Council delays vote again on Riverside Park deal

Louis Aguilar and Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — City Council postponed voting on a deal to swap riverfront land with the billionaire owners of the Ambassador Bridge, a proposal that has generated fierce public debate because of the track record between the bridge owners and the city.

The proposed deal would allow the city to get an upgraded, expanded Riverside Park, near West Jefferson Avenue and West Grand Boulevard, that would be paid for by the bridge owners, the Moroun family. In exchange, the city would give the Morouns three acres of city property next to the park that is crucial to their hope to build a second span of the Ambassador Bridge.

The Morouns want the second span next to the existing Ambassador Bridge. They are trying to sink plans for a publicly owned bridge favored by the state and Canada that is moving forward. The Morouns have spent hundreds of millions fighting that other bridge, the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Mayor Mike Duggan enthusiastically announced the deal in April. Since then the proposal has sparked passionate support and rage at crowded public hearings and packed council sessions.

The Morouns own 550 acres of Detroit properties, including the infamous and empty Michigan Central Depot in southwest Detroit. Critics say the Morouns have allowed many of their properties to remain vacant and sometimes blighted and cannot be trusted.

Supporters say it’s a great opportunity to get a top-notch riverside park in southwest Detroit.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted 8-1 to delay the vote on the deal until next week to determine whether the Morouns will agree to additional demands requested by various council members. Those requests range from the city becoming part owner of the second span to having some of the taxes collected from the bridge pay for curbing air pollution and other specific tasks.

Matthew Moroun, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., told the council on Tuesday it would agree to be part of a working group to discuss some of those issues at a later date, but stood behind the original proposal.

“The agreement with the mayor stands on its own,” Moroun said. He added there may be later opportunity to “modify (or) augment.”

The council disagreed and postponed the vote for a second time until at least next Tuesday.

As part of the deal, the Morouns would pay to build a baseball diamond, soccer field, picnic and fishing areas and a riverside promenade. The family also has promised to tear down a warehouse it owns adjacent to the park.

Detroit would receive title to a 4.8-acre parcel owned by the Morouns and $3 million to immediately begin making needed improvements to Riverside Park. Once the conversion is complete and the council authorizes the transfer of the 3 acres of city-owned land to the bridge company, the city will receive another $2 million.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the federal National Parks Service still need to approve the deal because the city was awarded money from both the state and the federal government to use the land as a park. The council would have to vote again upon completion of the conversion process.

The council has added a number of additional requirements to the original Riverside Park deal.

Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda Lopez is asking for the city to be part owner of the second span. The plan would be similar to the public-private partnership managing the Detroit Windsor Tunnel, she said.

She’s also asking the bridge company to enter into a legally binding community benefits agreement that would require it to hire Detroiters and invest in the community.