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Spirit of Detroit Plaza to remain until spring at least

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A section of Woodward in the city’s downtown will remain closed for at least through spring for a gathering space coined the “Spirit of Detroit Plaza.”

The City Council, in a 4-3 vote, agreed Tuesday to keep the plaza in place following lengthy debate over how the city’s administration advanced plans on its own to keep it going after a 90-day trial period.

The decision comes weeks after Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox had initially declared the three-month trial a success and told reporters the space along Woodward between Jefferson and Larned would become a permanent attraction.

But plans for the year-round gathering space in the Woodward median didn’t go over well with council members who were frustrated with the lack of proper approvals to maintain the closure.

“We cannot ticket or fault a block club or organization if they decide to shut down a street themselves. We can’t because we’re not following our own rules,” Councilman Andre Spivey told Cox and other administration officials on Tuesday.

“We like you here, man,” Spivey told Cox. “But sometimes, I think you look at us as a city, as a council, in a very condescending way. That you came from New Orleans and Virginia and you know everything about urban planning, and I don’t think you do.”

Last week, Cox presented findings from a survey conducted after the initial installation that found 81 percent of the people using the space felt it should become permanent. Of the 250 people who participated, 55 percent were Detroiters.

Separately, he said, the closure found no significant traffic issues.

Councilwoman Janee Ayers said she’s not worried about the aesthetics of the plaza, but she’s unsure if she can trust a traffic study that will “only validate what you want it to validate.”

“I would feel more comfortable if it was an outside entity doing the traffic study,” she said.

Ayers previously said she had a “complete and absolute problem” with how the continuation of the plaza was implemented, adding members learned of the intentions in a Detroit News report.

“All of this leads right back to the beginning that you just didn’t do this right,” Ayers reiterated Tuesday.

Downtown business owners also weighed in during public comment, with some complaining it’s hurting profits and staff.

Timothy Tharp, owner of Grand Trunk Pub and Checker Bar, urged council to put off a decision, saying the plaza has delivered a blow to his business.

“The Spirit Plaza has definitely dropped our sales. We see half the vehicular traffic come through Woodward now,” he said. “When the QLine opened, business went up. But when Woodward closed, our business went down.”

But for the Comfort Cafe food truck, the plaza has been a business boost.

“It’s been great for us. I hope that you continue the Spirit of Detroit Plaza,” said owner Ysahai Martin. “Everyone that has come to the food truck loves (the plaza).”

Cox said he believes there’s a need for a more robust planning process for Detroit’s downtown, but he doubts the plaza alone is to blame for a drop in business.

“This has been a real test. I wish I could have anticipated all of the consequences — negative and positive — but that’s just the nature of a test,” he said. “We are willing to address every concern.”

Work on the plaza’s winter display remains in progress. It’s being transformed with trees, lights and geodesic domes as well as food vendors, Cox said.

The trial period for the 20,000-square-foot plaza featured a seating area, occasional food trucks and art. It cost less than $200,000 and was funded with private and public dollars.

From here, Cox said the plaza will be extended until April 1. The administration is expected to come back to council before that time with a status report, he said.

“I completely understand the challenge that they’ve put out in front of us, and we expect to be able to meet that with regard to the public engagement,” he said. “I think the council needs to see more of their planning director, and I intend to be highly visible so that they feel that they are being heard, and they can help me iron out some of the rough spots.”