It's no doubt a game-changer for Corktown.

But Ford Motor Co.'s plans to renovate the historic Michigan Central Depot has some concerned about the impact the large-scale project will have on the area and surrounding neighborhoods when it comes to affordability, diversity and the area’s sense of community.

City officials are beginning a yearlong process to gather feedback from the community regarding the future of the neighborhood. In a separate effort, Ford has begun to collect input on its plans to revitalize the 100-plus-year-old historic building. Officials with the city and Ford say they are committed to working with the community as they navigate their plans.

“Ford is a firm believer in listening to the community’s voice and then helping create a plan of action to help bring it to light,” said Shawn Wilson, community engagement manager for Ford Motor Company Fund, the automaker's philanthropic arm.

“Multiple community members have said we recognize that there’s no such thing as a silver bullet when it comes to community building. We recognize that Ford is not a silver bullet, but I think they also recognize our intention and our desire to be a good neighbor and good community partner with them and help build community over the next years and beyond.”

The city, meanwhile, will create a strategic framework for the Greater Corktown neighborhood to address the area's potential for growth while preserving its heritage and integrity, officials say. A framework plan is a written document that details short-term implementation plans and long-term goals for a neighborhood's development.

The Planning and Development Department is expected to release later this month a request for proposal for a consultant to conduct a series of community meetings in Greater Corktown, an area bounded by the Lodge Freeway and Grand River Avenue, Rosa Parks Boulevard,  Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Interstate 75, May Creek and the West Riverfront.

The consultant will be selected by Sept. 30 and meetings will start by Oct. 30. A planning study will take place over the course of nine to 10 months with a final framework available in August 2019. 

The framework for Greater Corktown, just one of the city neighborhoods in various stages of planning, was in the works before Ford’s depot announcement, officials note.

“The Ford announcement certainly does add a great sense of urgency to it so we can have a plan in place rather than tail-wagging-dog scenario,” said John Sivills, the project manager with the city's Planning and Development Department. “That the city can have a plan in place such as bring in Ford and provide for inclusionary growth.”

Steve Lewis, central design director for Planning and Development, said the city's plan will craft “a vision for the future of the neighborhood that either by optics or by reality is not seen as being dictated by Ford.”

The study is expected to address challenges and opportunities for a number of issues, including zoning, landscape, historic preservation and housing development.

Opportunity and potential

Ford has plans to create a 1.2 million-square-foot campus with its anchor at the Michigan Central Depot, which it will occupy by 2022. The project will include the Grand Hall, which will be open to the public, along with retail space. The 18-story tower will have office space as well as residential space on the top two floors.

The automaker will also develop other buildings on the campus, including the former Detroit Public Schools Book Depository on Dalzell Street.

The company’s plans to house its autonomous vehicle business on the Corktown campus.

In the midst of the announcement buzz in June, Ford held two meetings — one an ice cream social — with community members.

Wilson said the work is an extension of conversations the company already has with the community through its Ford Resource and Engagement Center, which opened five years ago on Bagley. The center, funded by Ford, provides grants to nonprofit partners to provide services in the space.

Wilson, who is helping to lead the community engagement for the Corktown expansion, said it’s been great hearing from the community regarding its latest venture in the neighborhood.

“Detroit and Corktown, North Corktown, there’s opportunity and so much potential, and they’re already doing such amazing work that Ford can really just be a platform to shed a light on the work that they’re doing,” Wilson said. “Maybe help them scale.”

Because of the large scale of the project, it falls under the Community Benefits Ordinance approved by Detroit voters in November 2016 that targets developments worth at least $75 million, if the development gets $1 million or more in property tax abatements or $1 million or more in value of city property sale or transfer.

Under that ordinance, a neighborhood advisory council is assembled to provide feedback in meetings during the next two months. The council will then work with Ford to create a community benefits agreement.

The boundaries for the Central Depot project impact area are the Lodge Freeway to the east; Interstate 75 and 21st Street to the west; West Lafayette Boulevard to the south and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand River Avenue to the north. Included communities are Corktown and Hubbard-Richard.

So far, City Council President Brenda Jones selected Hubbard-Richard resident Aliyah Sabree, a judge in the 36th District Court. City Councilwoman Janee Ayers chose Sheila Cockrel, a Corktown resident and former councilwoman. The community voted for Jerry Paffendorf, co-owner of Loveland Technologies, and Heather McKeon, an interior designer with Patrick Thompson Design. Detroit Planning and Development Department will name four appointees and City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López will name one appointee.

Upcoming advisory council meetings are Aug.14, Aug. 27, Sept. 10 and Sept. 17.

In addition to the meetings, Ford has feedback boards and comment boxes in its Ford Resource and Engagement Center. The questions posed include: Where do you go to get ___ in your neighborhood (nails, hair, dry cleaning, etc.?)"; What are the top three things you want to see changed in your neighborhood?"; and "Who is an unsung hero, organization and/or business in your neighborhood?"

“We have all the faith in the Neighborhood Advisory Council that they’re going to be doing such amazing work engaging the community themselves, but we also recognize as well as that some people may not be able to make those meetings, so we just want to create as many avenues to gather feedback as possible,” Wilson said. 

Wilson said Ford has already received feedback from excitement to points of concern.

“The community recognizes that there’s going to be some potential challenges as with any expansion or development,” Wilson said. “Some of the top ones are everything from housing, to jobs to traffic, culture.

"We really love that the community values the diversity of the neighborhoods from Corktown, North Corktown, Southwest Detroit. We’re really understanding the importance of that. We’re also understanding the importance of workforce. Recognizing that there’s not only potential construction jobs but also long-term what are some ways we can build a pipeline or clear pathways for some of the other jobs that may be available in the future. Technology jobs, things of that nature. Jobs around (electric and autonomous vehicles.)”

Castañeda-López represents District 6, which includes the train depot. She said she has spoken with many residents who have expressed concerns about the project from topics ranging from the increase in rents in the area, future property tax increases as well as the desire for businesses that cater to their everyday needs, such as laundry and a place to buy contact solution.

Residents also want to maintain diversity in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds and keep a mix of older and newer residents.

Some have criticized aspects of the Community Benefits Ordinance and the Neighborhood Advisory Council process.

Alina Johnson, a resident of the nearby Hubbard-Richard neighborhood, which will also be impacted by Ford’s project, said she feels residents should be trained in advance on advisory council work in order to be most effective on a tight timeline.

"Right now, the main concern is making sure that the folks who have been selected will be able to be inclusive and able to communicate to the public and serve everyone and not necessarily their community in terms when they're discussing benefits by those impacted by the train station development," she said. "There is no 'training' on how to do this. It's just unclear how it will play out."

Castañeda-López said she has hosted a few prep workshops regarding the advisory council process and plans to hold more once all of the members are seated on the council. 

"The current legislation doesn't foster that so in my office we try to make up for that as much as possible," she said. 

Paffendorf was one of the first appointees to the neighborhood advisory council. Paffendorf is a Corktown resident and co-owner of Loveland Technologies, a mapping company that is active in tracking and advocating for improvements to the tax foreclosure process in the city.

"When this opportunity came and there was a call for neighbors to help be an interface between Ford and the city and community concerns, I personally feel I had been training for a role like that for a very long time," he said.

Paffendorf said he wants Ford to bring its innovation to the neighborhood while maintaining the neighborhood's character. 

"So the concern would be how do you innovate? How do you also preserve all the best qualities of the neighborhood that people appreciate?" he said. "Particularly in a historic district as well. Corktown, it’s whole sense of being, and its motto is Detroit’s oldest continuously existing neighborhood. To do something very new at the same time, it’s like it’s going to be a historic district but futuristic district at the same time."

Corktown has a rich history.

Ray Formosa remembers a Michigan Avenue in the 1960s lined with businesses as he grew up on Cherry Street just west of Tiger Stadium. Many of his neighbors — if they didn’t work for one of the auto plants — found work and supported families with jobs in the neighborhood where they could walk to work.

The stores included printing shops, diners, jewelry stores, shoe stores, ice cream shops and party stores.

“I grew up when it was a self-sustaining neighborhood,” Formosa said.

Formosa owns Brooks Lumber on Trumbull, which started in 1896 and is one of the oldest businesses in the city of Detroit in the same location. It sits less than a mile away from the train depot, which operated from 1914 to 1988. Formosa began working at Brooks Lumber as a stock boy as a teen, and about 15 years ago invested his personal savings to take over the business.

“We had a density of homes,” Formosa recalls of the neighborhood. “We didn’t have all these parking lots. Michigan was lined with small retail before the freeways. … What changed in the neighborhoods was in 1967, the riots. … What happened was the neighborhood that was once intact was slowly dissembling.”

The neighborhood also took a blow when Tiger Stadium closed in 1999 after the Detroit Tigers played their last game there and moved to Comerica Park. Formosa said some thought the neighborhood would fail. Left behind were the empty lots that once had homes demolished for owners to cash in on parking for the stadium. Buildings on Michigan Avenue could be bought dirt cheap.

“We held our breath with the vision that yes there will be a rebirth to some degree,” he said.

“What we’re seeing is actual development, actual reuse,” he said.

Spurt of growth

Even prior to Ford’s announcement a number of projects were underway in Corktown. Among them developer Eric Larson’s mixed-use development under construction next to the Police Athletic League’s $21 million complex that opened in earlier this year on the former site of Tiger Stadium. Work on the $30 million residential and retail project, known as The Corner, began in the spring and is expected to be complete in 2019.

At the site of the former Checker Cab building on Trumbull, Soave Enterprises is developing a $43.8 million five-building development, Elton Park, which will feature residential units, retail and public space.

Following the most recent recession, the area began seeing an increase in restaurants along Michigan Avenue. Among them is Brooklyn Street Local, which opened in 2012.

Owner Deveri Gifford and husband, Jason Yates, moved from Toronto to open an eatery and chose Detroit because they felt they could create something for themselves. 

“We knew that was the energy that was here,” she said. “If people saw something that needed to be done they were doing it themselves… That community mentality and the (do-it-yourself) mentality of Detroit really spoke to us.”

While the couple owns the building that houses their restaurant, Gifford, president of the Corktown Business Association, said she’s heard concerns from both residents and business owners about rising rents and property values, leading to higher tax bills.

“Pretty much all of the businesses in Corktown are independently owned,” she said. “It’s very much owner operated. There’s definitely concern. Are entrepreneurs going to be able to afford to come in here now? That really is part the identity of the neighborhood. That we are small businesses. You can walk down the street and pretty much go into any of the businesses and the owner will be there working. I think that brings the community mentality. Everybody helps each other out. We all know each other. I certainly hope that will remain.”

Paffendorf said he appreciates being able to walk from his home into downtown Detroit. He recognizes the draw the area will have for those that will want to move and build near such a large investment.

"Ford’s not talking about people just going to work in an office and doing whatever," Paffendorf said. "They’re talking about building self-driving cars. They’re talking about new transportation corridors with connect vehicles. It’s a big emerging space. They’re sort of building the Jetsons in the middle of a historic district, which is pretty interesting.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

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