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Fairgrounds redevelopment plans worry Detroit neighbors

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — Residents in the city’s old Michigan State Fairgrounds neighborhood recall the days when their community thrived with performances, public art, after-school programs and the annual fair.

They took pride in their community, welcoming the visitors who used the fairgrounds or attended the state fair each year.

Today, some community members say, they’ve lost that pride. The fairgrounds and the residential streets surrounding the nearly 158-acre site are now symbols of neglect, they say.

Fairgrounds buildings that once housed horse races, concerts and car displays are paint-chipped, rusty and have tall weeds growing out of cracks in the concrete. And the surrounding neighborhoods are deteriorated, with stretches of grassy vacant lots and burned-down homes.

Amid the blight, there is new hope: The city of Detroit and developer Magic Plus LLC recently announced plans to buy the fairgrounds site and redevelop it with a major employer that has yet to be selected and possibly offer stores and restaurants.

But residents here worry that without a plan for affordable housing from the city or the developer, they will be priced out by rising property values.

“They don’t want a gentrified place where they no longer are welcome,” said Karen Hammer, resident in the Green Acres neighborhood just west of the fairgrounds and co-chair of the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition, an organization that formed in 2012 to advocate for a grassroots vision for the state fairgrounds.

“So if you have affordable housing in the fairgrounds area, then if their landlords do raise the rent, they can have the options of moving into low-income housing on the site of the fairgrounds.”

Hammer said she is advocating for the city to impose “rent control” in neighborhoods near the fairgrounds, which would allow residents to keep their same rent if the landlord changes.

The fairgrounds site has been in limbo since the state closed it in 2009 because of budget cuts after hosting the fair there for 94 years.

In 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing for the transfer of the site to the Michigan Land Bank to be returned to productive use. Since then, the Land Bank has been working to redevelop the site.

In 2013 the Michigan Land Bank entered into a purchase agreement with Magic Plus LLC — Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s development company. Magic Plus LLC later pitched proposals calling for housing, retail, restaurants, transit and parks at the site.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s office announced in March that the city would purchase approximately 142 acres of the fairgrounds property for $7 million. Magic Plus LLC is buying 16 acres, which are primarily located along Woodward.

City officials say they aren’t against building housing on the site, but they are more focused on developing an employment center that will create jobs. They are exploring options in research-and-development facilities, light industrial and advanced manufacturing, said David Williams, the city’s senior adviser for jobs and the economy.

Duggan also wants the fairgrounds site to serve as a regional transit hub that connects residents to jobs at that location.

“The city is conducting the due diligence necessary for a real estate transaction of this size,” Williams said in an email. “After the relevant due diligence is completed over the next few months, the city expects to take the acquisition to city council for approval during the summer.”

Williams said he expects a mixed-use development with commercial and residential units to go on the portion Magic Plus LLC is purchasing.

Joel Ferguson, principal of Magic Plus LLC, declined to say what he envisioned for the site.

Ferguson, a Michigan businessman and civic leader, said without a site plan, it’s “premature” to speculate on whether property values will go up. However, Ferguson said he is working closely with the city — which has to sign off on the plan — and trusts that officials will make the best decision for the residents.

“The people in the community have a great firewall in the mayor and the planning staff of the city,” said Ferguson, who also serves as vice chairman of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees. “I really believe (residents) are going to be happy.”

Karen Washington, a Detroit resident and member of the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition, said she is concerned the city isn’t promoting home ownership in the fairgrounds neighborhood, which creates a more transient population.

Many homes are crumbling or boarded up, and she believes Detroit should be building more houses.

“Detroit is still bleeding whether we talk about it or not,” Washington said. “People are leaving Detroit every single day. Even folks with Section 8. They are taking their Section 8 and going out into the surrounding area because they can.”

Arthur Jemison, Detroit’s director of housing, said once the fairgrounds site gets developed, he expects developers to come forward with interest in fixing up vacant houses or building market rate and affordable homes in the area.

The city also owns vacant land between Seven Mile and West State Fair Avenue, known as “Chaldean Town,” and would ensure that affordable housing was included in development projects, Jemison said.

“I think that what’s happening in that section is that you don’t have a strong enough market to get the vacant housing in the neighborhood redeveloped,” Jemison said. “Really, it’s about harnessing the market and using our public land options to create a mix of housing.”

The State Fairgrounds Development Coalition put together a proposal that includes several components members say will make the area attractive.

It proposed a transit center; mixed-use buildings with “fair-priced” housing and businesses; green energy technology; a job training center with a focus on sustainable technologies and agriculture; the preservation of historic fairgrounds buildings that could be used for fairs and events; and a year-round hotel and expo center.

Frank Hammer, co-chair of the coalition and husband of Karen Hammer, said he wants to restore the site into the “cultural mecca” it once was when people of all races came together for the fair. Frank Hammer agreed with Duggan’s stance that the area needs jobs.

“This site is so central to the region, meaning it could be a draw for a lot of people to come to this historical site,” Frank Hammer said. “If you have something called placemaking, it contributes to economic development.”

Detroit City Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. acknowledged that property values would rise as the area develops. McCalister said he was concerned about senior citizens being priced out after living in the neighborhood for decades.

He pledged to work with the administration to figure out a way to keep housing affordable. The councilman said he was also confident the city would consider development ideas from the coalition.

“You can’t just move forward on this,” McCalister said. “You have to have community involvement.”

Residents also say the area needs more family-friendly activities.

Koya Threat, who lives in the State Fairgrounds Apartments on West State Fair, said she gets depressed because the development downtown hasn’t reached her community. Threat said she would like to see historical buildings on the fairgrounds restored and reopened for concerts and festivals. She also suggested a movie theater, miniature golf and a park.

“There’s quite a bit of frustration,” said Threat, 37. “Since the fairgrounds has turned into an abandoned place, the community has nothing to look forward to.”

Charmain Ford, who lives on Exeter in the fairgrounds neighborhood, said she would like to see a park or a center that provides after-school activities for youth on the site.

But Ford, a mother of three, said the city should first do something about the blight in the fairgrounds neighborhoods.

“It makes me afraid that my kids are playing right here,” said Ford, 29. “So definitely if you’re not tearing (blighted houses) down quickly, you can at least board them up and clean up the trash.”

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Twitter: @NicquelTerry