Planned veterans center faces opposition in Woodbridge

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

A nonprofit that serves military veterans is facing not-in-my-backyard resistance from some of its potential neighbors in Detroit’s Woodbridge District.

The Michigan Veterans Foundation sold the site that serves as its headquarters in the city’s Cass Corridor last year to make way for the state-of-the-art Red Wings arena and the Wayne State University business school.

Michigan Veterans Foundation plans to build a new building in Detroits Woodbridge neighborhood at Grand River and 14th Street as neighbors have opposed the planned project as Members of the Woodbridge Citizen Districts Council want the lot to remain as a park.

The veterans group wants to relocate and build on an empty triangular lot where Grand River Avenue, West Forest Avenue and 14th Street intersect. Several empty buildings are nearby and one of the closest businesses to the location is a party store. The vets group bought the property from Detroit Public Schools last year.

But some residents of the Woodbridge District, a neighborhood west of Wayne State University where property values are steadily rising, are balking.

“This development would further curtail what many Woodbridge residents use as a dog-walking path and ski trail,” members of the Woodbridge Citizen Districts Council wrote to the Detroit’s City Planning Commission, objecting to the relocation of the Veterans Foundation. “We would like to have development projects that appropriately complement our neighborhood and the amenities our residents would need.”

While the neighborhood organization states it’s “supportive of the mission” of the veterans foundation, the proposed center doesn’t belong in the community, the group argues.

A majority of speakers at three public meetings in Woodbridge have said they don’t like the veterans’ plans. Also, about 18 letters have been written by residents and businesses criticizing the potential development, according to documents from Detroit’s City Planning Commission.

But Tyrone Chatman, executive director of the Michigan Veterans Foundation, said he’s confident the new center will get city approval.

“My argument is that having a facility for the men and women who served our country and now deserve our attention is not a burden,” Chatman said. “It’s our duty.”

The strength of the opposition is unclear. During each of the three public meetings, fewer than a dozen residents have spoken against the idea. The meetings were held in September by the Woodbridge Citizen’s District Council. At the meetings, critics far outnumbered the few who spoke in support of the veterans’ new facility, according to the city documents.

Much of the opposition is focused on the building’s design, which is a one-story, pentagon-shaped structure, with a fence and a grass hill that buffers the facility from the street. Some have called the facility too “suburban.” Others have said the location is unsuitable for a center that annually serves about 1,600 veterans, including many who are homeless.

The veterans group wants to construct a 41,200-square-foot building that will contain 104 beds, a soup kitchen and space for counseling, job training and a small museum. Those services are offered at its 2770 Park Ave. location. The new center also will have a small gymnasium and meeting spaces that will be available to the public, Chatman said.

A post office, art center and school surround the planned site of the Michigan Veterans Foundation center in Detroit’s Woodbridge area.

The one-story design of the facility has a sober reason behind it, Chatman said.

“We have to be mindful of suicides,” he said, and a single-story building means quicker access to various areas if needed. The fence, the grass hill setback and the pentagon shape of the facility also have clear functions. “We want to create a quiet, calming space for our veterans, a place where they can clear their minds and feel secure.”

In the center of the five-sided building is an open courtyard, which will have green space infused with some Native American concepts of healing, he said.

“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an issue we deal with often here. I believe that is going to be an issue for many of our warriors in the future,” Chatman said. PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Chatman, a Detroit native, was 18 when he served in the Army during the Vietnam War in 1971, he said. Chatman said he still grapples with PTSD.

The Grand River location has significant benefits for the veterans. The John Dingell VA Medical Center is nearby and Grand River provides access to several public bus routes, Chatman said.

The clock is ticking for the foundation. It must move out of Cass Corridor soon to make way for massive new buildings planned by the Ilitch family and Wayne State University.

The Red Wings are to move into a $627 million new venue being built now in 2017. The arena site is right across the street from the veterans center’s current location. The Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business, which was announced earlier this month, is expected to open in 2018.

The veterans group sold its current two-building facility last year for $2.8 million to an entity that has bought properties in the past for Olympia Development of Michigan, the real estate arm for the Ilitch family. Patriarch Mike Ilitch owns two professional sports teams, the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings.

Ilitch and his wife Marian co-founded the Little Caesars pizza franchise, which is building a new downtown headquarters. Marian Ilitch owns MotorCity Casino and Hotel.

The veterans foundation had been in talks with the llitches about a possible sale for about seven years, Chatman said.

“It’s been an interesting voyage,” he said. “They have always been good to us.”

A real test of the veterans’ plans comes Thursday, when a public hearing is scheduled with the City Planning Commission. The veterans group will give a presentation of its plans at the 4:30 p.m. meeting at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

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