Detroit razes former animal center for park expansion

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Demolition began Monday of the city’s shuttered animal control building on Jefferson to make way for expansion of Riverside Park in southwest Detroit.

The 27-acre park could see up to $5 million in upgrades under a controversial land swap agreement reached in 2015 between the city and the billionaire owner Matty Moroun of the Ambassador Bridge.

The animal center closed last fall and its services were relocated to the former Michigan Humane Society building on Chrysler Drive.

“It’s been an eyesore for a long time,” said general services director Brad Dick on Monday, as he watched a crew tear into the building. “The community, and city frankly, have been waiting to have this building gone for some time now.”

In its place, Dick said, will be a new dog park and skate park. Construction of the skate and dog parks, directly to the west of the bridge, is expected to cost about $900,000 and begin in August. It should wrap up by late fall, he said.

The Moroun family paid Detroit $3 million toward upgrades for the park in September 2015.

Work on a new softball diamond for the site has been completed. This year, a soccer field, playground, basketball court, skate park, picnic shelter, amphitheater and sledding hill are planned, city officials said.

“When you look at what’s happened over the last two years, we really kept our promises and really moved this project along, even ahead of schedule,” said Alexis Wiley, Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff. “Southwest Detroit hasn’t had a world-class park on the river, really ever. We’re going to have a really great park.”

The city’s general fund had been diverting about $100,000 annually to maintain the animal control office, which had been plagued with electrical and plumbing issues.

“It was a constant drain of our services,” said LaJuan Counts, assistant director of general services, who has worked as superintendent of facilities for Detroit. “The animals have a much better environment in the new location. For us, it’s just money that we could have been spending toward something else, as opposed to just trying to keep this building up and going.”

The $3 million paid so far was the first installment of what could be up to $5 million for the park under a deal approved by Detroit’s City Council in the summer of 2015 that gives Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. a portion of Detroit’s riverfront land in exchange for the park upgrades.

The swap also keeps alive the bridge company’s hopes of building a second private span across the Detroit River.

Detroit’s agreement with the bridge company had met resistance from some unhappy with the company’s past dealings in the city.

Moroun’s proposed span competes with the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Meantime, officials with the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority said Friday that construction of the Howe bridge could begin by summer 2018. The planned bridge has the backing of various U.S. and Canadian government agencies.

Wiley noted Detroit’s contract with the bridge company is clear that the city is not approving a bridge. The Ambassador owners, she said, will have to get state and federal approvals if they move forward on plans for another span.

“We know that they would want to use that land for a bridge, but we have made it very clear that they would have to secure all the different levels of approval in the U.S. and in Canada before they can break ground on it,” she said. “... We’re still along way away from any decisions being made on that. For us, this really is about expanding the park.”

Monday’s demolition comes after crews last year razed the Detroit News Paper Warehouse, two years ahead of schedule, at Riverside Park to clear the way for some of the development. The warehouse, owned by a bridge company subsidiary, had been occupied by a tenant and originally wasn’t expected to be torn down until next year. But the bridge company negotiated a deal that freed the building sooner. It gave the city title to the 4.8-acre warehouse site in 2015.

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

If that happens and Detroit’s council signs off, the city could receive an additional $2 million from the bridge company toward rejuvenating the park.

The city last week hosted a community meeting on the proposed conversion which would fulfill its swap agreement with the bridge company. Dick said the conversion will soon go before council. Then Detroit will await state approval, which hopefully would come within six months, he said.