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Detroit council approves sale of Johnson Recreation Center to U of D Jesuit

Candice Williams
The Detroit News
U of D Jesuit plans to renovate the vacant Johnson Recreation Center at 8550 Chippewa with an updated gym, meeting rooms and locker rooms and gym.

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday approved the sale of the long-vacant Johnson Recreation Center for $625,000 to University of Detroit Jesuit High School.

The school said it plans to renovate the building and give the community access to it through an agreement the city negotiated with the residents.

“We’ll get a one-time dollar amount for it, but it’s a long-term fix for the community,” said  Councilman Andre Spivey, one of seven council members to vote in favor of the sale Tuesday. “I think it will be a wonderful catalyst for the community.”

City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield voted against the sale of the property at 8550 Chippewa. Councilwoman Janee Ayers was absent.

Sheffield said Tuesday she had reservations about the sale because she wasn’t sure the city had considered all of its options for the property. She took issue with the idea that there were proposals from smaller groups brought to the city administration that didn’t make it before the council.

“It’s nothing against U of D,” Sheffield said. “More for me the transparency around the disposition of property, the bidding process, the (request for proposals) and procurement process as relates to small entities. Sometimes, we don’t really take them serious. … Was it a fair and equitable process? I don’t feel that it was.”

City officials said there were other proposals that came through the Housing and Revitalization Department, but those proposals did not have the financial backing to move forward.

Johnson Recreation Center, 8550 Chippewa, has been vacant since it closed in early 2006. It was among 16 recreation centers the city shut down from 2006 to 2013 because of budget cuts.

U of D Jesuit says it plans to renovate the 20,500-square-foot building with an updated gym, meeting rooms and locker rooms and gym. Plans also call for improvements to 10½ acres of open space including the Joe Louis Park and three new competition-grade soccer and lacrosse fields.

Theodore G. Munz, president of U of D Jesuit, said the school sought to purchase the building instead of leasing it due to an upfront $5 million investment in the building. The school will also have about $300,000 in annual operating costs.

“For us to take on that kind of risk and deliver on it, preference is clearly to own it,” he said. “We’re neighbors. We’re partners. We’re not some huge entity coming in from the outside. We’re part of the neighborhood.”

Due to the project's size, U of D Jesuit was not required to engage in a community benefits process but voluntarily did so.

As part of a benefits agreement, the school will maintain the Johnson Recreation Center and Joe Louis Park names, make the center available to neighborhood associations for monthly meetings at no cost to the residents and hold a series of community service projects each year with U of D Jesuit staff and students.

Residents for and against the sale spoke during Tuesday's meeting. Hazel Fludd, president of the Garden Homes community, said she was concerned that the center won't be as accessible to residents as it was before it closed.

“It should have opened back up as a recreation center for the community period,” she said after the meeting. “There were other people that wanted to do something conducive to this neighborhood.”

When the Johnson Recreation Center reopens, it will be the third time since 2014 that the city has reactivated a closed recreation center through a public-private partnership. Similar plans have taken place at Lipke and Tindal centers, which are privately operated but allow community access and programs.

Maria Adams-Lawton, who runs Tindal center and an after-school program called Healthy Kidz Inc., also will oversee Johnson Recreation Center.

“We realize that our business is primarily education, but our desire is we’re going to offer some of our programming, sports camps, summer camps, tutoring program and the like,” Munz said.

“That’s Healthy Kidz's expertise. We know in our partnership with Healthy Kidz by Ms. Lawton they can do a fantastic job in terms of how to bring the community in. We really want someone that’s skilled in the area to bring their expertise.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN