Candidates vie for Detroit Neighborhood Advisory Committee

Advice needed.

Last week, filing petitions were due for an election most Hits readers were probably unaware of.

Inside the former S.S. Kresge headquarters — a beautiful art deco building on Second Avenue near the Masonic Temple recently rebranded as the Block at Cass Park — residents of the nearby Cass Corridor listened to 15 candidates for the fledgling Neighborhood Advisory Committee explain why they’d make a decent pick for the board.

Not sure what the hell a Neighborhood Advisory Committee is? Let’s back up.

Initially, after plans were unveiled last year for a $450 million new Detroit Red Wings arena in the Cass Corridor, community members worked to persuade the hockey team’s owner, Mike “Pizza Pizza” Ilitch and his real estate arm, Olympia Development of Michigan, to agree to a firm community benefits agreement.

Residents and stakeholders, such as the Corridors Alliance group, said a community benefits agreement — basically a formal contract requiring the developer to, say, uphold certain hiring practices, protect nearby homeowners from being pushed out, and more — could facilitate a smoother process that benefits all those affected by the project.

As we’ve written before, the arena, which will be bounded by I-75 and Woodward and Cass avenues, and Temple street, has required a painstaking laundry list of approvals to move toward a glorious groundbreaking ceremony: The Detroit City Council alone had to expand the footprint of the city’s Downtown Development Authority, greenlight the demolition of Joe Louis Arena under tepid terms, and transfer 39 parcels of land valued at $2.9 million to the DDA for a measly $1.

The moves have virtually given Ilitch control of downtown real estate between his Comerica Park and his wife Marian’s MotorCity Casino. 

(Under the arena deal, the DDA technically owns the land. But, as this rag previously reported, it’s entirely up to Olympia whether the proposed $200 million in adjacent spin-off development, a benchmark set for this project’s success, materializes.)

Now, if you thought this sweetheart deal, which gives Ilitch and his interests almost exactly what they want, would persuade him to accede to demands for a community benefits agreement, you’d be sorely mistaken. In February, before Detroit’s City Council agreed to the land-transfer swap, Olympia announced it had agreed to the creation of a 16-member Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC), 75 percent of which would be selected by members of the affected community. Detroit City Council appointed the first four members last month. 

“Olympia is excited to pledge to work with City Council on the creation of a neighborhood advisory committee,” one Ilitch rep said, according to a story from the Freep. At the time, the rep said the committee would be involved in things like the arena’s design, parking and security. 

The problem is the neighborhood council has no teeth. Its name alone indicates its absolute capability: to offer advice. Think of it as a customer service line, except Ilitch is the operator and can hang up whenever he wants.

Unfortunate realities aside, that didn’t stop three dozen Cass Corridor residents and business owners from attending the first of three meetings earlier this month to answer the first of many basic questions: How will anyone actually become elected, and who can vote? (On the latter point, one definitive answer was determined: No Ilitch employees allowed.)

Led by always-energetic Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, whose district represents the arena district, the meeting at times became difficult, as attendees grappled with the lack of structure. But after the group hashed out the process for electing members for the committee, and it was decided who exactly could vote, there was at least some idea of what was going on. 

Fast forward to last Wednesday: Candidates were offering their pitches to potential voters — who must live, work or own a business in a sprawling district that covers the mid-city. (See the online version of this story for a map of the defined area.)

At times, for the rabble rousers at Hits HQ, the meetings left us with a discouraging sense of irony: The city of Detroit’s democratically elected mayor and city council have virtually no power over the city’s financial and legislative decisions due to emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s appointment. The NAC, created as a byproduct of negotiations with the Ilitches, was created without any structure — the group had to formulate the democratic process from the ground up, in order to elect councilmembers who will have virtually no power over the arena’s construction. 

Needless to say, we were heartened to see a diverse pool of individuals eager to add their two cents to the massive undertaking some elected officials cheerily suggest will be a game-changer for downtown Detroit. 

Jason Gapa, an administrative assistant at the nearby Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center on Fort Street, told attendees he was running for the NAC because “I … believe this community needs a strong and collaborative voice.”

A resident of the neighborhood, Gapa said he’d fight to ensure residents have easy access to their homes during construction, demand Cass Park remain open to the public, and keep affordable housing in the area.

“A lot of times when these developments come in, we see low-income housing is the first to go,” he says.

Another longtime resident of the neighborhood, Richard Etue, says he’ll be OK with the new arena “as long as it takes the neighborhood into consideration.”

All I’d like to see is the current neighborhood be treated with respect,” he says. 

Councilwoman Lopez says ballots will be available for early voting at her office inside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. Community members will vote Wednesday, April 23, at the Block from 6 to 8 p.m., when absentee ballots will be tallied. 

Hopefully, when the NAC begins conducting meetings and taking action, Ilitch and Co. will be committed to hearing out the committee’s suggestions. At this point, that’s probably the least they could do. 

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