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Wall comes down as Riverside Park work progresses

Christine Ferretti, and Louis Aguilar

Detroit — Five acres of park space will be in the city’s hands in the coming weeks for a $3 million project that will transform a waterfront site on West Jefferson with ball fields for city youth and families.

On Monday, Mayor Mike Duggan and Matthew Moroun, son of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, came together at southwest Detroit’s Riverside Park as crews began tearing down the wall of a warehouse to free up the site for development two years ahead of schedule.

The project is part of a controversial land swap unveiled last spring between the city’s administration and Moroun family, that could ultimately pay the city up to $5 million to spruce up the 27-acre park.

The agreement, approved last summer by a 7-2 vote of the City Council, gives the billionaire owners of the Detroit International Bridge Co. a portion of Detroit’s riverfront land in exchange for the rejuvenated park. The deal also keeps the bridge company’s hopes alive of possibly building a second private span across the Detroit River.

Originally, the Detroit News Paper Warehouse, owned by a subsidiary of the bridge company, had been occupied by a tenant and wasn’t expected to be razed in 2018. But the bridge company negotiated a deal that moved them out of the building sooner.

Detroit’s agreement with the Morouns sparked intense debate and met resistance from some displeased with the company’s past dealings in the city. But community attitudes are changing, Duggan said Monday.

“People are willing to give the Morouns a chance to turn the page,” Duggan told reporters following a news conference. “You are seeing less antagonism from City Hall and you are seeing a good partner. The city is going to do better if we partner with our employers instead of always being at war with them.”

Besides the acreage, the Morouns have delivered on a promise to replace 1,080 windows at the abandoned Michigan Central Station in Corktown.

“Words are great but actions are much better. My family and company wanted sincerely not only to give what we wanted for our business but we wanted to change our future and our reputation with the community,” added Moroun, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co. “There was a great deal of skepticism. So, it feels really good ... to make good on those commitments.”

Officials said work on the first phase of the project will get under way in the north end of the park this October with the addition of baseball and soccer fields, restrooms, a playscape and picnic shelter, said General Services Department Director Brad Dick.

Next spring, officials intend to tear down the city’s animal control building to make way for a dog park. There also are plans for a skate park, amphitheater, sled hill, fishing pier as well as walking trails and a boat dock. The work should be completed by 2018.

Jane Garcia, who chairs southwest Detroit nonprofit Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, said residents have been waiting years for the park to come back alive.

“This partnership came together on a real commitment to make a change in this city,” she said. “I want to make sure that the next generation will have a park that they are proud of.”

The bridge company in September gave the city title to the 4.8-acre warehouse site and paid $3 million toward the park upgrades.

The park must be used for public recreation under the terms of a grant awarded to acquire and develop it. Converting it to non-recreational use or conveying any portion of it requires state and federal approvals.

The city would receive an additional $2 million from the bridge company once the conversion is complete and the council signs off.

Last year, the potential park deal sparked jam-packed public meetings that became forums about the Moroun’s track record of their extensive land ownership in Detroit, Ambassador Bridge expansion efforts and ongoing legal fight to try to stop the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge.

The planned $2.1 billion bridge that has the backing of various U.S. and Canadian government agencies. It aims to open in 2020.

Moroun has fought the idea of the Howe bridge for years and continues to legally resist. One of the next battles may come with the state of Michigan’s effort to buy land for the bridge.

Duggan on Monday said he doesn’t know whether a twin span or replacement will come for the aging Ambassador, which is more than 90 years old.

“I’m a huge supporter of the Gordie Howe bridge. I want to see it built as soon as possible,” he said. “But I also believe we need to have two bridges. I thought we ought to be thinking in terms of a replacement for the Ambassador Bridge, and this (the land swap) kind of lays the groundwork for that.”

CFerretti@detroitnews.com