City airport plan may finally lift off
Detroit — After more than two decades, the city of Detroit has secured funding to buy the final remaining homes in a desolate neighborhood that sits too close to the runway of Coleman A. Young International Airport.
The Duggan administration hopes that completing the residential buyout — dubbed the "French Road mini-take" — will provide a fresh start as the city seeks ways to revitalize the former City Airport.
"We are finally going to bring certainty to the situation," said Brian Farkas, director of special projects for the city's Building Authority. "You are going to see a unified approach coming out of the mayor's office on this that will make sure these residents get the deal they are entitled to."
The Detroit City Council initially approved the buyout in 1994 with the intent of creating a federally mandated safety buffer at least 750 feet from the airport's main runway. There were 470 parcels between French Road and Gilbo Street targeted in the plan that was supposed to take 18 months.
But lack of money, changing administrations and legal wrangling have dogged the plan for more than 20 years.
Today, about two dozen homeowners and tenants still live in single-family properties in the largely run-down neighborhood. Another 120 vacant properties also remain.
City officials pushed the 263-acre airport as a potential asset to creditors during Detroit's Chapter 9 bankruptcy, but none bit. Now, council members say they want to make its revitalization a priority.
It's a daunting task, however. Plans to expand the airport's runways over the years have proved controversial and costly. The longest runway is 5,090 feet. It would need to be 6,400 feet to accommodate 737s, officials said.
The last commercial airline to fly out of City Airport, Pro Air, went bankrupt and pulled out in 2000. The only aircraft using it now are private, corporate and cargo.
In recent years, the city has subsidized the airport because its revenues have fallen far short of expenses.
"To me, it is a huge asset that is under-utilized and under-performing for the city of Detroit," said City Councilman Scott Benson.
Nearby neighbors skeptical
For the remaining neighbors, the prevailing attitude is they'll believe it when they see it.
When she opens her front door, Bobbie Sanderfer is greeted by the garbage-stuffed shells of once-occupied houses, stacks of old tires and graffiti. But for 41 years, she's kept the view inside her 1920-style bungalow immaculate.
"I don't like to live shabby," says the 76-year-old Sanderfer, seated on her plastic-covered couch in a front room accented with exquisite woodwork, leaded glass panels and a cove ceiling.
Houses have come down around her and neighbors have cleared out, but Sanderfer refused to live her life in limbo.
"I've heard this for so many years," she said. "But I'm not going to live uncomfortable until they decide to make their mind up."
Detroit has relied on federal funds to chip away at the project bounded by McNichols to the north and Lynch Road to the south and spans east from the Airport on Conner and Gilbo to the west.
The FAA said no federal dollars have been allocated for the current project. Rather, the city is using reimbursement received in 2013 and 2014 for land it purchased previously in the mini-take area to acquire the additional residential properties, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said in an e-mail.
Since 1994, about $9.5 million in federal grant funding has been allocated for the effort. For its part, the state Department of Transportation has contributed $1.45 million. Acceptance of the funding obligates Detroit to maintain and operate the property as an airport, officials said.
Over the last 15 years, Dearborn-based attorney Mark Demorest has represented multiple residents targeted for buyouts in the airport buffer. None of the acquisitions occurred without initiating a lawsuit, he said.
In all of the cases, either the city had not made an offer or what it did extend was what he called "unacceptably low."
"It caused the demise of the neighborhood," Demorest added. "There have been lots of promises made, and very few of them have been kept."
The city can force property owners to sell under its eminent domain powers. The process generally begins with a written notification, but Duggan's office is planning a more thoughtful approach, says Mike Borta, a consultant for the airport since the early 1980s.
"This administration seems to be the most interested in making sure that the people are properly treated and things are done right," said Borta, a manager with Lansing-based QoE consulting.
Borta expects it will take four to six months to acquire the remaining occupied properties, a process that calls for interviews of property owners and tenants, two independent appraisals, sale negotiations and relocation services.
Sanderfer's daughter, Bobbie Stinson, noted her mother's home would be considered prime real estate in an upscale suburban community. But the lengthy acquisition effort has destroyed values. "It's insulting," said Stinson, 44. "If you are going to transport a neighborhood, finish it."
Master plan in works
Movement in the project comes amid renewed discussions over the future of the airport.
City Council members this month urged the administration to evaluate whether a commercial carrier could return to the airport and if there's funding to expand its runway.
Members made the request in a resolution crafted in connection with its annual review of the city's general fund budget, saying that a thriving airport is "a key economic driver to stimulate the local economy."
Airport Manager Jason Watt told council members during a budget hearing earlier this month that the site needs significant infrastructure upgrades and right now isn't conducive for commercial service.
But that could change. City administration is evaluating funding options to assemble a master plan that could determine the airport's future, Watt told council members.
Former mayors Kwame Kilpatrick, Dennis Archer and Coleman A. Young vowed, but failed, to expand the airport.
Borta said that it's been decades since a comprehensive master plan has been crafted for the airport. The latest, he said, is an informal airport layout plan that foresees a 6,400-foot replacement runway being constructed in the acquisition area.
Talks over a host of priorities, including a new master plan for the airport, are beginning in Detroit with the arrival of the city's new Planning Director Maurice Cox, said Jed Howbert, executive director of Duggan's Jobs and Economy Team.
"There's a lot of plans done in past years that aren't current and relevant to the market conditions today," said Howbert, adding a timetable and funding for such an undertaking aren't yet known. "We want to take a clean-slate approach to see what makes sense now."
The general aviation airport averages 60,000 to 80,000 arrivals and departures per year, Borta said.
It includes a 53,000-square-foot passenger terminal with space available for restaurants, retail concessions, passenger lounges, ticketing desks and baggage claims.
In November 2012, a consultant prepared a 10-year capital improvement program for the airport, which included completion of the land acquisition and rehabilitation plans including a replacement runway funded partially by federal grants.
The land acquisition is a priority for the FAA and Michigan Department of Transportation "in the foreseeable future," said Michael Frezell, a spokesman for MDOT.
"Funding has been and still is the limiting factor for all airports and Detroit City is no exception," he said, adding dollars have not been identified for elements of the capital plan. "Given this, it is unknown how any plan for future expansion would be funded or accomplished."