Detroit Council delays vote on land swap

Christine Ferretti, and Nicquel Terry

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday postponed its decision on a proposed land deal with Wayne County that would help pave the way for Dan Gilbert to build a $520 million criminal justice complex on city-owned land near Interstate 75 and Warren.

The decision came just a few hours after a resident filed a lawsuit against Detroit to stop officials from authorizing the deal which would give the county 11 acres of city-owned Department of Transportation property on Warren Avenue in exchange for the shuttered American Motors Corp. headquarters on Detroit’s west side.

Nicholas Miller, who lives three blocks from the site and has organized residents against the plan, filed the complaint Tuesday morning in Wayne County Circuit Court alleging the jail would disrupt his quality of life and cause a “considerable loss in property value.”

Miller is requesting the city be required to complete a traffic and air quality study before approving the swap. The city, Miller contends, has a “statutory duty” to protect his property when approving land use changes.

For example, the lawsuit points out the Department of Environmental Affairs hasn’t completed an emissions study despite the Warren Avenue area facing high rates of asthma related to the Detroit Incinerator. It also says city code requires a mitigation plan if a proposed project will create traffic issues.

Mayor Mike Duggan and council members are also named as defendants in the lawsuits.

After debate, council members tabled the swap plan until its formal session on Nov. 21.

Detroit Councilman Gabe Leland acknowledged prior to delaying the measure to next week that “there’s no perfect deal.” After, Leland told The News he wants to ensure residents' concerns are addressed.

“I know that there are logistical concerns that I’m needing a little bit more information on before I vote next Tuesday to make sure that the community is not given a raw deal,” Leland said.

The swap is a key piece to the proposal by Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., to build the jail on the DDOT property under the condition that Wayne County acquires the land from the city.

During public comment Tuesday, Miller told the council he’s concerned about the impact of the proposed facility on neighborhoods and the nearby Golightly Education Center.

“I really don’t understand how this has moved forward so quickly,” he said. “... It’s not a place for a county courthouse. That’s really what it boils down to.”

Miller said his lawsuit was filed in an effort to force the city to “follow proper steps for rezoning” the site.

“My argument is this is not a government purpose of the city. It’s a government purpose for the county,” he told The News.

Some council members support the plan, but most said they want more time to vet it.

Councilman George Cushingberry said he doesn’t think the jail will be a safety issue for the neighborhood and that the city could reroute traffic to address any concerns with schools.

“I’m excited about the city and county’s land swap,” Cushingberry said after the meeting. “I’m not concerned as much about that area over there because ... that was a youth home (juvenile center) when I was little boy, so that’s been a heavily trafficked area for decades.”

The proposed land swap has gained criticism from residents near the DDOT property who say they are worried about children passing the jail on their way to school. Some are also fearful of prisoners escaping or being released into their community.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield said during a recent neighborhood meeting that she was against it. She said the “overwhelming majority don’t want it in their community.”

Residents, she said, are willing to work on compromises. But so far, “there have been no concrete solutions” on how to address traffic, school children and security.

“I have an issue with that,” Sheffield said.

If council does sign off next week, the agreement will still need to gain approval of the Wayne County Commission and the Wayne County Land Bank Board.

Wayne County also continues to await Internal Revenue Service approval to use the existing jail bonds on the DDOT site instead of the Gratiot property. Jim Martinez, a spokesman for County Executive Warren Evans, said the project can’t move forward until those bonds are approved.

Gilbert’s plan calls for a 2,280-bed jail, courthouse, prosecutor offices, sheriff administrative offices and a juvenile detention facility.

In exchange for the complex, Gilbert’s Rock Ventures wants to use the county’s unfinished jail site in Greektown for a mixed-use development. It has pivoted from plans to erect a soccer stadium at the site in hopes of attracting an MLS team. Instead, Ford Field is now the preferred site for a future soccer franchise.

The county would be responsible for $380 million, plus the cost of acquiring the land from Detroit. Rock has said it anticipates the complex would be completed by November 2020 and vowed to cover any cost overruns.

Khalil Rahal, who heads Wayne County’s Economic Development Corp., agreed it isn’t easy to find a site for a jail project but stressed: “this is not a done deal yet.”

“We’ve got only a few options that our predecessor put in our lap that we inherited and so we’re trying to accomplish the best we can for everybody,” Rahal said after the meeting. “We’re trying to do what’s best for the 1.7 million residents of Wayne County. We need a new jail.”

Rahal declined to comment on the potential impact of Miller’s lawsuit, saying he wasn’t aware it had been filed, nor had he seen it.

“I’ve got no indications that any bad news is coming out, we’re just waiting,” Rahal said.

Gilbert’s proposal has been in competition with Chicago-based Walsh Construction’s plans to finish the jail site at its current location on Gratiot.

Walsh has pitched a plan to complete the existing jail site with two options: One had 1,608 beds at $269 million and the other called for 2,200 beds at $317.6 million.

Wayne County in September extended a $500,000 stipend agreement with Walsh Construction to keep the firm’s county jail proposal on the table as it looks to reach the separate agreement with Gilbert.

The county now has to decide by Dec. 1 or pay Walsh the $500,000, officials said.

Construction on the original $220 million Gratiot jail project began in 2011, under former Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. The project was later halted in June 2013 after $100 million in overruns and charges of corruption.

The half-finished jail has sat unused and county officials estimate it costs about $1.3 million per month. Finishing the jail on the Gratiot site also remains an option for the county, Rahal said.

Rahal said the quicker that action from Detroit, the better.

“The longer though that we wait to come to a resolution on this, the more expensive it’s going to get for taxpayers,” he said.