'Put up or shut up': Detroit residents make voice heard on stalled Herman Kiefer project

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit — Residents irked about the stalled development of the Herman Kiefer project complained to the city ombudsman on Saturday to implore officials to jumpstart it or move on to someone who can eliminate the blighted properties.

Bruce Simpson brought his ombudsman staff to hear out about 20 residents in the Virginia Park neighborhood about everything from flooded basements to potholes to noise complaints.

Ombudsman Bruce Simpson, of Detroit, talks to resident from the Virginia Park neighborhood, Saturday afternoon, July 31, 2021, at Gordon Park in Detroit, as they voice concerns about their neighborhood.

But the major concern was what residents see as a failure by the city to force Kiefer developer Ron Casetellano to finish the $143 million development deal with the city to reinvent the former 10-building Herman Kiefer medical complex and adjacent neighborhood.

"They were give so much property around here and they aren't doing anything with it," said Tommie Robinson, 83, who lives in the area of the developer. "It seems like they want to sell it again. The thing is people who have been here for such a long time have not been given the opportunity to do their own development. It's hard for a person to believe in a system that's supposed to work for them that isn't."

Robinson was blunt: "It's time to put up or shut up."

And on the ombudsman showing up to hearing the complaints, Robinson added, "the fact that he made himself available speaks a lot about" how that office takes it seriously.

Esther Haugabook, 56, who also lives in the area, has had concerns about the developer, too, saying the city should do a better job vetting developer contenders.

"I think there needs to be criteria to fully vet developers as a city to make sure that they have the capacity to do what they promise to do," she said. "I think the developer for Hermain Keifer has a passion for what he does...but I just wonder if the capacity is there to complete the project."

Castellano, managing member of Herman Kiefer Development LLC, missed the June 30 deadline and now has until July 31 to complete the work he started on the first batch of homes; otherwise, the Detroit Land Bank can take back the properties, officials said.

Simpson said to be objective and fair to Castellano, "COVID, the market, those are some significant changes that will hit any developer very hard."

"When you juxtapose the opportunities for developers versus the lack of opportunity for he regular citizen, they (residents) have an issue with that," Simpson said. "Whether that's access to land, access to property...I came here because there was a cry, there was an outcry for help, assistance."

Simpson said the Mayor Michael Duggan administration needs to address the issue and "for me to ask them that very question, hey, what's the timetable, are you going to work with the community on some of their concerns that they have with the developer because ultimately they have to live through and endure it and everything that comes along with it."

Ombudsman Bruce Simpson, left, talks with resident Joanne Adams, of Detroit, about her concerns of an unsafe property next to a property she is renovating, Saturday afternoon, July 31, 2021.

Castellano couldn't be reached for comment.

Joanne Adams, 57, who lives and owns property in the Virginia Park area, said she came to the outdoor meeting to let the ombudsman know about an "unsafe, single, garish structure" that is either owned by the Land Bank or is part of the Kiefer project.

"It's an unsafe structure next to a property I'm renovating," she said, adding that she's putting up a privacy fence on her property. "And this structure looks like it could very fall down over my fence."

Adams said she feels like the city is finally listening.

"I've been very impressed with Bruce," she said. "It feels good to have found someone who will actually listen to us because we don't feel that from our city council representatives or our mayor's representatives."

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming