Detroit council delays vote for $18M State Fairgrounds transit center

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday delayed its vote on an amended plan that would preserve two historic buildings at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds as part of a planned new $18.6 million transit center.

The council unanimously postponed the vote to its last formal session on Nov. 23, asking the city administration to clarify how residents near the Palmer Woods neighborhood will be protected from transit center emissions.

Council President Brenda Jones said Tuesday that she has concerns for residents in the area, noting she has smelled the stench of gasoline while driving by.

"I will be concerned on what could possibly be a detriment to their health," Jones said Tuesday. "I have no problem with moving forward and I do respect preserving history, but more than anything, I respect the people who have to be there."

City of Detroit Chief Operations Office Hakim Berry addresses the media in the Dairy Cattle Building on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. A feasibility study commissioned by the city determined that parts of two historically-significant buildings on the former Michigan State Fairgrounds can be saved and reused as part of a planned new $18 million transit center. The council approved the plan by a 5-2 vote on Tuesday.

The state-of-the-art center will replace the current one on Woodward Avenue near East State Fair. Originally, when designs for the transit campus were announced in August, residents raised concerns to the council over the planned demolition of three historic buildings on the site.

In response, the city conducted a three-month feasibility study to see what could be saved of the 1924 Hertel Coliseum, a 60,000 square-foot equestrian center that hosted circuses, concerts and rodeos; the 1926 Dairy Cattle Building and the adjacent Agricultural Building, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

If the council votes down the contract amendment, the original plan will stand and all the buildings will be torn down.

Under the revised plan, the 52,500 square-foot Dairy Cattle Building would be adapted into a semi-enclosed bus terminal with DDOT and SMART buses circulating through the interior. 

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 President Glenn Tolbert told the council Tuesday that the union supports the plan. The existing hub, he said, isn't well-sheltered, there's only one bathroom stall for often 15 bus drivers and no restroom for riders.

"It's inadequate," Tolbert said. "I urge this panel this council to move on and let's get this thing started."

Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López echoed Jones Tuesday, saying she doesn't see enough proposed to keep residents safe from emissions. 

"The environmental health issues have not been sufficiently addressed," argued Castañeda-López.

Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. and District 3 Councilman Scott Benson noted constituents fully support the plan. Benson said Tuesday he'd even requested MOGO bikes and parks to be placed at the transit center.

"The residents have seen the new park being developed as a direct result of negotiations and commitment by the city and the developers as well as support for urban agriculture," Benson said.

DDOT Director Mikel Oglesby, while touring the site on Friday, told The Detroit News that officials hope to break ground on construction in the summer and have the site nearly complete by winter of 2022.

The transit center will increase bus access and circulation from both 8 Mile and Woodward Avenue. It will also make reaching the nearby Meijer store more accessible, Oglesby added. 

A $400 million Amazon distribution center is expected to revitalize the former fairgrounds after years of neglect, and City Council previously approved a $7 million plan for an entirely new transit center from developers as part of their deal to buy the land.

The remaining expenses of the $18 million project are covered by previously approved bond sales and will not be paid from the city's general fund. The day-to-day operational budget has not been solidified but Clifton noted there is a large amount of asphalt,  concrete and greenery to maintain.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_