Detroit panel seeks feedback on changes to community benefits law

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Lower project thresholds to trigger the city's Community Benefits Ordinance as well as more community meetings and longer agreement review times are among a list of proposed changes to the ordinance that locks in guarantees and other protections for communities. 

The Detroit City Council’s Legislative Policy Division presented a list of 17 items to the community Thursday for feedback as the council considers changes to a voter-approved law that requires developers to commit to hiring and other quality-of-life benefits for residents living in the area of proposed large-scale developments.

An amended ordinance could be submitted to the City Council’s as early as this spring, city officials said Thursday.

Urban planners from California tour the Michigan Central Depot in Detroit, Oct. 25, 2019.

“This was an opportunity for the community to have their voice in the room to ensure that the list is extensive and comprehensive,” said George Etheridge, city planner and policy analyst for the Legislative Policy Division during the citywide meeting at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58 Hall.

Residents and others filled the room Thursday night, many eager to hear about the proposal and voice their opinions. A live onscreen survey of the audience during the meeting yielded responses such as the community benefits process was confusing and broken, and the need for more inclusion and transparency in the process.

The City Council has been working for more than a year to draft possible changes to the ordinance. When voters passed the ordinance in 2016, it made Detroit the first in the nation to require developers of large-scale projects to negotiate benefits packages with neighborhoods.

Critics say the ordinance, which went into effect in 2017, lacks enforcement. Residents and groups such as Equitable Detroit Coalition and the Detroit People’s Platform, have monitored the ordinance. At the council’s request, a legislative staff working group went through 62 recommendations during seven, five-hour meetings, Etheridge said. The proposed 17 items were pulled from those recommendations.

The community benefits ordinance applies to developments that meet at least one of three requirements: if the development project is $75 million or more in value; the project receives $1 million or more in property tax abatements or receives $1 million or more in value of city land sale or transfer.

When the ordinance is triggered, a Neighborhood Advisory Council is established with residents from the area the development will affect. That group is tasked with negotiating with the developer for benefits including hiring preferences, recreational amenities and funds for home repairs.

Conceptual renderings of FCA expansion at Jefferson North Assembly Plant.  FCA announced that $900 million would be spent to modernize its Jefferson North plant which is expected to add nearly 5,000 new jobs in the city.

The list of proposed changes include:

  • Lowering the development threshold from $75 million to $50 million
  • Lowering the threshold for Tier 2 projects from $3 million to $300,000 for projects seeking a land or tax abatement valued at $300,000 or more 
  • Increasing the public meeting requirement from one to five meetings
  • Notification for residents living in the impact area by first class mail of the community benefits process, as opposed to those living within 300 feet from the project in the current ordinance
  • Holding an initial public meeting in which the planning director would present in detail the CBO process, how the NAC fits within the process and the responsibilities and the proposed timeline; the developer would not be present at the initial meeting
  • Requiring the planning director to submit a copy of the community benefits agreement to the NAC prior to submitting to the council. The NAC would have no less than one week before being asked to sign the agreement.

“For a number of the community benefit agreements that have come down the pipeline, lots of the NACs have been asked to sign a letter of support indicating we’re fine with what has been presented or proposed," Etheridge said. "There has been a number of occasions where they’ve been asked to sign said letter either the day of or after the agreement had been finalized. So this is ensuring that they have at least a week to fully consider and make sure what they deliberated on during the course of their meetings is codified and agreed upon.”

Projects that have gone through the CBO process are Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center and Headquarters; Herman Kiefer complex; Hudson’s site; Free Press Building rehabilitation; Michigan Central Depot; Monroe Blocks development; Book Building and Tower; The Mid, Lafayette West; Fiat Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant Expansion; and the Wigle: Midtown West development.

A rendering of the residential tower and mixed use building that will be constructed on the Hudson's site adorns Bedrock's sign at Woodward at Gratiot.

Loretta Hobbs said she attended community meetings for the Fiat Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant Expansion in early 2019 and said she would have liked to have seen more incentives offered to the community and more time to negotiate.

“It was so rushed,” she said. “They didn’t give us enough time.”

Bill Hickey, a resident in the Brightmoor area, said he would like to see the amendments include that potential NAC members disclose possible conflicts of interest.

“People who have a conflict of interest, meaning those individuals nominated for NAC who have competing affiliations or interest that may result in the perception or the reality of an increase risk of bias or judgement in upholding the NAC member responsibility to prioritize the interest of the community residensts over the interest of city officials, developers or others who stand to gain material benefit or influence should be restricted from serving on the NAC,” he said.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN