The Corridors Alliance on Detroit’s proposed Arena District

We are quite sure you’ve already heard about the planned Arena District in Detroit, which comes with a price tag of $650 million, and what we hope you’re aware of is the coalition that is trying to steer it in the right direction. The Corridors Alliance is “a community coalition of Detroit residents who believe in the equitable revitalization of the city’s core,” and they are working to make sure the development results in shared prosperity for all Detroiters. We sat down with Francis Grunow, a member of the Corridors Alliance and resident of the development area, to discuss the district, the alliance, and the potential impact their involvement may have in the process.

For about three years, the Alliance has been working to ensure that the arena development’s impact on local residents and the surrounding areas is as positive as it can be. To achieve this, they believe the foundation of the development process should be the inclusion of the community, and their mission is providing that opportunity, hopefully eventually in an official capacity.  Grunow explains: “Because these projects are using public money, and because many of the decisions are being made not by publicly elected officials but by private developers, there needs to be accountability to the public, and they deserve the ability to participate in those decisions.”

“The message is,” says Grunow, “this project stands for something bigger going on in the community – it is not isolated, and the implications of the project citywide are significant.”  This development won’t just affect a few blocks surrounding the arena – and the Alliance wants to make sure all impacts are considered.

One of the ways they’re doing this is by advocating that we expand the way we define the affected area. The Alliance noticed that the catalyst areaas defined by the developers, which limits who is considered a “stakeholder” – didn’t reflect a very holistic view of the neighborhoods in the area and excluded a lot of vulnerable populations, housing, businesses and schools. For example, the Brush Park neighborhood, which sits directly across Woodward Avenue from the arena footprint, is not included in the catalyst area—but there is no doubt the development would have an impact on people living there. For this reason, the Alliance has defined a larger impact area (see map) to more accurately include all of the neighborhoods that will be affected.

To do so, they looked at the other catalytic forces – urban elements that are also driving development – in the larger scope of greater downtown with the idea that these anchors could push in to each other, connecting and working together, resulting in healthier neighborhoods.  Anchors like Wayne State University to the north and the Central Business District to the south, if more meaningfully integrated with the arena district, could benefit the whole city.

The specific aspects of urban development that the Alliance is focusing on provide a comprehensive set of guidelines.  These priorities include on connectivity, collaboration and integration with existing groups and communities, preservation of neighborhood identity and authenticity, and proper consideration for social justice concerns. With these they aim to task the project to maximize the integration of the development between neighborhoods for the good of the city.

As things start to move faster and decisions are finalized, the Alliance is working hard to get their foot in the door.

This Friday, Detroit City Council is expected to vote on the expansion of the Detroit Downtown Development Authority (DDA) tax area to include the arena and catalyst area, a major step in the approval process.  Council has agreed to look at the Corridor Alliance’s list of requests, thereby considering negotiating some or all aspects of it in the concession-management agreement (the agreement between the DDA and Olympia Development).

The Alliance hopes to ensure positive impact of the development on the area through the implementation of a negotiated Community Benefits Agreement, a binding contract between the developer, the appropriate granting authority (the DDA) and the community.  The Alliance has requested that Detroit City Council require the agreement to be negotiated and signed before any more votes on the project are made.

Complicated, we know—and an interesting and relevant study in civic participation.  Essentially, the Corridors Alliance is asking City Council to put into written contract those development elements that have emerged, over the last few years of community meetings for businesses and residents in the catalyst area, as likely to maximize the benefits of the arena for the greater community of Detroit.

These elements, which include provisions like, At least 51% of the construction workforce must be bona fide Detroit residents, and 15% of all new/rehabilitated rental housing units will be affordable for residents at or below 50% of Area Median Income.  We especially love this one: A “complete streets” design to increase opportunities for alternative transportation including walking and biking, and a decrease in vehicular traffic.” The rest of the elements the Alliance has detailed can be found on their Facebook page.

While developers may occasionally, of their own volition, seek community input, there is little accountability; when it comes down to decision-making, they hold all the chips.  “I think that the fact that the agreement is negotiated and signed means something.” Grunow adds, “This means the community is part of the development in a more meaningful way.”  And that’s a victory.

As the Alliance continues its efforts, we encourage you to find a way to get involved.  Grunow urges all of you in the city to join them before City Council this Friday, December 20th at 9AM to voice your opinion during the public comment.  Grunow stressed how important it is for Detroiters to show up and express concern over how the dollars are spent.

If you would like to play the Corridor’s Alliance Game – a replica of the district with moving pieces so players can design their own district – contact the Alliance at corridors.alliance@gmail.com.

You can also participate by taking their online survey here.

Use Hashtag #DetArenaDistrict on Twitter to follow and engage in this conversation.