Detroit Council OKs land swap with Wayne Co.

Christine Ferretti, and Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday signed off on a land swap with Wayne County that continues to clear the way for Dan Gilbert to build a $520 million criminal justice complex on city-owned land near Interstate 75 and Warren.

The issue gained unanimous support Tuesday after lengthy debate last week amid efforts to ensure concerns of impacted residents would be addressed.

The deal must now gain approval of the Wayne County Commission and the Wayne County Land Bank Board. It’s also contingent on the county reaching an agreement with Gilbert’s firm Rock Ventures to develop the Warren site.

Under the proposal, the city would give the county 11 acres of Department of Transportation property on Warren Avenue, which is seen here, in exchange for the shuttered American Motor Corp. headquarters on Detroit’s west side.

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

“We’re moving in the right direction. The deal is certainly not done,” said Khalil Rahal, who heads Wayne County’s Economic Development Corp., after the vote.

Rahal said officials next hope to move the deal to the county’s commission before the end of the year. The panel, he said, could take it up by early next year.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said in a statement that council’s approval was “another step toward addressing Wayne County’s stalled jail project.”

“Today’s vote reinforces our view that the DDOT property is the best place available to locate a criminal justice center,” Evans said. “Should we be able to reach a deal with Rock Ventures, today’s action by City Council is good news.”

Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez noted Tuesday that the county has committed to hosting two more community meetings related to the swap agreement.

The council’s vote came after a Wayne County Circuit Court judge earlier Tuesday denied one resident’s request for a restraining order to stop city officials from authorizing the deal.

Circuit Judge David A. Groner rejected the argument made by Nicholas Miller, who lives three blocks from the proposed site and has claimed that a jail would disrupt his quality of life and cause a “considerable loss in property value.”

Groner ruled the court did not have the authority to intercept the exchange.

“Your claims are premature and the city does have a right to sell its property,” Groner told Miller during a morning hearing.

Eric Gaabo, assistant corporation counsel for the city, said he believed the lawsuit was premature.

“We understand that he has concerns, but I think there’s a time and place to make those,” Gaabo said. “Either with city council or, if the sale is approved, to make those same objections with Wayne County when the project is at a further stage.”

Under the proposal, the city would give the county 11 acres of Department of Transportation property on Warren Avenue in exchange for the shuttered American Motor Corp. headquarters on Detroit’s west side.

Miller, in a lawsuit filed last week, asked the court to require Detroit to complete a traffic and air quality study before approving the swap. The city, Miller argued, has a “statutory duty” to protect his property when approving land use changes.

During public comment Tuesday, Miller called the proposal “lazy, top-down irresponsible planning.” A jail and courthouse, he added, is a civic monument and should not be near a school.

“As a resident, I feel disrespected. I chose to move here and invest in a historic district,” he said. “I cannot imagine investing again after this debacle.”

The swap is opposed by some 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.

Rahal noted the county has agreed to hold more community engagement sessions with residents about the proposal. The city administration has agreed to hold at least one more too.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield was absent from Tuesday’s session. During a recent neighborhood meeting, Sheffield said she was against the plan. Last week, she noted the “overwhelming majority (of residents) don’t want it in their community.”

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. The project, county officials have said, cannot advance without it.

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.

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.

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

The county 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. It was halted in June 2013 after $100 million in overruns and claims of corruption.

The half-finished jail costs the county about $1.3 million per month. Finishing the project on the Gratiot site also remains an option.