Wayne Co. commission OKs land swap for Gilbert jail

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Wayne County Commission has approved a land exchange that brings billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert one step closer to building a $533 million new criminal justice center in the city.

The commission voted, 11-2, Thursday to accept 11 acres of Detroit Department of Transportation property on Warren Avenue near Interstate 75 in exchange for $775,000 or the shuttered American Motor Corp. headquarters on Detroit’s west side. Commissioners Diane Webb and Glenn S. Anderson were the two dissenting votes.

Detroit city officials have already said they will take the blighted AMC building and redevelop it.

The swap works in Gilbert’s favor because last year he proposed to build the criminal justice center on the DDOT site under the condition that the county gets the land from the city. Detroit’s City Council signed off on the land swap in November.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans announced in March that the county had reached a deal with Gilbert after negotiating for several months.

The new criminal justice complex will include a 2,280-bed jail, sheriff and prosecutor staff and administrative offices, 25 courtrooms, five hearing rooms, and a 160-bed juvenile detention facility. It could be completed by summer 2022 with a groundbreaking this October, Evans said.

Many Detroit residents living in neighborhoods near the proposed jail site have spoken out against the plan citing environmental concerns, such as air pollution from a nearby incinerator, traffic issues and proximity to schools and homes.

Webb called the Gilbert proposal a “bad deal” and said the county needs to consider those community concerns and the risks involved with the project. She also said the commission’s approval of the land swap was irreversible and that the county ultimately won’t have a choice but to sign off on the jail project.

“What do we need the DDOT site for if we aren’t going to move forward?” Webb said during Thursday’s meeting. “I am not in favor of the way this is being brought to us and being handled. It’s leaving us no way out.”

Some commissioners noted the swap does more than just provide a new jail complex for the county. It opens the door for revival of the AMC building that has long sat neglected.

“My neighbors are tired of that property sitting there and causing blight in our area,” Commissioner Irma Clark-Coleman said. “It just gets worse and worse and worse. And it’s preventing that area from rebounding.”

Gilbert’s offer to the county increased the criminal justice complex’s price tag by more than $110 million from the $420 million pitched a year ago when Rock Ventures asked the county to foot $300 million of the bill. But the tentative agreement caps how much the county will spend at $380 million. In return, the county gets a larger jail than the 1,600-bed facility previously offered.

Rock Ventures will spend $153 million, plus any overruns. The county will use $50 million in existing IRS bonds, new bonds and general fund dollars to cover its $380 million contribution, officials said. The IRS approved use of the bonds remaining from the failed jail project in Greektown. If the cost of the project is lower, Rock and the county will share in the savings.

Commissioners on Thursday approved a resolution noting the county’s intent to issue bonds valued at no more than $425 million to cover its portion of the criminal justice center cost.

The county commission expects to vote on the overall deal with Gilbert in June.

Evans supported the commission’s decision to approve the land exchange.

“The tentative agreement we have reached with Rock Ventures is a good deal for the citizens of Wayne County, and it is the best deal we could have hoped for given the circumstances,” Evans said in a statement. “In that spirit, I am pleased that the Wayne County Commission voted in favor of the land exchange between Wayne County and the City of Detroit, which gets us a step closer to finalizing this project.”

Part of the deal gives Rock Ventures the 15.5 acres of property where a half-built jail now stands on the edge of Greektown, a popular area of downtown. Gilbert has vowed to build a $1 billion development there, but a formal plan has not been announced.

In 2011, Wayne County started building the estimated $220 million jail at the Gratiot location near the I-75 service drive.

In 2013, an estimated $151 million of the jail was built when construction was stopped because the price to finish the project jumped by $171 million more than originally planned. The cost overruns ultimately led to corruption charges against two county officials and a contractor working on the site.

For nearly five years, the “failed jail,” as Evans has called it, has sat unfinished, costing taxpayers $1.3 million a month to repay its bond debt as well as cover security and maintenance.


Twitter: @NicquelTerry

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