Detroit city airport plan would clear neighborhood, close runway

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city has a $123 million conceptual plan for the future of Coleman A. Young International Airport that would close a runway, free up more acreage for industrial development and clear out a desolate neighborhood.

The Airport Redevelopment and Modernization Program is the product of a city-commissioned report that Mayor Mike Duggan presented in January to officials with the Michigan Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration to solicit support, according to emails obtained by The Detroit News.

Correspondence released by the FAA under the Freedom of Information Act shows preparations and follow-up from that Jan. 11 meeting convened for Duggan to share his vision for the airport's future. It also included "five keystone elements" touted in the report by New York-based consultant Avion Solutions Group.

Among the recommendations, the 16-page report calls for the closure of the airport's smaller runway to free up 86 acres for industrial development, lengthening of the main runway and a modernized terminal building and hangars.

"With the surging economy and an increasing need for industrial development, there are portions of the airport that would be better suited for uses other than aviation,” the report said.

“These parcels of land are adjacent to rail lines that could be more efficiently used by industrial facilities rather than go under-utilized by the airport.”

Avion's vision is the latest in a multi-phase study initiated by the city to determine the best use of the airport that's been propped up financially through subsidies of Detroit's general fund.

The general fund subsidy for the 2017-18 fiscal year was $900,000, according to an audit released this summer by Detroit's auditor general. The audit also found the airport has mishandled contracts for decades and nearly a half-million in annual revenue losses tied to its disrepair. 

Detroit hasn't taken an official position yet on the report it commissioned, according to officials within Duggan's administration.

But Avion's report contends the airport's smaller 3,700-foot-long crosswind runway is "not essential" to operations, and its closure would free up 86 acres of airport property to be transferred to Detroit to support industrial development.

In exchange for that acreage, the city would expand airport property west to Van Dyke Road for a total of 196 acres. The primarily vacant residential land could then be zoned to allow for aviation-related use.

Ultimately, the plan would expand the airport land to 374 acres versus the 264 acres it is today.

Among the entities with a stake in the land surrounding the airport is the billionaire Moroun family's Crown Enterprises. The city gave the company nearly 46 acres of industrial land between French Road and Van Dyke this spring in a series of land swaps tied to a $2.5 billion Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV plant expansion on the east side.

This is the shorter second runway at the Coleman A. Young International Airport in Detroit. The report proposes closing this runway and using the land for industrial development.

Opposing view

Avion's concepts are drawing ire from some airport advocates.

A larger airport "sounds great," but "killing the crosswind runway is not how you do that," said Dave Tarrant, executive director of the Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association.

"There's an agenda underneath all of those words that's incompatible with what they said," said Tarrant, who heads the nonprofit focused on the airport's renewal. "The last thing you would do is close that runway if you want to operate the airport properly."

Tarrant said the city's focus should be on overhauling its management of the financially troubled airport, investment in its facilities and the surrounding neighborhood.

"Any attempt by the administration to undercut that vision is going to be something we don't agree with," he said.

The report also raises the prospect of tunneling under McNichols Road to extend the center line of the airport’s main 5,090-foot-long runway, which “does not meet current FAA design standards.”

The move would allow 405 feet of the existing runway to become usable, and for the reopening of McNichols to reconnect with the adjacent community.

But the length of the usable runway might not be the actual pavement length since there are certain sections that a plane cannot touch down on, Tarrant noted.

"If that truly results in lengthening the runway, that's positive," Tarrant added. "The space might increase, but the actual usable runway may not."

The Avion report concluded the airport's smaller runway "cannot be feasibly extended" and its operations are limited to small general aviation aircrafts, activity that's "decreasing significantly." The airport, it contends, can function as a single-runway facility.

But some say the move could prove dangerous, especially for the inexperienced. 

"As pilots, we don't like that," said Ron Black, chief pilot and safety officer for the Eximious Flying Club. "You get a very strong crosswind, trying to land against it is dangerous."

A runway closure also would be a heavy lift since the airport, supported with federal dollars, is obligated in perpetuity, said Alex Gersten, director of airports and ground infrastructure at the National Business Aviation Association. 

"It would be unlikely that the FAA would allow it. The FAA would want the city to see more aviation use rather than non-aeronautical use," he said. "That runway is part of the configuration of the airport. It needs to remain there."

Dave Tarrant, executive director of the Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association, walks along the 1929 hangar, designed by Albert Kahn.  Building a larger airport "sounds great," he said, but "killing the crosswind runway is not how you do that."

Duggan's position

Despite the "persuasive writing" in the report, which refers to the proposal as "the city's vision," the Duggan administration hasn't taken a position on the concepts, said Bryan Amann, Detroit's chief legal counsel for capital and infrastructure. 

The consultant, he said, was engaged to identify scenarios Detroit hadn't considered in the first phase of its work on a new layout plan for the airport and the ideas "merit consideration."

The final phase is winding down as the city seeks out a firm to complete the proposal that could go to the FAA for review in the coming months.

"The mayor wanted to make sure that there weren't any possibilities out there that we hadn't explored," Amann said. "This was literally about presenting concepts and the feasibility of the concepts to see if the FAA thinks it's worth pursuing as a concept."

The mayor, Amann acknowledged, "did go and he did present it" to the FAA. But Avion, he stressed, doesn't speak for Duggan and "the mayor's vision will be determined."

Duggan spokesman John Roach said the mayor said he's waiting to see the city's finalized layout plan "and isn't reaching any conclusions until he does."

The mayor did not have any comment about the Avion proposal, Roach said. 

During the Mackinac Policy Conference in May, Duggan told The News that he'd had "good conversations with the FAA" and "we'll have a plan this fall."

"I think we’re in agreement on where to go," he said of the FAA. "So we’re completing the study, which is required to be done before the FAA can release money. But it will be a plan I think you will really like.”

Amann said FAA officials "were intrigued" with Avion's ideas and are willing to look at them, but only as part of the city's completed Airport Layout Plan. That plan, he said, would go to the FAA for review before engagement with the community and City Council. 

"We're at the very early brainstorming portion of this thing as to what's possible before we even talk about what's probable," he said.

A summary document from the January meeting notes "major stake holder(s) do not want airport to close (Dan Gilbert)."

John Mayfield, director of the FAA's Detroit Airports District Office, who coordinated and took part in the January meeting with the city, declined to discuss the Avion proposal, deferring all comment to FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

Cory in an email reiterated the airport's master plan is under development. Within that, is the Airport Layout Plan that would require FAA approval to move forward, she wrote.

In response to The News' request for comment about safety or efficiency concerns tied to the potential runway closure, Cory wrote it "requires information from the airport for further review, including extensive data, which will be part of the Master Plan."

"So, in conclusion, we are waiting for the plan," she said. 

MDOT spokesman Michael Frezell said justification for any modifications to the runway layouts will have to be supported by MDOT and the FAA through the airport layout plan update. 

Frezell said the state is "supportive of the airport remaining active." 

"The big next step is for the airport to put together a layout plan and capital improvement plan to outline what future projects are possible," he said.

The proposed build-out of the 196 acres is projected to take place over an eight-year development period and could result in 1,605 permanent jobs, Avion wrote. 

The cost and job estimates were ballpark figures, Amann said, adding attempts to finalize those right now would be premature.

All projects are potentially eligible for FAA funding, Avion's report notes. Grants would provide up to 90% of federal funds to support projects that are eligible. 

"It would also meet FAA safety and design standards, be aligned with its role as defined by the FAA and state and provide development opportunities and increased revenue potential,"  the narrative reads.

This is the main passenger terminal at the Coleman A. Young International Airport in Detroit. The report by New York-based consultant Avion Solutions Group proposes building a modernized terminal building and hangers.

Up and down

The airport opened in 1927 and originally was configured for commercial passenger operations and provided scheduled service through 2000, when the last airline, Pro Air, ceased services. 

A 2018 future use study revealed it would take an $83 million overhaul to return commercial passenger service to the airport.

The city recently completed a $3.5 million runway improvement project and another $500,000 is going toward lighting upgrades.

The airport's total local operations — takeoffs and landings — were 123,440 in 1998 but dropped to 37,264 in 2017, according to figures referenced in Avion's report from the FAA Air Traffic Activity Data System.

It also referenced a decades-long land acquisition effort, dubbed the "French Road mini-take" and the intention to complete it.

In 2015, the Duggan administration said it hoped to acquire remaining homes just west of the airport that are too close to its main runway.

Amann told The News the city does expect to complete the acquisition of the approximately 22 renter- and owner-occupied homes that remain. It'll be a high priority once the layout plan is complete, he said. 

The FAA has reimbursed the city about $9.5 million for the land, Cory said. 

Royal Oak-based attorney Mark Demorest filed lawsuits on behalf of homeowners and businesses in the buffer zone for decades to get compensation from the city to relocate.

He said it'll be a positive for all involved to finally complete it.

"The people that are still there are in a difficult situation where there are just blocks of no buildings at all and an occasional house here and there," he said.

"If the city finally completes that, then there may be some other use that the property can be put to."