Developers deliver on some of Detroit community benefits promises

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Developers are making good on some promises negotiated under the city's community benefits ordinance, such as park improvements, but they're struggling to find enough Detroiters for skilled trades work. 

The ordinance requires developers of new projects in Detroit to hire city residents during construction and extend other benefits to surrounding neighborhoods or face penalties.

The city says developers have made progress on cleaning up blight, enacting affordable housing plans and refurbishing playgrounds. But they are having difficulty meeting the requirement that 51% of skilled trade workers on projects in the city live in Detroit.

Roy Spear, 29, who lives in the neighborhood lifts up Bobby Weekly II, 4, towards the basket during a Basketball for All Neighbors Program at Delores Bennett Park in Detroit on Aug. 15, 2019. This is week five of a six week program sponsored by the Pistons, who are on track to restore 15 courts at 8 parks this summer as part of its community benefits commitment for the Pistons Performance facility

For example, about 16% of work on the Detroit Pistons Performance Facility and Headquarters has gone to Detroit residents while just 15% of the work on the Michigan Central Depot has gone to Detroiters, according to the city’s first-ever biannual report on the ordinance. 

For the other projects included in the report: Monroe Blocks is at 19%  Detroit residents, Book Tower is at 4% and the Hudson’s site is at 23%. Construction has not yet started on Wigle: Midtown West, a mixed-use development planned for the site of the former Wigle Recreation Center.

The shortage of skilled workers in Detroit doesn’t surprise Pat Devlin, the secretary treasurer of the Michigan Building Trades Council.

“The more work that’s infused in the city of Detroit, the harder it’s going to be,” Devlin said. “The training to get people up to snuff, being able to put them on the job and having them work safe and bring them home, that takes time. We went into such a long drought of not having any work in Michigan for gosh, almost a decade. We’re kind of paying the price for that.”

When the developers can’t meet the requirements, they must make workforce contributions that fund training programs to address the skilled-trades shortage. According to the city, each of the developers that have fallen short are on track in paying those contributions.

Maleke Prude, 12, right, and Alijah Robinson, 10, play during a Basketball for All Neighbors Program at Delores Bennett Park in Detroit on Aug. 15, 2019. This is week five of a six week program sponsored by the Pistons, who are on track to restore 15 courts at 8 parks this summer, as part of its community benefits commitment for the Pistons Performance facility.

Devlin said the shortage is not due to lack of trying.

The Pistons have hosted contracting and job fairs and participated in the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.’s Pre-Rehabilitation Opportunity Session for Detroit-based contractors and its Detroit 2 Detroit program designed to build local business-to-business opportunities.

Last fall, Bedrock, along with construction firms Barton Malow Company and Turner Construction, hosted a construction careers expo in response to a building boom in downtown Detroit and Wayne County.

At the same time, the developers have exceeded under a separate commitment, at least 30% of the total value of contracts related to construction has been awarded to Detroit-based or Detroit-headquartered businesses.

Included in the city’s analysis: the $143 million redevelopment of the Herman Kiefer complex; $1 billion development of the Hudson’s site; $740 million renovation of the Michigan Central Depot and mobility-focused campus; $90 million Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center and Headquarters; $830 million mixed-use Monroe Blocks development; $313 million revival of the Book Building and Tower; and $77 million mixed-use Wigle: Midtown West development.

Promises that can be kept

The report shows a mixed bag of promises and statuses that vary by neighborhood, developer and the project timeline.

From refurbished basketball courts to blight clean-up, developers appear to be on track with most of the commitments made through the community benefits process, according to the city.

“They’re not committing to things that are just pie in the sky, things they can’t do because they know that the city is going to utilize every resource possible to ensure that they keep their promises,” said Charity Dean, director of the city’s Civil Rights, Inclusion & Opportunity Department, which provides enforcement.

Dilyla Williams, 3, a resident of the nearby neighborhood, rolls a ball during a Basketball for All Neighbors Program at Delores Bennett Park in Detroit on Aug. 15, 2019. This is week five of a six week program sponsored by the Pistons, who are on track to restore 15 courts at 8 parks this summer, as part of its community benefits commitment for the Pistons Performance facility.

“I think it’s working out very well, and I think the fact that we’ve issued this first report and are going to be issuing another one in January, it shows the City Council, it shows the (neighborhood advisory council) and it shows developers that we are very serious about the commitments that are being made in the city of Detroit.”

The community benefits ordinance was approved by Detroit voters in November 2016, making it the first city in the nation with requirements to ensure quality-of-life commitments for residents living in the area of proposed large-scale developments. The ordinance went into effect Jan. 1, 2017.

Under the community benefits ordinance, each developer works with the city and a selected panel of residents, a neighborhood advisory council, to craft an agreement to benefit residents. 

Maintaining neighborhoods

Numerous portions of the community benefits ordinance point to quality-of-life issues for residents, including recreational amenities and building board-ups.

Ron Castellano, who is developing the former Herman Kiefer complex, said he quickly secured abandoned properties in the area. The multi-phase project involves rehabilitating and reusing the seven medical complex buildings and 462,605-square-foot main hospital, the Job Training Partnership Act nursing school and the former Hutchins and Crosman schools.

The city says the property is fully secured with fences, cameras and 24-hour security. The development is also on track with mowing the grass and snow removal, depending on the season.

“He keeps the curbs clean,” said Althea Armstrong, a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Council for the Herman Kiefer development. “It may sound insignificant, but it gives it a really nice appeal. He’s been persistent and consistent.”

Castellano maintains the properties by hiring local residents for landscaping and handiwork. He places help-wanted signs throughout the neighborhood. 

“I think when they’re local it’s a lot easier for them to come to work, be on time…” he said. “I think they also like that they’re cleaning up their own backyards.”

As part of its community benefits agreement, the Detroit Pistons organization is refurbishing 60 courts across 50 city parks over six years. The first were two courts at Littlefield Park behind Noble Elementary-Middle School last fall. The NBA franchise is on track to complete another 15 courts by the end of the summer. Bennett Park is the site of a weekly summer program on one of those refurbished courts.

Les Baut of MP Sports prepares a basketball backboard for installation Aug. 2 at the new Henry Ford/Detroit Pistons Performance Center. About 16% of work on the Pistons facility and headquarters has gone to Detroit residents.

The organization also started a “Basketball for All" program that offers camps, clinics and fitness programs on the refurbished courts and gives basketballs to Detroit youth.

The goal is to provide 125,000 basketballs to kids over the next five years, said Awenate Cobbina, vice president of business affairs and associate counsel for Palace Sports and Entertainment. So far, they’ve given away 10,000.

“We do the park and the court; we give the kid a basketball,” he said. “We hope they go play with it, but if they don’t, we hope they understand that sports symbolize so much more … learn teamwork and discipline and accountability."

Bedrock, which is developing the Hudson's, Monroe Blocks and Book Building and Tower projects, has contributed $250,000 to help students and adults build their careers in the skilled trades. Bedrock and Quicken loans also invested $1 million in the Breithaupt Career and Technical Center. 

PDH Development Group, developers of Wigle: Midtown West, is on track with its commitment of $50,000 to the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corp., which will be used for improvements to the community space.

Jesalyn Blount, a member of the neighborhood advisory council for Wigle, said her group received a decent amount of the items they requested during the community benefits process. Her main concerns were maintaining green space and affordable housing.

“We were actually very lucky because we had a period of several months for the community benefits ordinance meeting with the developer,” she said. “We had time to talk to the community.”

Staying updated

Another area spelled out in the city's report is developer engagement with the community.

For the Michigan Central Depot project, Ford Motor Co. launched a community newsletter in English and Spanish, holds community meetings and opened an information center at the Factory at Corktown on Michigan Avenue. Ford also has a dedicated email and phone number for the development. The automaker also provides updates to the city planning development and historic district commission meetings.

Bedrock, whose projects sit in downtown Detroit, communicates through the city of Detroit and the Downtown Detroit Partnership alerting residents of traffic closures and construction updates.

But Alex Novak, member of the neighborhood advisory councils for the Hudson’s Site as well as the Monroe Blocks and Book Building and Tower, is disappointed in the CBO process.

“I will say that I don't have a very positive outlook on the process, and the updates are essentially useless because they're mostly related to construction and parts of the project that we never had a say in,” she said.

One aspect Novak and others advisory council members provided input on during the community benefits discussion for Monroe Blocks was the fate of the National Theatre. Bedrock has plans to preserve the façade, but it will demolish the building, which it says was gutted before the company’s involvement and can’t be saved.

Novak said the theater was a touchy topic during initial discussions, and she hasn’t received any updates.

Bedrock CEO Bill Emerson said the company will be updating the advisory council on the status of the Monroe Blocks project at their annual update meeting in the fall.

The next biannual reporting will be submitted to the city in January and will include the addition of Lafayette West, The Mid and the Fiat Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant expansion, Dean said. Her office has brought on more staff dedicated to monitoring.

The analysis comes as the city explores making changes that could strengthen the community benefits ordinance, which critics say needs better enforcement.

Late last year, members of the Detroit City Council formed a group to study the idea, but there has been no recent public discussion on the effort. According to the city, the issue could return to the council for discussion this fall.

Novak said she values of the concept of the ordinance and favors further discussion.

“The whole world is watching Detroit, and a CBO is something that no other city has,” she said. “If we can figure out how to do it right, we can set an example for good urban development everywhere.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN