Harbortown development has neighbors worried about the views

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — From the southern facing windows of her Harbortown townhome, Janet Bobby can see a grove of trees, sparkling pond and the Detroit River. It’s a view she paid extra for when she purchased her end unit in the gated community 21 years ago.

But with a new apartment building and townhomes planned for the community, Bobby and others in the neighborhood are bracing themselves for the loss of those breathtaking views.

“I’m going to lose probably all but a third of the views we started with,” Bobby said. “And they’re of the river, the marina, the pond, and so I honestly feel like somebody’s stealing from me. I’m talking about money.”

Obstructed views are just one of the concerns residents have as the latest developer of the Harbortown community prepares to complete the final phase of a nearly 40-year build-out. They also take issue with the decreased green space, security and the potential strain on the community’s already fragile sewer system.

Harbortown resident Keith King (not pictured) says the view from his patio would be ruined if developers build another condo complex in the wooded area in the background of this photo.

Owner of the development, Arkan Jonna, says that his company is addressing some of the residents' concerns, but ultimately his company is within its rights to develop the land.

“The green space is land that we own, and we’re developing it into another apartment complex,” Jonna said.

Bloomfield Hills-based AF Jonna Development plans to build a five-story, 202-unit apartment building and 11 townhomes with parking on 6.88 acres to be completed in 12-16 months. The developer is asking for approval of a zoning ordinance amendment that would allow the development known as Waters Edge II.

The City Council is expected to weigh in on the development proposal Tuesday after its planning and economic development committee on Thursday moved it for a vote without offering a recommendation to approve or deny.

Owner of the Harbortown development Arkan Jonna said, “The green space is land that we own and we’re developing it into another apartment complex."

One of the early waterfront revival projects, Harbortown was built in phases starting in 1985. The development was a joint project for energy companies, ANR Development Corp. and MichCon Development Corp. Ownership has changed hands a few times over the years with the latest developer AF Jonna Development.

Harbortown includes a mix of townhomes, high-rise condominiums and apartment buildings, a marina and the Harbortown Plaza Shopping Center on East Jefferson. At the center of it all are private ponds with a fountain and waterfall that flow in the warmer months.

“What a view,” said resident Keith King as he stood near the back deck of his three-bedroom townhome overlooking the ponds and the river. “I tell people when I’m sitting on my patio, underneath the trees I’m looking at the Detroit River. I sit back, stop, barbecue, have a beer or two.”

Harbortown residents Dr. Janet Bobby and Keith King say their view of the Detroit River would be blocked if developers build new condos in the green space and wooded area behind this pond.

The neighborhood primarily consists of owner-occupied townhomes and condominiums operated by five separate associations. Residents say they purchased their homes within the community for the luxury lifestyle.

“I bought there because I like the fact that Harbortown has been known as a resort-style community,” said Eunice Gantt, a resident of the Spinnaker Towers since 2012. “Even though I’m not in retirement yet, I looked at my condo as my ultimate retirement home. That was my main purpose in buying there. ... I’m not interested in living an overcrowded community for my retirement.”

Safety a concern

Owners say they don’t feel as safe as they once were as they deal with speeding cars through the neighborhood and loud parties. According to the residents, these incidents have increased since the most recent apartment building, Waters Edge 1, was completed on the east side of the neighborhood in 2015. They fear the new buildings, particularly rental units, will bring more of the same.

Janet Bobby says this view from her front patio would be ruined if condos are built in the wooded space behind the pond at Harbortown in Detroit.

“Renters don’t care about stopping at the stop signs on the property, don’t have to use potty bags when they walk their dogs, don’t care about late-night noise,” Bobby said.

Tim Ponton, an engineer of Stonefield Engineering & Design, the engineer and design firm for the project, said the development is beefing up security with more visible uniformed security officers.

The unmanned gates bordering the property have been outfitted with locks to withstand bolt cutters and saws. Entrance and exit gate arms have been lowered to prevent people from crawling under, and additional video cameras are being installed to capture images of people entering and exiting the complex.

They’re also using a third-party background check on all potential renters for the apartment complexes. This would not address privately owned townhouses and condos that are leased out.

“We try our best to prevent crime,” Jonna said.

Another concern is there’s also the issue of increased traffic backups when entering the development.

King said residents were promised an additional entrance gate on the west side of the property on Wight Street to relieve traffic when Waters Edge I was built. It didn’t happen.

"They said, 'We're going to build it,' because we were concerned about the traffic," King said.

Jonna said they have installed a windshield badge on about half of the owner-occupant residents' vehicles, which will allow them to quickly come and go from the complex.

That doesn’t address the traffic congestion from visitor vehicles, residents say.

“There are so many cars coming in. And sometimes, when I come home, like at 5 o’clock, I have a pass so I don’t have to wait. But if you’re a visitor, sometimes those lines are from the gate house out down Jefferson and all the way down to the Chase bank.” 

Watching the water

Residents are also concerned about the impact the loss of trees and green space. Two tennis courts and a picnic area in the heart of the community would be removed for the new townhomes.

“People bring their dogs over there and take them on there and train them,” Bobby said of the tennis court area. “They take their little kids in there, and they ride their bikes all around in there. Different purposes.”

Spinnaker Tower residents say their view of the Detroit River, a marina and a pond would be blocked if apartments are built in this green space.

In Spinnaker Tower on the west side of the community, about a third of the owners would lose views, said Gantt, who is the board president of the Spinnaker Towers Condominium Association. The new apartment building would sit about 50 feet tall and directly in front of the tower.

“They paid extra money for that view, so that’s going to be a tremendous impact,” Gantt said. “It’s going to hurt our property values, too, for those levels.”

Jonna has said there will be no financial concessions made for residents who have their views impacted by the development. He said that plan originally called for two towers, so a five-story apartment building would be a concession.

Some residents say, however, the original plans also included nearby acreage that was sold to General Motors and the United Auto Workers in the late 1990s to build the UAW-General Motors Center for Human Resources.

According to the city, the way the ordinance was written, the sale of that land doesn’t negate the original plan.

The new plan includes adding green space in areas in the complex as well as the planting of 227 trees and 2,413 shrubs, Jonna said during a recent presentation before the Detroit City Council’s planning and economic development committee.

“What we’ve done is we’ve created several different areas within the property on our land to be used by the whole community,” he said.

The landscaped areas will be on the west side where Waters Edge II will be built. Another green space will be put in where another unused parking lot on the other side on the east side of the property.

With the reduction of green space on the property, residents raised questions on how stormwater would be treated.

Ponton said they plan to filter and then discharge stormwater into the Detroit River through a series of inlets running under a parking lot, through the RiverWalk and into the river.

According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, the agency issued a permit in September 2018 for construction of a stormwater outlet with pre-treatment.  

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said it's aware of the developer’s plan to discharge stormwater directly to the Detroit River and that review and permitting is handled through EGLE. 

Jonna said the stormwater will feed into a pipe large enough to handle enough water for a 100-year storm.

“That gives us more storage and more time to be able to get into the river,” he said.

The latest development has sparked discussion on the ongoing issue regarding basement backups in the community. For years, some residents say they’ve experienced raw sewage backups in their homes.

Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer for the DWSD, said the department has investigated basement backups at the complex.

“The private infrastructure within the property is the cause of the backups, not the city’s sewer system,” she said.

George Etheridge, a legislative policy analyst for the city planning commission, said the original developer in 1982 never granted the city easements to access the system.

“So there is no way to verify if what was presented to be built in terms of stormwater and sanitation management was actually built,” he said. “The City of Detroit has reluctancy to go in to evaluate that infrastructure.”

There will be easements on the new stormwater plan, Etheridge said.

“That way we don’t have that same conflict as 1982,” he said.

Jonna says he’s not responsible for the flooding issues because he purchased the property long after the sewer system was in place.

The company has said, however, it has a plan to install manhole cover restrictors in the road and backflow preventers in units with basements. If that doesn't alleviate flooding, Jonna said they will also disconnect gutters from townhomes that discharge into the system.

“We’ve gone over and above on mitigating the issues of the use of the sewer system and not causing anyone any more harm than whatever is there today,” Jonna said. “That was developed in the mid-'80s. We have nothing to do that development. We have no obligation. We’re working with the resident to mitigate the harm.”


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN