City park deal pits Black Panthers against residents

By Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — The opening salvo in what is expected to be a fiery public debate over whether the billionaire owners of the Ambassador Bridge should get riverfront land in exchange for a revamped city park, pitted about 20 Black Panthers favoring the project against a former state legislator, who opposes it.

Also on hand at the Detroit City Council subcommittee meeting Thursday was Matthew Moroun, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co.

"Detroit City Council, do your due diligence and then do the right thing," and approve the deal, said Rev. Malik Shabazz, a leader in the Marcus Garvey Movement/Black Panther Nation.

Voicing their opposition to the deal were some southwest Detroit residents who say they distrust the bridge company. One resident said pollution from Moroun's businesses caused his asthma.

"Why are we even here considering this deal?" said Rashida Tliab, a former state representative who has tangled often with the Morouns. "This is a sham," she said, as her eyes welled with tears.

All this comes as a potential deal between the city and the bridge company starts to wind its way through the governmental approval process. The deal is expected to draw lots of heated debate because of the Moroun family's track record with Riverside Park and the Michigan Central Station, owned by the Morouns, which has languished for years and become a landmark symbol of the city's decline.

The proposed deal was announced last month by Mayor Mike Duggan and the bridge owners. Riverside Park is located in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. It runs along West Jefferson near West Grand Boulevard.

Mayor Duggan said the city will swap pieces of riverfront land with the bridge company in exchange for up to $5 million for public park improvements. Riverside Park is now an empty patch of land. The improvements could mean baseball diamonds and other facilities.

In exchange Mayor Duggan vowed to support the bridge owners' effort to build a second span, a proposal that faces stiff opposition in Michigan and Canada. The city would also transfer 3 acres of the park to the bridge company to make room for the second span.

The bridge company needs that 3-acre slice of park property to build a second bridge over the Detroit River in to Canada.

Another part of the potential deal involves the Moroun-owned Michigan Central Station, the long-abandoned train station in Corktown. The Morouns have agreed to install new windows in the massive facility by the end of the year.

Moroun said a second span couldn't be built without upgrading Riverside Park and installing the windows at the Michigan Central Station.

Over the past decade the park, the depot, the bridge and the city have been engaged in a series of skirmishes over the properties in southwest Detroit.

At one point, the bridge company fenced in a portion of the 20-acre park on grounds of "national security."

After numerous legal battles, the bridge company was ordered to remove the fence in 2012. It was also in 2012 that industrial contamination was discovered at the park, which caused it to be closed by the city until the contaminated soil could be removed.

Matthew Moroun told City Council members Thursday the potential deal is hopefully the beginning of improved relations with the city.

"We are trying to improve our relationship with ... governments and ... neighborhoods," Moroun said.

Various entities related to the Morouns and the bridge company own about 900 parcels of land in Detroit, including 39 structures, bridge officials told City Council. Of those structures, 28 are occupied and three are slated for demolition, company officials said.

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN