Politics and Prejudices: Detroit Council follies

Jul 22, 2015 at 1:00 am

Gotta love those wild and crazy kids on the Detroit City Council! Back in April, they rolled over for Mike Ilitch's empire like a set of cocker spaniel puppies, happily rezoning a dozen acres to make him happier with his new hockey and entertainment palace.

Excuse me. I meant the one we're mostly building for him. The public is picking up about three-fifths of the costs of his new $450 million playpen, and the taxpayers and the city get nothing.

Not a penny from the parking, not a penny from concession revenue. Nothing, except for some temporary jobs the construction is likely to create, assuming some of the workers live in Detroit.

Nobody in city government seemed to object much to that; after all, serfs have been building palaces for the czars for millennia.

Yet what a contrast with the council's reaction last week when asked to approve Mayor Mike Duggan's Riverside Park deal with Matty Moroun! This was the deal whereby the city gives Moroun three acres of Riverside Park in return for five acres next to it, and our least-favorite slumlord kicks in $5 million to fix up the rest of what has become a rather rundown and seedy park.

Additionally, Moroun has to install 1,050 windows in the hulking wreck of the old Michigan Central Station, Detroit's most famous skyline eyesore. According to the agreement, Moroun, by the way, doesn't get his land till he's fulfilled all of the city's conditions.

Suddenly, the deal caught the city council's attention. For years, they had paid so little attention to Moroun and his antics that he was able to get away with seizing part of Riverside Park, putting up phony "Homeland Security" signs, and blocking public assets.

Nobody moved to stop him till intrepid investigative reporter and blogger Joel Thurtell finally wrote about being confronted at the park by one of Matty's gun-toting goons.

Things are different now, however. Council jumped into the fray, seeking to impose their conditions on the deal. Scott Benson wanted to set up a complicated mechanism to capture property taxes and use them to offset pollution and other problems caused by a new bridge. Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who represents a district that includes the area where the bridge stands, had a laundry list of demands, including that the city only grant an easement to Moroun for a century, instead of selling the land to him.

She also wants the city to insist on 10 percent of any revenue from a new bridge, and for the Ambassador Bridge Company to be required to provide a hefty community benefits package.

Great ideas, all of them! Except there's one little secret catch that the council members don't seem to have figured out:

There isn't going to be any new bridge at that site.

Not while the old one is up and standing, anyway. Not in the lifetime of the 88-year-old creature known as Matty Moroun, and possibly not ever. Here's the scoop, as I see it:

Moroun is famous for screwing over people, but Mike Duggan has outsmarted him this time. Moroun is as obsessed with his bridge as Ahab was with the whale, and knows someday the old one will have to be replaced. He may still entertain fantasies of two Ambassador Bridge spans running at the same time.

But it won't ever happen. Nobody in Michigan other than the squalid little state legislators he buys and lawyers he pays has any use for Matty Moroun. Nobody in Canada can stand him either.

For years, I've talked to Canadian politicians and diplomats about this whole issue. They won't say this publicly, but they'll never let him build a second bridge. Never, never, ever.

Nor should they, even if Moroun was Father Teresa and wanted to give all the money to the poor. Even one bridge in that place is an environmental hazard and a traffic-snarling disaster. (A new parkway connecting traffic quicker to Canadian highways will help some, but not enough, and won't prevent trucks from stacking up on the U.S. side.)

Duggan presumably knows this, but isn't about to say so. He knows the Gordie Howe International Bridge is going to be built, two miles downstream.

Duggan has told me he feels strongly we need two bridges, which also makes sense. Someday, he thinks a replacement span ought to be built when the Ambassador is taken out of service.

Whether the Morouns will still own the bridge if and when that happens is anyone's guess. But guess what: No matter who owns it, or when that happens, they couldn't start building a second bridge or a replacement bridge without a long permit process that — even in a fastest-case scenario — could easily take years.

That would be the proper time for those governing Detroit to demand community benefits, with the assistance of its state and federal allies. Make no mistake about it: Anyone who does get to build any bridge can and should kick in for the community and city and safeguard the environment. But demanding a laundry list of things now is risky if it has the potential to kill this deal.

This is a golden opportunity — possibly the best we'll ever get — to spruce up Riverside Park for the people, get some land for the city, and make our defining eyesore a little less ugly.

What will we all gain if this all falls apart? Give me an answer that makes sense ... and I'll buy you a free meal from Aramark.

Question for the GOP: Everyone is shocked, shocked that Donald Trump, the only presidential candidate with yellow rayon hair, is saying outrageously nasty things about Mexican immigrants.

Trump is, indeed, every bit as awful as he seems, though he may well not take himself seriously, since, after repeatedly calling Mexicans "rapists," he predicted that he would win the Hispanic vote.

What's more significant is how few of his fellow GOP contenders (with the exception of Lindsey Graham) rushed to denounce him for his vulgar racist rhetoric.

You have to wonder if this is because: (A) they know damn well that many of their voters agree; (B) they don't feel that differently, aside from knowing they need some protective gloss; or (C) both.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.