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U of D Jesuit board to vote on buying shuttered Detroit rec center Tuesday

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nearly 14 years after it was shuttered due to city budget cuts, the Johnson Recreation Center on the west side could be put to use again as early as next year but a late hiccup over historic designation could delay matters.

The board of the U of D Jesuit High School and Academy will vote on Tuesday on whether to close on its $625,000 purchase from the city of the property at 8550 Chippewa. The renovation of the property is part of a $7.5 million project.

One factor in the board’s vote could be the Detroit City Council's approval earlier this month for a study to determine if the recreation center and neighboring Joe Louis Park meet the criteria for historic designation. 

The Johnson Recreation Center, vacant since 2006 due to budget cuts, seen here in Detroit on Jan. 27, 2020.

The study raised some concerns with Theodore G. Munz, president of U of D Jesuit, who questioned the impact that a historic designation could have on the project.

Munz declined a recent request for an interview, but said during a council meeting earlier this month that the school did not want a historic designation applied to the recreation center or park.

“We simply feel it puts on us an onus or a burden that, given the quality of the investment that we’re willing to make, just doesn’t seem to make sense for us to take that one as well,” Munz told the City Council.

For the Johnson Recreation Center and Joe Louis Park, it could take about a year for a completed study. Each district has a separate ordinance, which would have to be approved by the City Council. 

“It’s really a case-by-case basis,” said Janese Chapman, director of the city's Historic Designation Advisory Board. “There really are no two districts that are the same. ... We want the buildings saved. They’re not museums. We want them used. I think the Historic District Commission would work with the owners on issues of alterations and changes to those resources."

Areas with a historic designation are subject to Detroit Historic District Commission approval for modifications such as exterior paint color changes, sign installation and masonry reconstruction. Historic district designation does not regulate interior design or building use, according to the city.

U of D Jesuit has been in the due diligence phase to buy the property since last spring, when the council approved the sale of the recreation center and the park to the school.

The school plans to renovate the 20,500-square-foot building with an updated gym, locker rooms and meeting rooms. Improvements also are expected for 10½ acres of open space, including three new competition-grade soccer and lacrosse fields.

As part of a voluntary benefits agreement, U of D Jesuit agreed to make the center available to neighborhood associations for monthly meetings at no cost to residents and hold a series of community service projects each year with U of D Jesuit staff and students.

It is unknown how board members were leaning on the historic designation issue prior to vote. However, school spokesman Jim Adams said in a statement that the school is excited to move the project forward after the board votes on Tuesday.

“We are looking forward to working with the community and our council representative on what will be a beneficial project for all involved,” Adams said.

Calls for board comment were referred to Chairman Pat Conroy, who could not be reached for comment.

If the board votes to move forward with the project, Adams said the goal would be to close on the property in February and begin construction in the summer with work on the fields.

Adams said that the school is gathering information on additional costs for a property in a historic district.

The goal would be to open the fields at summer 2021 and the recreation center in fall 2021, Adams said. The school has long had plans to create a permanent historic exhibit inside the recreation center.

Kim Tandy, District 2 manager for the city, said she’s in favor of documenting the history of the site without making the building itself a historic designation. The swimming pool built in the 1950s provided a place for African Americans to learn how to swim. The center is named for Sheldon Johnson, who was instrumental in influencing the city to build the pool.

“I think it’s important for us as African Americans to have that history documented in that site,” Tandy said. “U of D has agreed to pull that history and put that in their plan … There’s really nothing on or in that building that has historically any architectural significance.”

The recreation center was among area sites the community requested for an historic study a few years ago, said Chapman. The center was put on a pending list.

Chapman said the city received a grant from the National Park Service to study and inventory sites, including the recreation center.

In addition to the recreation center and the park, the City Council approved a study for the nearby vacant Higginbotham school.

“Those were already buildings that we had already identified and the community had identified to us, so we had done some preliminary research,” she said.

Dwight Smith, president of the neighborhood group the 8 Mile Old Timers' Club, said he’s ready to see the building in use and accessible for children, young adults and seniors. 

“The sooner the better,” he said. “I think people would applaud the idea that something is getting started. ... I’m just glad that it’s in the final stages, and I'm praying and hoping everything works well for the community.”

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN