Can historical buildings be preserved if Amazon builds on Michigan State Fairgrounds site?

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit city leaders are working to address community concerns about a development plan that would bring a nearly 4-million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center to the site of the former Michigan State Fairgrounds.

Several elements related to the proposed $16 million sale of 138 acres of land to real estate developers and investors Hillwood Investment Properties and Sterling Group were discussed before the Detroit City Council’s Planning and Economic Development committee on Thursday. The issue will return for further discussion next week.

A rendering of the proposed Amazon distribution center at the Michigan State Fairgrounds at Eight Mile and Woodward.

"For me, at least there was no intention at all today to pass this item," said Detroit Councilman James Tate, chair of the three-member committee. "I've talked to my colleagues and there are still a number of questions. Just listening today to colleagues on this there appear to be additional review and questions that also need to take place."

Among concerns raised were the fate of the historical buildings on the site, plans for a transit center, environmental concerns and job creation for Detroit residents. More than two dozen residents spoke for and against the project before the committee, which also includes Councilman Scott Benson and Councilman Gabe Leland.

In August, the city announced the proposed project in which the development team plans to invest more than $400 million into the entire project and also plans to redevelop the remaining 70 acres with auto parts suppliers or other employers. Amazon workers are expected to be paid a minimum of $15 an hour with benefits.

Developers say they hope to begin construction in November and have the Amazon facility open by spring 2022. No tax incentives are being sought for the project, officials said.

One issue that drew community concern was the possible demolition of the three historical buildings on site. The city administration says it will conduct a three-month study to see if it is possible to save all or part of them. Among the structures are Hertel Coliseum. The 60,000-square-foot equestrian center hosted circuses, concerts and rodeos and was also known as the Dairy Cattle Building.

"We're accepting that challenge," Arthur Jemison, the city's chief of services and infrastructure said of the addressing the historical buildings on site. "We're going to get city professionals and probably third-party advising about the historic dimensions and preservation elements as well as the site plan implications in looking at that feasibility study."

Detroit resident Francis Grunow said that he's happy about the potential of a study of the site's historical buildings. 

"We really want to know there are trained preservation architects and others who can look at this opportunity as an opportunity," he said, adding that he'd liked the study to be longer than three months. "We want to make sure that there are assurances around this three-month study period."

A new $7 million Detroit Department of Transportation indoor transit center at Woodward near Eight Mile is proposed as part of the deal, to be built through proceeds from the sale of the property.

Jacqueline Austin from the advocacy group Detroit’s People Platform asked that the committee not vote on the deal until the community has a chance to give their input on the transit center.

“This would be really insightful if you would consider the decision of the riders and the demands that we have, especially the ADA community moving forward,” she said.

Another concern raised Thursday was the environmental impact of the project. The site's current general land use is "regional park," a designation from the days when the Michigan State Fair operated on the site from 1905 to 2009. The city seeks to change the site's future general land use designation to light industrial. 

The site has been largely vacant since former Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed legislation to fund the fair during the Great Recession. The property at Eight Mile and Woodward was transferred to the Michigan Land Bank in 2012, which later sold 142 acres of the property to the city of Detroit for $7 million in 2019.

Jemison said there will be commitments regarding a health assessment for the site done through a collaboration between the city's health department and the building, safety engineering and environmental department. 

"They're going to be undertaking those studies very shortly so we have a baseline to project what expect the impact to be and give us data about what the impact is once the construction of the project is completed and work is underway at the site," he said. 

Some residents have also requested that the project fall under the Community Benefits Ordinance, which would establish a Neighborhood Advisory Council of residents from the area the development would affect. City officials have said the project doesn’t qualify as the developer is not asking for tax incentives for the project.

Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. who sat in on the committee meeting Thursday expressed his support for the project. The fairgrounds sit in District 2, which he represents. He noted that there's been very little development interest in the site since the Michigan State Fair ended. 

He said he wanted to move forward with the sale and "help our people in the communities. Help our people in the city of Detroit and let's not let the land just sit there where people be looking at it as an eyesore."

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN