imposing further flight restrictions on the airport, Molinaro said.

Since 1994, the city has spent $9.5 million -- mostly federal money -- to buy property and tear down buildings, including 102 occupied houses, Brown said.

But the project has had other costs as well. Detroit has had to pay nearly $15 million in taxpayer dollars to two area businesses that sued because the stalled project stopped their expansions.

That doesn't include the cost of buying the property on which the two businesses stood -- the city still is on the hook for potentially several million dollars more.

Residents are concerned

Brown said although the effort has spanned nearly 13 years, it's now a high priority for his department and the city has made steady progress.

"We are concerned about the citizens in that neighborhood," Brown said.

But some residents, like Bobbie Taylor and her family, who have lived on Nurenberg east of Gilbo in the mini-take area for nearly 30 years, haven't yet been approached by the city.

The 36-year-old thinks her mother's house has been overlooked because the city wants to buy more run-down houses in her neighborhood first and then justify offering her a lower price.

"They are trying to get a lot for a little," Taylor said.

Down her street and closer to the airport, a handful of her former neighbors' houses are vacant and slated for demolition. The doors and windows are open; thieves already have stripped them of anything of value.

"The neighborhood used to be so nice," Taylor said. She remembers that when she was a young girl, the area was so well-kept that her neighbors' yards were off-limits during playtime.

Some fight plan

The city's progress has been slow, but some residents have rejected offers they felt were too low.

Detroit, which can force property owners to sell under its eminent domain powers, has at least five lawsuits pending against homeowners. The law allows the city to obtain properties for a public purpose, but the courts will decide on a fair price.

The residents suing say the city is trying to squeeze them out at a bargain rate by withholding services, such as police protection -- an allegation the city denies.

"The city has really let the people in this area down," said Mark Demorest, an attorney for the five residents being sued by the city.

Demorest said his clients initially got offers from city officials of about $25,000 for their homes, but those recently were sweetened to between $55,000 and $65,000. Despite the better price, Demorest said his clients don't believe the money could buy them homes comparable to what they had near the airport before the mini-take was announced.

Brown said the city's offers are fair -- and it will help pay relocation -- but he declined to provide a range of what it wants to pay.

Another neighbor, Edith Floyd, 58, has lived in the area -- slightly outside the mini-take footprint -- for about 30 years and believes the city is doing what it can. But she said it is hamstrung by residents who demand unreasonable prices.

Floyd said the city has stepped up its cleanup efforts, but she wants city officials to come and explain their vision for the area.

"Tell us the plan," she said.

Expansion in future?

There are no immediate plans for an expanded main runway, which would require the city to buy out even more residents, Brown said. But the city is updating the airport's overall plan filed with the FAA to include its continued hopes for one, he said.

Bigger jets can't use the airport because its runways are too short. But lengthening them is expensive and would face certain opposition from nearby suburbs over noise.

Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an airline consultant company in Evergreen, Colo., believes the airport could expand and attract more private and corporate flights because it is near downtown.

"It's a diamond that could be polished up," said Boyd, who has done consulting for the city.

But Brown said the department's main priority now is buying the remaining properties to create the safety area. After occupied houses are bought out, the city would move on to buying several businesses and likely relocating a park in the mini-take area, he said. He declined to give a timetable for completing the project.

You can reach Christine MacDonald at (313) 222-2396 or cmacdonald@detnews.com">cmacdonald@detnews.com.

The city is updating its plan for the Coleman A. Young International ...
Edith Floyd, who has lived near the Detroit airport for 30 years, wants ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)