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Detroit advances plan to close city airport runway, clear neighborhood

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is advancing plans for its municipal airport with a focus on clearing out a desolate neighborhood, reopening a long-closed road and decommissioning a runway.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan joined with Detroit City Council's Airport Task Force last week to detail to an invitation-only crowd his support for the proposal and the city's intention to submit its long-awaited plan to the Federal Aviation Administration this fall.

During the nearly two-hour meeting Friday convened inside a hangar on the grounds of the Coleman A. Young International Airport in east Detroit, representatives of Kimley-Horn, the consulting firm overseeing Detroit's Airport Layout Plan, gave an overview alongside Duggan to a group of about 50 stakeholder groups, two attendees told The News. 

Carl Vance, line tech supervisor with AV Flight, prepares a flight for takeoff at the Coleman A. Young International Airport, commonly known as Detroit City Airport,  on Aug. 13.  A city-commissioned  study  on the airport recommends closing a runway to free up 86 acres for industrial development.

Keith Newell, a member of the task force and Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association, said he's encouraged by investment plans for the site after decades of neglect.

The move, he said, will open up more opportunities for general and business aviation, create jobs and return the Benjamin O. Davis Technical Aerospace High School to the airport grounds. 

But shutting down the airport's smaller 100-year old crosswind runway, he said, would present a safety risk for some pilots, chiefly the inexperienced. 

"That runway is an important piece of the future," said Newell, who took part in the meeting. "The safety of the students definitely would rely on it."

Key elements of the proposal presented to stakeholders and aviation enthusiasts Friday mirrors a $123 million conceptual plan that The Detroit News first reported on last year.

The so-called "Airport Redevelopment and Modernization Program" also floated closure of the runway, freeing up more acreage for industrial development and buying up about two dozen remaining properties in a nearby neighborhood. 

It was the product of a city-commissioned report Duggan presented to officials with the Michigan Department of Transportation and FAA to solicit support, according to emails obtained last year by The News.

The Duggan administration said Monday that it was withholding comment on the plan until it's finalized and submitted to the FAA. The mayor declined an interview through a spokesman. 

Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson said the city is aiming to complete the layout plan by late summer or early fall. They have worked closely with federal officials on the concept and hope to gain FAA approval by late winter or early 2021, he said. 

"It has been a generation since we’ve done anything serious with the airport," Benson said. "This is the linchpin in getting us to a heavily invested-in, robust general aviation center in the city of Detroit again.”

Benson said the proposal, if adopted by federal officials, would make Detroit eligible for a 95% match investment there. Of those funds, 90% would come from the federal government and 5% from the state, he noted. 

The councilman, who chairs the airport task force, said the plan calls for removal of the runway. "Based on technology" and "the future of the aviation industry," he said it's "not essential."

Benson said 94 out of 100 flights can successfully land at the airport absent the runway, according to consultant data, he said. 

"The FAA is not going to support a plan that creates a dangerous situation," he said. 

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But Dave Tarrant, executive director of the airport education association, has strongly opposed the concept. Duggan supports the school but doesn't want the smaller runway and "those two concepts are incompatible," he said. 

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."

"If the community wants a school for aviation students on the airport property or near it, then they will want that runway," he said. "Because that's what it's going to take to train the students safely."

In a Tuesday email, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said "we're still waiting to hear the airport’s plans, and would need that information to move forward."

Byran Budds, deputy administrator of aeronautics for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the state has been working with Detroit and its consultant team in preparing a path forward for the airport.

"Funding or lack of funding for the crosswind runway will be entirely dependent on the airport layout plan and its forecasting process which examines characteristics like operational need, wind coverage, and justification for any change in a runway’s status," Budds said.

The city's 2019 proposal drafted by New York-based consultant Avion Solutions Group called for "five keystone elements."

Those included the closure of the smaller 3,700-foot-long runway, to free up 86 acres of airport property for industrial development. It also pitched plans to lengthen the main runway and modernize the terminal building and hangars.

In exchange for acreage freed up from the runway closure, 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, the study noted.

Attendees of Friday's meeting said industrial development plans weren't discussed. But Benson said it will be a focus of the plan.

Avion's vision was crafted as part of a multi-phase study initiated by Detroit to determine best use of the airport that's been propped up financially through subsidies of Detroit's general fund.

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

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 in 2019 through a series of land swaps tied to a $2.5 billion Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV plant expansion.

An effort to tunnel under McNichols Road to extend the centerline of the airport's main 5,090-foot-long runway, which does not meet current FAA design standards, is also on the agenda. 

Such a move would allow 405 feet of the existing runway to become usable, and for the reopening of McNichols between Conner and Van Dyke to reconnect with the adjacent community.

Benson said Monday that the tunneling project to reopen the road would be costly — upwards of $60 million — but would restore access on the east side and keep a promise the city made decades ago to residents there. He could not cite overall cost estimates.

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

Detroit completed a $3.5 million runway improvement project in recent years and invested $500,000 more 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.

A decades-long land acquisition effort dubbed the "French Road mini-take" would be completed under the plan the city intends to propose. 

Five years ago, city officials said they hoped to acquire remaining homes just west of the airport that are too close to its main runway.

The administration said last summer that about 22 renter- and owner-occupied homes remained. The FAA has said it reimbursed the city about $9.5 million for the land.