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Detroit’s Showcase Neighborhood Project Falls a Year Behind Schedule

By Joe Guillen The City of Detroit’s monumental project to revitalize a northwest neighborhood has fallen more than a year behind schedule, lost a portion of its federal funding and has generated allegations that city officials are exaggerating the level of community input on the project. Conflicting accounts have left some community activists and residents unsure of the project’s progress. After questions from the Free Press, city leaders pushed back its expected completion date until December 2020 — despite highly publicized promises city officials made for what has been touted as a redevelopment showcase. Last spring, Mayor Mike Duggan — foreshadowing re-election campaign promises to revive the city’s struggling neighborhoods — announced that 115 vacant houses and about 200 empty lots would be rehabilitated over the next 2½ years in the Fitzgerald neighborhood alongside Livernois Avenue and the University of Detroit Mercy. To date, more than a year after the project was announced, the developer has not fully renovated a single house — although three houses are expected to be finished this summer. Beautification of the 200 vacant lots has not started yet either. Most of the lots are cleared of trash, but there are little to no signs of the vegetable gardens, landscaping and other plans for the lots the developer laid out. The Fitzgerald revitalization project is crucial to Duggan’s plan to address the abandonment and blight that continues to hinder Detroit’s neighborhoods. It serves as a starting point for a broader strategy striving to show there are not "two Detroits" — a concept rooted in the belief of some that downtown development is king while longtime Detroiters living in neighborhoods are left behind. The city did not set specific benchmarks for the developer to hit along the way in the Fitzgerald neighborhood. But the developer's proposal included a timeline that estimated 35 houses would be rehabilitated after one year on the job. Meanwhile, optimism has faded among residents familiar with the project. There is confusion about jobs that were supposed to be created, and communication with the developer has been uneven. The developer, Fitz Forward, did not specify a number of jobs to be created in its proposal. However, part of its workforce development plan — demolition of homes through deconstruction that would preserve some materials for reuse — is no longer happening. Gaston Nash, president of the College Core Block Club, said residents expected more results since the April 2017 kickoff of the project. "We expected to see progress not too long after that. Now we're finding out that they're really just getting started," Nash said. "I'm really not quite sure — other than what's been worked on with those three homes — what's been done so far." The protracted pace has cost the project some federal funding. Nearly three months ago, after project delays reduced a $1.6-million federal grant by $274,000, the city took an unusual step: It fixed the shortfall in federal money by withdrawing cash from its general fund for the developer to help cover costs related to rehabbing 12 houses. Federal funding is commonly dependent on recipients moving in a timely fashion. City officials reduced the federal grant because delays raised doubts that all the money would be spent before the grant's spending deadline passed. Arthur Jemison, the city’s chief of services and infrastructure, stressed the city voluntarily reduced the grant amount and the money was made available for other city activities eligible for the federal grant funds. State law says public funds such as those used to replace that chunk of federal money can be used only for public purposes. The city's top lawyer, corporation counsel Lawrence Garcia, said the gap-filling expenditure from the general fund is legal because the project creates affordable housing. “The city's allocation of funding to the Fitzgerald project is entirely appropriate. It serves the public good," Garcia said in a statement. City leaders acknowledge the project is moving slower than expected, but they said it remains on track in a big-picture sense. While the home renovations and lot improvements are behind schedule, the city is about ready to open the new, 2.5-acre Ella Fitzgerald Park in the middle of the neighborhood. The park, which includes a basketball court, picnic area and a playground, is among the city's contributions to the project. The developer was not involved. Construction of a bike path between Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College that links to the city's growing network of bike lanes and greenways, including the Dequindre Cut, is expected to begin this summer. It was originally supposed to start in December last year. “What we’re doing here literally has not been done before by any community in America,” Detroit planning director Maurice Cox said in an interview. “When we succeed — and we will succeed — there will be a lot of people nationally asking, ‘How did you do this?’ That’s the kind of precedent-setting aspect of this work that makes it rewarding, and also makes it challenging.” Duggan touted the city’s vision for Fitzgerald during his re-election campaign last year and recently toured the neighborhood on foot with a Yahoo News reporter for a May 30 article headlined, “Detroit's mayor takes on gentrification as his city bounces back from bankruptcy.” “Over time, you don’t restore trust by making more promises; you restore trust by actually doing what you said you were going to do,” Duggan told Yahoo News. The Livernois-McNichols area, which includes Fitzgerald, was among the first three areas the city targeted for improvement under Duggan. The city raised $42 million, including philanthropic and corporate contributions, for those areas. The city is planning to raise another $130 million for seven more neighborhoods that have been selected for similar revitalization efforts, with Fitzgerald serving as a model. Other neighborhood projects are underway. Just Monday, city officials joined residents of Corktown to discuss improvements planned for that neighborhood. The city is a driving force in creating a new vision in neighborhoods because so much property in Detroit is publicly owned following decades of abandonment and the recent foreclosure crisis. The city’s vision for Fitzgerald — tackling 373 parcels (every publicly owned abandoned piece of property within a quarter-square mile) — was bold. The timeline to complete the work was aggressive. “By fall 2019, just two years from the start of construction, the entire project must be completed, with rehabbed homes occupied by families,” reads the city’s news release announcing the project’s launch in April 2017. Jemison, the official in charge of services and infrastructure for the city, said in an interview that he clearly remembers the city's ambitious timeline for the project’s completion. As the project stands now, he said, the city is willing to recalibrate the timetable given that the development team has made what the city considers adequate progress. The city’s new projected date of completion is December 2020. “We’re trying to push this project as fast as we can. They have the right to come back to us and ask (for more time) but we’re pretty serious about them being done. Right now, we think they’re a little behind. I think they’d probably say the same thing. We could write a list of the reasons why they’re behind. I think they’re legitimate reasons.” Fitz Forward is a joint venture between Century Partners, a company founded in 2015 that rehabbed more than two dozen Detroit properties before taking on the Fitzgerald project, and The Platform, a development firm that is providing financial backing and serving in an advisory role. David Alade, co-founder of Century Partners, said the Fitzgerald project is complex. “Single-family residential scattershot development is the hardest type of real estate to do,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s the hardest to finance; it’s the hardest to manage; it’s the hardest to get insurance, particularly in a neighborhood that's had some challenges such as Fitzgerald. But we look at it as an opportunity.” Alade said the total cost of the project is $12 million to $15 million. Dietrich Knoer, president and CEO of The Platform, declined to say specifically how much money the firm is putting into the Fitzgerald project. It's one of three neighborhoods in which The Platform is working. The others are Islandview and the area around Old Redford and Brightmoor. “There’s a lot of beauty in these neighborhoods,” Knoer said in an interview. “If we want to deal with the challenge of being a city of 138 square miles, we need to bring the neighborhoods along.” How the project has unfolded over the last 15 months gives insight into just how difficult it will be for Detroit to revive its neighborhoods, even those that are relatively strong yet dealing with pervasive problems such as blight, poverty and crime. Why Fitzgerald? City leaders picked Fitzgerald because it has healthy bones. The section of the neighborhood targeted for revitalization is bookended by Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College and is near the reemerging commercial corridor along Livernois Avenue. Its housing stock is considered strong, although 30 percent of parcels are vacant homes or empty lots. Cox, the city’s planning director, said Fitzgerald’s combination of abandoned homes and vacant lots is a common Detroit condition. So officials zeroed in on a strategy they could replicate for other areas of the city: Rehabilitated houses could be packaged with newly landscaped lots, increasing the amount of property a home buyer would get. “I think the real brilliance of this experiment was not to just go in and take on vacant houses, but to take on the vacant lots, too,” Cox said. Cox and other city officials involved in drawing up the Fitzgerald strategy stress that residents played a prominent role. The city repeatedly has claimed 40 community meetings were held before the Fitzgerald developer was chosen. It has become a point of contention among residents, and was discussed at a community meeting. City officials stand behind their tally, saying the number includes block club meetings with city employees, city-led neighborhood walks and "pop-up events," such as a barbecue on vacant lots in the neighborhood. Nash, the block club president, said the city is overstating its outreach. He counted three community meetings to discuss the project. “When we came back the second time, the plan looked pretty much the same as it did the first time,” Nash said. “The third time we came back and it had changed a little bit to show some of the things we had talked about previously but they were like, ‘This is it; this is pretty much what we’re doing.’ ” Evidence of the city’s haphazard planning sits along the new Ella Fitzgerald Park, Nash said. The city tore down several vacant houses to make way for the park between San Juan Drive and Prairie Street. But one occupied house on San Juan sits within the park’s footprint. So the city built the park around the house. “They literally built the park around somebody’s house on three sides,” Nash said. Duggan spokesman John Roach said a deal was stuck so the occupant could remain in the home rather than be uprooted to make way for the park. “He will oversee the park and make sure there were eyes on the park,” added Cox. But Stanford Penn, who owns the house and rents it out, said nobody from the city talked to him. “City ain’t worked out no deal with me,” Penn, 60, said when reached by phone. “My tenants told me" about the park. “I told him about the park,” Sheila Johnson, Penn's tenant, said recently from the doorway of the house, which she has rented for the last few years. Johnson, 50, said she didn’t know the city was even building a park until vacant houses surrounding her house were torn down and a sign describing the park was posted. Another issue causing some confusion among residents is the availability of side lots — vacant parcels the Detroit Land Bank offers citywide for $100 to homeowners who live next to them. Nash said Duggan told him at a community meeting in Nash's house that he and other Fitzgerald residents would be able to buy side lots. But Nash said he has been unable to buy a lot behind his house because it is promised to Fitz Forward. Since more than half of the parcels in the project area are still owned by the Land Bank, Fitz Forward seemingly has been put in a position to make decisions about which side lots are available to residents. Alade said Fitz Forward has facilitated about five such sales. When Nash approached Fitz Forward about buying the lot, the developer was noncommittal. Nash said he was told he might be able to buy a side lot from Fitz Forward at a later time for $2,000 to $5,000 — the cost of their renovations; much more than the Land Bank’s typical $100 price tag. Despite his frustrations, Nash said he believes city officials leading the Fitzgerald project sincerely want to improve the neighborhood in the best way possible. “I think their heart is in the right place but politics always creeps in,” he said during an interview in his home. “When this project started, there was an election (for mayor) that was going to happen that fall ... people are skeptical about what’s going on in the neighborhoods? Let’s show them that we’re going to fix neighborhoods. “In their eagerness to be able to show these things, they end up promising things.” With all the work rehabilitating homes and clearing vacant lots, Fitzgerald residents also were told the revitalization project would bring jobs. A handful have been hired so far. Help wanted? Some are still waiting for jobs. Jamon Blue, 38, lives near one of the three Fitzgerald homes under construction. He works for an asphalt company but is looking for something more consistent. He specializes in jobs involving ceramic tile, vinyl tile, drywall and painting, he said. Blue said he has spoken to the developer’s project manager several times about a job. “I’ve seen him about 10 times. He gave me the same answer 10 times. He said, ‘When things pick up, he’ll be hiring people,’ ” Blue said. “When is it going to start? 'Cause I’m ready.” Patrick Linder, the project manager for Century Partners, acknowledged he has had conversations with residents like the one Blue described. Linder said he gives residents his business card — “I’ve gone through a 500-block set” — and directs them to the job application portal on the company’s website. “As far as hiring people, we need to make sure we have a good spot to put them,” Linder said recently outside a house Century Partners is rehabbing. Linder joined Century Partners last year. While he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, one of his teachers was Kimberly Dowdell, a partner with the firm. Shortly after his hiring, Linder bought a house in Fitzgerald and has been fixing it up. “One of the first things I noticed that really encouraged me about Fitzgerald was how people occupy the porches,” Linder said, recalling his thesis that examined how people inhabit porches as a transparent space. “They sit on the porch, they interact with each other; when you’re walking by, they want to talk to you and that encouraged me because they’re actively in the street and they’re willing to be neighborly and they’re willing to be open.” Not long after the project was announced last spring, residents thought jobs would follow, said Cheryl Williams-Kearney, a former community engagement consultant for Century Partners. She recalled a contentious community meeting last summer. “They’re going crazy on me because they thought they were going to have jobs. They knew they didn’t have skills to do the main construction work for the rehab but they thought they’d be doing the painting and so on and so forth,” she said. “Some of it was unreasonable expectations but part of it was due to — it was not explained to them.” An opportunity for work came in October, when Fitz Forward had to board up all the vacant houses before it could acquire and renovate them. The board-ups happened two months later than expected, city officials said. When it came time to hire residents, a flyer for a recruiting event was disseminated in the community. Problem was, residents complained, it went out less than 48 hours beforehand. One Fitzgerald resident wrote a concerned email to Williams-Kearney that read, in part: “I am just seeing the flyer for the job fair tomorrow. ... I asked several active Fitzgerald residents and none of them were aware of it either. Overall, there just seems to be a lack of communication between Fitz Forward and the Fitzgerald residents.” Century Partners co-founder Andrew Colom said the developer is still getting a handle on how best to reach residents. “We just got to do better,” he said. Alade, the other co-founder, said between five to 10 residents have worked on the project so far. They were hired during the October recruiting event. Mass communication with residents in Fitzgerald — like many Detroit neighborhoods — can be difficult. Not everyone has easy Internet access. Some residents aren’t engaged in community affairs. Dr. Antoine Garibaldi, Detroit Mercy president, said a new project office is under construction that will help with communications. Garibaldi, whose university is involved in developing the area, said the idea is to create an information hub of sorts for residents. "I can understand the impatience and the questioning that can go on on the part of residents,” Garibaldi said. "And that is really what my expectation was for this, too, because I've told the community, I've told the students … people need to know and they need to know what the timetable is, too." Another obstacle is a deeply rooted skepticism within residents who have lived through the city’s decline. “The year after I bought a house here ... in 2009, they were tearing iron off of porches, you know what I’m saying?” Nash said. “The alleys were a complete mess, no cleaning, people were dumping. That garden on the corner was a dumping lot. I just think it’s been years of neglect, and it can wear on people, it can make them feel like nothing. ... “I just feel like when you live in a neighborhood like that, it makes you angry. It makes you feel like, well, damn, who’s looking out for me?” 'This is a really, really complicated project.' The Free Press first interviewed Alade and others on the Century Partners team on May 25. At that point, the developer owned just nine parcels of the 320 it is tasked with renovating. Alade said he didn’t think the project was delayed. Century spent the prior year negotiating a development agreement with the Land Bank, boarding up houses, clearing lots and hiring staff, he said. Under its development agreement with the Land Bank, Fitz Forward — the joint venture between Century Partners and The Platform — gets vacant houses for $1,000 each and empty lots for $300. The developer’s first purchase of nine parcels was April 16 for $7,600. It bought another 119 on June 22 for $74,200. Five days after the second property closing, Fitz Forward called a news conference to announce its progress. Alade spoke with several reporters inside 16230 Lilac St. — expected to be the project’s first fully renovated house. Two other renovations are underway and houses should be up for sale this summer, Alade said. “This is a really, really complicated project,” he said. “The residents in this neighborhood have been through a lot. There have been a lot of starts and stops, a lot of promises made for this neighborhood as well. We needed to take the time to really make sure everyone was on the same page.”

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