Detroit looks to rebuild Fitzgerald neighborhood

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Blight-busting leaves a lot of vacant lots. More than 10,000 throughout the city of Detroit, to be exact.

In the Fitzgerald neighborhood on the city’s northwest side, officials are taking their first shot at repurposing land left bare by the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s demolition brigade in neighborhoods outside of the greater downtown area.

The city’s Housing and Revitalization Department and its Planning and Development Department are seeking developers to take on a two-phase revitalization project in the Fitzgerald neighborhood near 6 Mile and Livernois.

Arthur Jemison, director of the city’s housing and revitalization department, called the Fitzgerald neighborhood the “most-frayed piece of fabric in that part of the city.”

“There’s not enough resources to (put) a house on every lot,” he said. “What’s the next best thing that we can do in the neighborhood?”

The answer: Renovate 100 vacant houses owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, and turn 257 vacant lots into urban orchards, gardens and parks that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department would maintain. A greenway path through the neighborhood would connect the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College, according to the plan.

The city wants one development company to work on the housing and a separate company to work on the vacant lots.

City officials say they worked closely with the community to create the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project. Stephanie Harbin, block club president for San Juan Drive in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, said the city listened during the planning process.

“We give our input of what we would like to see on our own blocks,” Harbin, 56, said. “We don’t want them to just make the decision alone.”

The Fitzgerald project is one of what Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan calls “20-minute neighborhoods” – neighborhoods with necessities such as grocery stores and laundromats within a 20-minute walk.

“Detroit neighborhoods need special approaches,” Jemison said. “We’re trying to bring the same level of attention seen downtown to the neighborhoods.”

Maurice Cox, director of the city’s Planning and Development Department, said the plan is innovative, because it restores a neighborhood “without building a single home.”

The city’s request allows the housing developer to determine whether the 100 vacant houses are renovated to be for-sale or for-rent units, though Jemison’s department “supports for-sale development proposals for all or a portion of the units,” according to the request for proposals. If the houses are for sale, the proposal “must include a marketing plan for successfully selling the units ...”

The developer would have the option to build on any vacant side lots in the future, but the proposal does not require new construction, Cox said.

Cox said the request does require some affordable rental housing. He said the company that renovates the houses will manage them, too. The request also asks potential developers to plan to hire Detroiters to work on the projects.

Projects like the Fitzgerald model could also pop up in a few other neighborhoods in the next fiscal year, Jemison said.

Fitzgerald neighborhood property-owner Joe Marra has mixed feelings about the project. “I think the idea of giving the area some love is great,” he said. “The way they’re going about it is terrible.”

Marra worries about all the renovated housing being under the control of only one or two developers. And he said the greenway between the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College are cheap attempts to make the neighborhood resemble Detroit’s poster child, Midtown.

“I despise it,” he said. “It’s not going to look like Midtown. That doesn’t last. For this to last in an area that’s not around downtown, it has to involve the people. There has to be something in it for them ... there’s a lot of frustrated people here.

“How much does the city care about how this place looks in five or 10 years?”

But Harbin said she trusts the city.

“Some people have their doubts, which is understandable,” she said. “Some feel like they’re just trying to overtake the neighborhood. That’s not their objective. Their objective is to beautify some of these vacant lots ... They’re not forcing us to accept their ideas.”

And the plan, Harbin said, could provide a solution to what the neighborhood most desperately needs.

“We need neighbors in this community,” she said. “My block is a half a mile long, and many houses are vacant.”


Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau