Plans for old state fairgrounds walkable, vague

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Developers are keeping plans vague for the massive former state fairgrounds site on Detroit’s northwest side.

Community members were presented Thursday evening with revised versions of plans released in early 2015 that were criticized at the time for being too generic and looking too much like a strip mall development.

The revised plans and new conceptual renderings address those concerns, city officials said.

David Williams, senior adviser for the city’s jobs and economy team, and Dave Walker, design director for the city’s planning and development department, told The Detroit News the goal of Thursday’s meeting was to fill people in on the “character of the space” and new vision for the 163-acre property.

“We’ve been pushing (the developers) to make what we think is a much higher-quality site,” Williams said.

Even with the same components as the 2015 plans, the site plan is different, Walker said. Plans call for more landscaping and park space. New conceptual renderings give the community street-level views throughout the site. There also are plans for a multiplex theater on the site.

Hilda Johnson, 62, lives in the Grixdale Farms neighborhood about a mile south of the site. In the meeting Thursday evening, she looked over 10 one-word signs hanging in the meeting hall that outlined goals for the site plan: community, integration, mobility, history, design, open space, housing, retail, commercial and infrastructure.

“Everything that I see up there right now should be OK as long as it’s accessible and doesn’t cause any traffic jams,” Johnson said.

According to the site plan released Thursday, parking is spread throughout the site. A large park takes up a chunk of land on the southeast side of the fairgrounds, and a trail cuts laterally through the development from Woodward to the park. The park has space for a “slide hill,” bike paths and urban gardens.

The new plan calls for several new streets to act as points of entry from Woodward and State Fair, according to the revised plan. Buildings, which will be a mix of housing and retail space, are spread throughout, and other renderings show a reactivated band shell and convenience stores, including a CVS Pharmacy.

Walter Hood, from Walter Hood Landscape and Design, the group consulted by Ferguson Development to redesign the site in February, said his group aims to come in an preserve history and integrity of the site by reactivating old roads on the site and landmarks like the bandshell.

But the revised plans consist of little more than generalities: There will be housing, there will be retail and, this time, the the site will be more walkable and pedestrian-oriented.

The developers, a trio made up of Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s development company, Magic Plus LLC, plus Redico, a Southfield-based commercial real estate agency and Lansing-based Ferguson Development LLC, will hold several community meetings during the fall before presenting the City Council with a site plan in early 2017, Williams said. The city planning commission will need to rezone the fairgrounds as a planned development zone.

The developers didn’t release revised numbers for housing and retail space. In 2015, the $200-million project called for between 150 and 250 units of housing and up to 600,000 square feet of retail. Those original plans called for housing, retail, restaurants, breweries, parks, transit, office space and room for satellite buildings for Wayne County Community College.

Walker said the developers aren’t releasing definitive numbers before more community meetings take place.

Joel Ferguson, president of Ferguson Development, said he didn’t want to talk about the plans ahead of Thursday’s meeting. He and other officials on the development side of the project didn’t respond to earlier requests for comment.

But the developers haven’t made decisions on a lot of the details, Williams said. The past year was spent reimagining the space to create something that engages the surrounding neighborhoods and is more accessible.

“We want it to be the foundation of a really strong neighborhood that people will be proud of,” Williams said.

The fairgrounds closed in 2009 because of state budget cuts under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 signed legislation to spur the sale of the vacant land.

The project is billed as the sparkplug for a “live, work and play” community at Eight Mile and Woodward. Johnson’s development group bought property from the state for $4.65 million in October 2013.

As Maurice Cox, director of the city’s Planning and Development Department, said Thursday night: “This is possibly one of the most important sites in the city.”

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Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau