Detroit council approves Riverside Park deal

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — After months of intense public debate, a land swap deal with the billionaire owners of the Ambassador Bridge was approved by the City Council Tuesday in a 7-2 vote. The deal keeps the owners’ hopes alive of possibly building a second private span to the bridge while the city gets an expanded and upgraded Riverside Park in southwest Detroit.

The council vote moves forward a deal in which the bridge company has agreed to give the city 4.8 acres of land next to Riverside Park for expansion. The private company, owned by members of the Moroun family, will also pay up to $5 million to improve the park that currently is rather plain. Those upgrades include a baseball diamond, soccer field, picnic and fishing areas and a riverside promenade. The bridge company also has promised to tear down a warehouse it owns adjacent to the park, near West Jefferson and West Grand.

In exchange, the city will transfer three acres of city-owned land to the bridge company. The empty land is adjacent to the park and near the Ambassador Bridge, the international crossing that links the U.S. and Canada.

When the deal was announced in April, Mayor Mike Duggan and Matthew Moroun, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., said it marked a new era of cooperation between the city and the company.

Moroun repeated that claim after Tuesday’s vote. “We’ve committed to a number of important things to the city ... and the opportunity to provide for a second span to the bridge, but also to change our relationship with the city and the community. Now it’s time to work on those,” Moroun said.

Duggan praised the council vote. “The children and families of southwest Detroit are going to get a beautiful waterfront park. Detroit City Council deserves great credit for conducting a very thorough and professional review process,” Duggan said in a statement. “We will start moving as quickly as possible to build the kind of Riverside Park the community is now expecting.”

The deal sparked months of passionate support and resistance by hundreds of citizens who packed public hearings and council meetings.

The Morouns own 550 acres of Detroit properties, including the infamous and empty Michigan Central Depot. Critics say the Morouns have allowed many of their properties to remain vacant and sometimes blighted and cannot be trusted. Those issues were brought up again Tuesday by Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who voted against the deal. Council President Brenda Jones also voted against the deal.

Opponents are also angry the family has invested millions in fighting the publicly owned Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will be about two miles away from the Ambassador Bridge. The Gordie Howe bridge has the support of the state and federal government and strong Canadian backing.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield pointed out the park deal wasn’t the same as endorsing the Morouns’ efforts to expand the Ambassador Bridge. “We are not approving the second bridge span,” she said. “I have to take that out of the equation,” in order to decide how to vote, she said. She and several other council members said there are measures in the deal to ensure the Morouns hold up their end.

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

When asked about the chances of the second span to the Ambassador Bridge becoming a reality, Moroun replied:

“I’ve been working on it for a good chunk of my life. I can’t give you a certain date, but I’m not going to stop working until we get it.”

Canada and the U.S. have the largest bilateral trading relationship in the world, with two-way trade in goods and services of nearly $870 billion in 2014. Almost $2.4 billion of goods and services cross the border every day.

The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest land border crossing in North America.

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN