November 18, 2009 at 1:00 am

Developer wants family's gift back from Detroit

Cheyne laments park's decay, sues to reuse site for retail, housing

Detroit -- As he does twice a week, Kenneth Cheyne rolled through Eliza Howell Park in his Mercedes to inspect his family's legacy gone to seed.

Behind his locked doors, the heir to the family that gifted 138 acres scans the park that he says has been orphaned by the city. Fields of waist-high weeds surround rusted jungle gyms. Split garbage bags and spare tires litter the pot-holed road. Cheyne watches for illegal dumpers or prostitutes.

This isn't what his family had in mind when they gave the land to the city in the 1930s, Cheyne says. He wants it back.

"You think the city of Detroit would say, 'We need another 130 acres like a hole in the head,' " said Cheyne, 65, a Beverly Hills developer who wants to bring in a commercial development to the park. "It would be different if there were all kinds of people who wanted to use it. Most parents wouldn't even let their kids come here. The city does not need a park anymore."

Cheyne is suing Detroit in circuit court, claiming the city is violating a 1936 deed restriction that the land near Telegraph and Fenkell be maintained as a park. The city stopped mowing Eliza Howell and 137 other parks this spring to save money, but officials say the green space is still a park open to the public.

Cheyne's redevelopment plans have raised the ire of some neighbors and sparked debate about how Detroit should utilize the 40 square miles of the 139-square-mile city that the American Institute of Architects has estimated are vacant.

Nature has reclaimed much of the park, turning it into a de facto preserve, and some say that's a beautiful thing. Deer, fox, great horned owls, blue heron and coyotes are often spotted, and grass has given way to Indian pipe and trillium, said neighbor Reit Schumack.

"Once it's gone, it will never be a nature area again," Schumack said. "We already have so little in Detroit."

"There's too much treasure there to turn it into another Wal-Mart."

The debate doesn't surprise Robin Boyle, an urban planning professor at Wayne State University, who said Detroit's leaders need a plan for how to use its glut of vacant land amid a growing $300 million deficit. About 35 other parks have similar deed restrictions and he expects similar fights.

"The city has got to make some very tough strategic decisions," Boyle said.

Politicking alleged

Cheyne said he never wanted to sue, but the city's red tape and politics forced his hand.

He said he'd have no beef if it was active and maintained as a park. His grandfather, who was also in real estate and built hundreds of homes, gave the 138 acres in appreciation for what the city gave him.

The park is the city's fourth largest at 250 acres, roughly a half-square mile or a quarter of the size of Belle Isle. But the 138 acres that Cheyne lays claim to are the most suitable for redevelopment, since much of the city's share is in a flood plain.

Cheyne, who once ran the Stroh family's real estate company, said he's watched Detroit ignore Eliza Howell for more than two decades.

About four years ago, he went to former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's administration with a pitch to bring a commercial and residential project to the land. Cheyne said he would release the deed restriction and develop the property, with the hopes of bringing in a big-box grocery store and new homes.

The city would gain property taxes and jobs. Neighbors would get higher quality shopping options, he said. Cheyne would make money.

Months, then years, went by without return phone calls, Cheyne said. He partly faults ignoring Kilpatrick's staffers' suggestion that he hire their hand-picked consultant to help push the deal.

About a year ago, Cheyne sued, arguing the city is "committing gross waste" with the land which "could and should be put to better use to substantially benefit the local economy." Both sides are in discovery and a trial date has not been set.

"There are many, many people like me," Cheyne said. "I am a guy who wants the city to survive ... and yet this is how many people are treated who want to do business with the city of Detroit. It's a shame."

The city wouldn't respond to questions from The Detroit News about the lawsuit, citing policies against speaking about ongoing litigation.

But in an e-mail, spokesman Ed Cardenas said Eliza Howell is not closed. The city put up concrete barriers at two of the entrances this summer after Cheyne sued, but only to block illegal dumpers, Cardenas wrote. The Fenkell entrance is now open.

"The park has been utilized by the community, and we have received interest from a community group to use Eliza Howell as their rugby field," Cardenas wrote.

Residents fire back

Many of the park users are regulars who live nearby. On a recent weekday, there were about six pedestrians and motorists.

Schumack, who lives in the nearby Brightmoor neighborhood, and others rehabbed an old nature walk over the Rouge River. George Bezenar walks his dog, Buddy, there daily, saying the fall sunsets over the fields are beautiful.

Tommy Horton, 67, who lives across Fenkell, regularly hits golf balls on a 2-acre swath that he cut by hand this summer with a swing-blade.

They want the land to remain a park.

"There are already too many malls than we have money to spend in them," Horton said.

Much of the playground equipment is rusted and broken, but the park includes a football field with goal posts. Much of the rest of the property is vacant fields or wooded areas.

Schumack said she'd like to see nonprofits partner with universities to study the ecology. She argues the environmental benefit as a nature preserve is more valuable than trying to develop the land, especially in a sagging economy.

"That's the first thing we do in Detroit," Schumack said. "We give up these old historic things."

"That's irreversible. Once it's gone, it's gone."

But Cheyne said the land is of no use to the majority of the neighborhood. He said, until this summer, an 18-foot fiberglass boat sat in a parking lot in the park for more than two years. And he and his staff have seen wild dogs and photographed prostitutes in action, including the pictures submitted as evidence in his lawsuit. He admits to staying in his car most days when he drives through.

Bezenar dismissed Cheyne's argument that the park is a haven for crime, saying he has only seen a few incidents in the last several years.

"To him it's nothing but to the people who live here it's something," Bezenar said. "He has no idea what is going on in the neighborhood."

Cheyne said he's been flexible with the city when it needed his cooperation.

About 15 years ago, Detroit wanted him to release several acres along Fenkell so the city could build a sewer plant. He did, but as a condition, required Detroit to add more playground equipment and tennis courts near the park entrance. Now the nets are down and the playground equipment has been swallowed by weeds and tall grass.

"There is no logic to why they are fighting this," Cheyne said. "If they win the lawsuit, they lose. If I win, they win."

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