County's Hines Park redevelopment plans draw ire

The Detroit News

Some residents are protesting Wayne County's plans to sell multiple properties in historic Hines Park, saying the public should have input on the site’s future.

More than 300 people attended a meeting organized by opponents of county redevelopment plans for HInes Park property  at the Bennett Civic Center Library in Livonia on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.

A meeting Wednesday night organized by opponents of the proposed sales drew more than 300 people to a Livonia library, where speakers took turns blasting the county's plans.

“For God’s sake, we’ve had this land for 100 years. Why would we sell it?” said Lisa Robertson, 54, of Livonia. “If we don’t own it, how can we protect it? It needs to be protected from pollution in the flood plain and the recreational use it was intended for.” 

Last year, the county Division and Economic Development Corporation announced it was seeking partners to redevelop three historic mills that Ford Motor Co. once operated along the Middle Rouge River: Phoenix, Wilcox and Newburgh.

The initiative involves “reactivating” and transforming the former industrial sites, which Ford deeded to the county by the late 1940s, through public-private partnerships, according to county officials.

The proposed project also aims to add 16-29 acres to the park's overall footprint, connect bicycle and pedestrian trails with the state's larger network of recreation routes as well as link to other regional locales, officials have said. County officials say there are also possibilities for restaurants, breweries, art galleries and bicycle shops.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans touts selling off the mills, which once produced auto parts and World War II armaments, as a way to create attractions and retain residents.

“The rehabilitated mill properties will be destination attractions along Hines Park's trails for bicyclists, runners, and history enthusiasts," Evans said in a statement posted on the county's website. "The revenue from the sale of Mill Run properties will be reinvested into the infrastructure that supports the park.

“I strongly believe the Mill Run plan will strengthen Hines Park as a world-class regional destination for recreation. Hines Park is one of Wayne County's jewels. I believe the Mill Run project can make it shine that much brighter.”

Others view the effort differently.

Concerned residents have launched Save Hines Park, a coalition working to protect the land and circulating a petition to do so.

Members claim the county's plans defy a millage voters first approved in 1996 and renewed in 2016 that pays for the operation of county recreation facilities.

“While we support leasing these mill buildings to allow creative reuse of them, we do not support selling these properties along with acres of surrounding park land,” group representatives said in a statement. “Once this land is sold to private developers, it is lost forever, and we have NO say over what is built there in the future.”

County leaders argue the effort is necessary since the maintenance costs would end up going to residents, the county can't afford a major overhaul without reallocating funds and offloading the property allows it and local communities to collect property tax revenue. The new owners also would address any environmental contamination.

“Partnering with private developers who share our vision for Mill Run and are willing to agree to a development agreement that legally binds them to that vision is the most fiscally responsible and efficient method to restore the mills for adaptive reuse,” officials wrote on the county’s website. “Wayne County simply does not have the resources to do so alone.”

In September, the Wayne County Commission voted to approve the sale of Phoenix Mill to Critical Mass LLC. A purchase and development agreement requires rehabilitating the building while respecting the original styling and ensuring public access to the site, the county reported.  

Meanwhile, the county has started marketing Wilcox and Newburgh mills, which are used as a maintenance and storage facility and the headquarters for the Forestry Division and the Sheriff's Mounted Division, to potential development partners to restore the properties, incorporating public uses and interpretive space.

County officials say the mill redevelopment would be completed in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. All developers are also required to pursue listing their property on the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places, the county said. 

Still, Nancy Darga, former chief of design for Wayne County parks, fears housing will end up on the land.

 "There’s so much vacant and abandoned homes in Wayne County, you don’t need to sell your parkland for land development," she said during the town hall meeting Wednesday. "We welcome development. We welcome advancement, that’s why we approve the park millage. My question is why are you selling parks when you have money that’s been approved by the voters of Wayne County to support the park … Parks aren’t for politicians to play with. Parks are for people." 

Diane Webb, who represents District 8 on the Wayne County Commission, said she’d support the creation of a Parks commission. 

“I don’t think I got ever more than six letters on an issue in my life, but when Warren Evans tried to sell parts of Hines Park, we got thousands of letters. So thank you,” she told the audience.
Khalil Rahal, an assistant county executive, said officials have had more than a dozen meetings with local leaders and other stakeholders on the efforts.

He said the county is still vetting offers, and "when we think we have (a proposal) the county can support ... we will have community meetings, we will go through the county commission in the exact same manner" as selling other properties, including gauging support through public meetings.

"The public is absolutely going to have an opportunity to provide input," he said.

Though a deadline for a decision has not been set, the aging mills' condition underscores the need to act quickly, Rahal added. 

"If we don't do something now, we’re going to lose the amazing history that’s there," he said.