Detroit council OKs $18M transit plan for old state fairgrounds

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — In its final session of the year, the City Council on Tuesday approved a plan that will preserve two historic buildings at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds as part of an $18.6 million transit center.

Nearly seven hours into the meeting, council members approved the plan by a 5-2 vote. Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López and President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield voted against it.

The vote had been postponed from the council's formal session last week after members asked the city administration to clarify how residents near the Palmer Woods neighborhood will be protected from transit center emissions.

Castañeda-López said Tuesday she wasn't satisfied that enough was proposed to keep residents safe from emissions, reduce pollution and noise. 

"I am still in the midset as I was last week and would request this be brought back next term to allow the new council to engage the community on this," argued Castañeda-López. "Surrounded by industry of District 6, I know firsthand of having 200-plus additional trucks go through a specific area."

But others, like Councilman Scott Benson, opposed holding up the vote, saying, "this is something residents of the third district have advocated for."

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.

Originally, when designs for the transit campus on the site of the future $400 million Amazon distribution center 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.

Under the plan, the 52,500-square-foot Dairy Cattle Building will be used to cycle buses through. While the Coliseum will be removed, the Portico will remain, welcoming riders to the transit center. The Agricultural Building will not be used as part of the project because it is leased to Joe Dumars Fieldhouse.

Detroit Building Authority Director Tyrone Clifton told the council Tuesday the amended plan to transform the stop currently on Woodward "is the best option and has been well received," he said.

More than a dozen riders and supporters called in during public comment Tuesday mainly advocating for the plan, but a handful asked to put it on pause until the Coliseum could be saved.

Newly-elected to represent Detroit City Council District 2, Angela Whitfield Calloway was among those during public comment who urged the council to reject the demolition of the Coliseum and to see outside funding sources to save and repurpose the historical site.

"The Coliseum is a historical and cultural gem, not only locally, but nationally as well and is worthy of saving," Calloway said.

Christopher Johnson, president of the Bagley Community Council, favored the transit plan, noting centers elsewhere in the country have revitalized neighborhoods and increased tax revenue. 

"This is very important to where we are going," he said prior to the vote. "So, I pray there will be no politics involved."

DDOT Director Mikel Oglesby has said officials hope to break ground on construction in the summer and have the site nearly complete by winter of 2022.

The 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.

A new city council will convene its first formal session on Jan. 4.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_