The city of Ypsilanti is inching forward with a proposal to sell city-owned land to developers who want to build a more than $300 million housing and retail development on the polluted site.
After a meeting that lasted more than six hours, the council voted 4-3 to agree to a non-binding land purchase agreement with International Village LLC, the development company headed by Troy-based Amy Foster. Two city council members abstained from voting and one voted no.
Most of the details of the development plan are yet to be determined at this early stage, which frustrated and concerned some city council members and Ypsilanti residents attending the meeting.
“Is it going to be a perfect project? Probably not. The perfect project does not exist,” said city councilwoman Beth Bashert. “The question is, is this a project that will meet the needs of Ypsilanti, be a good endeavor for the developer, and enhance our community? I believe it is.”
Bashert was one of the four yes votes.
Dozens of Ypsilanti residents spent hours making public comments to the council about the development proposal. Many worried the influence of foreign investment could change the city’s culture and feel, and could lead to gentrification through the displacement of low-income renters in the city.
You can read more about the details of the proposed development and the approved land purchase agreement, here.
Wayne Hoffman, a representative of the International Village development team, pitched the project as a major economic development for the city, and says it would create an estimated 2,600 jobs. Forty percent of the funding for the endeavor is slated to come from Chinese investors applying for U.S. visas through the federal EB-5 investment program.
“I take the statement from the developers that global capital will eventually come for [Ypsilanti] as being a threat,” said Ypsilanti resident Finn Bell. “Ypsi becoming like all those other gentrified cities is not progress.”
Despite the concerns of residents who attended the meeting, Ypsilanti council member Daniel Vogt said that during his more than six years serving on the city council, people in the community have repeatedly asked the city to do something about the burden of the Water Street property, a roughly 36-acre parcel east of the city’s downtown. The property is polluted from previous industrial use. Ypsilanti's finance director Marilou Uy says the city owes $9.9 million in municipal bonds on a property that is mostly undeveloped.
“Anybody in this council who does not vote for a viable project for Water Street is going to have hundreds of people actively fighting against them in the next election,” Vogt said.
During his presentation to council and the pubic, Hoffmann made no mention of affordable housing, which at this point has not been included in the plan. Ypsilanti Director of Economic Development Beth Ernat has previously said that including affordable housing in the project would put the financial viability of the deal in question for the International Village Development team.
Hoffmann did address a relatively common criticism of the EB-5 investment program — that it creates a path to U.S. residency that favors wealthy investors from overseas.
“This is not a fast-track visa,” Hoffmann said. “People who invest in the EB-5 program, especially a project this big, are at risk for four to five years. They could lose all their money.”
Hoffmann presented slides of conceptual designs for the proposed development, which would include student housing as well as condominiums and single-family rental units. But the entire development is still in the nascent stages. Even after the approval of the land purchase agreement by the council at Tuesday’s meeting, both the developer and the city can walk away from the deal, and the final terms of the development would require city council approval.
The EB-5 investment program requires each foreign investor to put down $500,000 on a project that ultimately “create(s) or preserve(s) 10 permanent full-time jobs for qualified U.S. workers.”
City council and the International Village Development team has until year’s end to create a development agreement.
Representatives from the development team and the city of Ypsilanti are planning to travel to China to, in part, court more foreign investors early in October.