Detroit voters face test on big development deals

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

An occasionally raucous debate took place Saturday over whether Detroit should be the first city in the nation to ensure multimillion-dollar business developments that get tax subsidies must also secure approval from a local neighborhood committee.

There are dueling “community benefits” ordinances on the Detroit ballot — Proposals A and B. Only one may become law; it must get more than 50 percent approval by voters and get more votes than the competing proposal. The ordinances come at a time when certain parts of Detroit are experiencing billions of dollars in investment, ranging from a new sports arena, dozens of upscale housing plans and an influx of small retailers.

Both Proposals A and B aim to guarantee that residents and contractors in Detroit receivebenefits from developments that receive tax breaks or other public support. The benefits include jobs, traffic and environmental concerns and other spinoff development.

But the details in the ordinances differ to the point where each camp accuses the other of offering a proposal that will harm neighborhoods.

At a Saturday forum at the Wayne County Community College District campus downtown, supporters for the two proposals showed just how much they disagree. The event took place during the seventh annual ARISE! Detroit Neighborhoods Rising Summit, a day-long gathering of more than 200 area community leaders.

“What’s is in Proposal A is you get a contract that hears your voice. The contract for things that you need in your neighborhood. That you get a vote” on a variety of developments, said City Council President Brenda Jones.

Proposal A is led by the group Rise Together Detroit and mirrors efforts Jones has worked on for years.

Proposal A calls for developers to provide community benefits if their projects have a public and/or private investment of more than $15 million or they’re seeking a tax break from the city of at least $300,000. Developers must secure legally binding agreements with the neighborhood advisory groups that are selected for each project. It bars the council and other city officials from having direct involvement in selecting those community representatives. It also empowers residents to pursue legal action on their own if deals aren't upheld.

Many unions, developers and others to decry the measure as a “jobs killer.”

Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff Alexis Wiley was one of two Proposal B supporters who spoke at the forum and depicted some of the language Proposal A as dangerously vague.

“We do not want to solve a problem by creating another problem,” Wiley said “Proposal A doesn’t make sense for Detroit. They are talking about legal binding agreements, but it doesn’t address what happens when a developer gets mad and decides to sue. There’s a reason there is no law like this in any other part of the country.”

Wiley also pointed out language in Proposal A allows residents from “adjacent census tracts” to be in the advisory groups. That could mean residents from bordering suburbs could be on the neighborhood groups, critics contend.

Proposal B sets a higher financial threshold, compared to Proposal A, before a community benefits pact must be sought. Proposal B requires developers to provide community benefits for projects worth at least $75 million or for those that would expand or renovate structures where a developer seeks city-owned land or tax breaks of at least $1 million.

Jones said the $75 million mark renders Proposal B virtually meaningless. She pointed out only one development out of 55 deals approved under the Duggan administration has met that $75 million mark.

Under Proposal B, a neighborhood advisory council would be set up for areas affected by development with appointments from the city’s planning director and in consultation with the council. Developers would not be required to enter into legally binding agreements with the neighborhood advisory groups, unlike Proposal A.

Residents can vote for both Proposal A and B, neither, or just one of the measures. If both pass, whichever proposal receives the majority of votes will be put into place.

Twitter @LouisAguilar_DN

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.