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As Detroit sees new development, the question becomes: Who benefits?

Dec 15, 2014

Gov. Snyder signs a bill creating a new Detroit arena district in 2012. The project has been criticized for a lack of transparency and response to neighborhood concerns about the new development.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

In Detroit, city leaders are debating the best way to make sure the city’s neighborhoods see real gains from new development.

One proposal: a city ordinance that would require some big new projects include so-called “community benefits agreements.”

But the idea has some people worried, and has generated pushback in Detroit and beyond.


Development in Detroit: new momentum, old concerns, and a push for community benefits

Walk around certain parts of Detroit these days — most notably the city’s downtown and midtown areas — and you’ll hear plenty of the signature sounds of construction.

It can be annoying, especially if you find yourself stuck in traffic stemming from construction of the new M-1 streetcar line along Woodward Avenue.

Scenes of new development both big and small are a welcome sight in a city that hasn’t seen anything like it for decades.

But for some Detroiters, optimism about new investment is tempered by concern.

Detroiters want new investment in their communities — no question.

But many are also wary. They know from the city’s history that some development, especially big mega-projects, can end up “bleeding out” their host communities.

So people like Mary King started to wonder: “Was there another way to do development in Detroit that would include those communities?”

King is executive director of the group Doing Development Differently in Detroit (D-4), which launched just recently. But it stemmed from years of conversations about how to best address community interests and concerns about new development.

King is clear that D-4 supports new development. But “it can’t be development at any cost,” she says. “It had to be responsive to needs of the community”

In recent years, the idea of using community benefits agreements has picked up steam as a way to do just that.

And not just in Detroit. Some other big cities have adopted CBAs, usually in conjunction with big developments like a new stadium. They’re meant to ensure public support and minimize any negative impacts associated with new projects, especially if those projects are getting taxpayer subsidies.

CBAs can include lots of different provisions. Often, the focus tends to be on job guarantees and job training opportunities for local residents and contractors.

King said that’s often a big part of CBAs, but it’s far from the only concern they deal with.

“Typically you’ll see agreements around things like environmental concerns and safe building practices, and attention paid to things like traffic, parking and safety,” King said. “And things like potential displacement. Where are the current residents going to go? What kind of compensation is there for them? And will those residents be able to continue to afford to live in the neighborhood some of them have been in for many, many years?”

“The community is always last at the table”

The key thing, CBA advocates say, is that the community be represented from the start whenever there’s discussion of big new development projects.

They feel like that just hasn’t happened in Detroit historically, and worry that some communities are about to get railroaded by a new wave of development.

“A lot of people need to be at the table, and the community is always apparently last at the table,” said Scott Brines, head of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition and we are the hosts.”

The Delray community is about to host the biggest new development seen in years: a more than $1 billion, new international bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario.

The project has been in the works for years, and Brines says the community is largely supportive.

But he says residents are getting frustrated. Despite years of promises from government officials in both the U.S. and Canada, there’s still no benefits agreement — or any formal mechanism to guarantee the community has a real say in the whole process.

“We have a 160-acre plaza that’s landing in a community, taking 250-something families’ homes, moving out 40 businesses and churches, and really rearranging the community,” Brines said. “Well, what’s the public benefit of that?”

That experience and others have prompted Brines and others in Detroit to support a legal framework that gives communities more power to negotiate.

A proposed community benefits ordinance has been in the works there for well over a year now.

The ordinance would only apply to some major new projects, and supporters like Brines say they’re willing to be flexible on many of the details.

But the idea has received some fierce pushback from parts of the business community and city government. Mayor Mike Duggan has expressed doubts, as has the city’s economic development arm, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.

Malinda Jensen, the DEGC’s director of business development, says the agency believes in a strong community benefits “agenda," but thinks an ordinance is too much of a clunky, one-size-fits all approach.

“Every development project that we’ve dealt with, they’re all different,” Jensen said. “And just having a blanket ordinance is not the appropriate way to address development in the Detroit landscape in 2014.”

Jensen and others warn that mandating community benefits could slow down development in Detroit, just as it hits its stride.

“In theory, it sounds great,” Jensen said. “But when you get down to the practical side — how you put it in place and make sure that the mechanism actually works — just highly problematic.”

Nonetheless, the DEGC and Duggan administration say they recognize that pro-development forces have ignored community concerns in the past, and they’re committed to changing that. Duggan’s office is working on a community benefits “policy” as an alternative to an ordinance.

But community benefits advocates say “policies” can change along with city leadership — that’s why the city needs the legal guarantees of an ordinance. And they push back against the idea that CBAs will hurt business and chill economic development.

“We have some really good evidence that not only are community benefit agreements good for the community, but they [are] actually are helpful for developers,” said D4’s Mary King.

Pushback comes from Lansing, too

But despite their disagreements, the two sides in Detroit say ongoing negotiations surrounding the ordinance have been civil and productive.

So it took almost everyone by surprise when Lansing suddenly jumped into the fray during this “lame duck” session of the state legislature.

Jackson State Representative Earl Poleski introduced a bill that would ban cities from requiring community benefits agreements, or putting any number of other conditions on employers.

Poleski says the idea behind it is simple: “To make the business environment as consistent as possible in our state benefits all of us.”

But even many of Poleski’s Republican colleagues were uneasy about a bill that would strip more authority from local governments.

And in Detroit, Duggan and others who have opposed a community benefits ordinance condemned the bill as state overreach.

The bill did get support from some powerful business groups, notably the Detroit Regional Chamber. It passed out of committee, but never made it to the House floor.

That means it’s dead unless resurrected in a later session — a scenario that concerns CBA advocates. But in the meantime, Detroit’s ordinance still has a shot.

The proposal is still pending before the Detroit City Council. City leaders will likely take it up again early next year.