Hubbard Richard residents ‘devastated’ after council approves Moroun land transfer

February 21, 2023 4min read
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Hubbard Richard residents ‘devastated’ after council approves Moroun land transfer

Despite objections from more than a dozen residents who said the move would take away their last leverage to secure community benefits, Detroit City Council voted 6 to 3 Tuesday to approve a 3.8-acre land transfer to the Moroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Company.

The vote closes the book on a 2015 deal that the council declined to finalize in 2021, where the city received five acres of Moroun-owned land and $3 million for Riverside Park. The city will now give the bridge company the final acreage at 3085 W. Jefferson it needs to build a second span for the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge in exchange for another $2 million for the park. Councilmembers Gabriela Santiago-Romero, Latisha Johnson and James Tate opposed the measure. 

However, the council requested the city’s law department amend the deal to include a provision that the DIBC must secure a community benefits agreement if it builds a second span. 

Several community members spoke in favor of the deal, citing the need for more funding for Riverside Park. But others called on the council to delay voting on the deal until the bridge company agreed to engage in a community benefits process if a second span is built. Residents also want the Moroun-owned land along St. Anne’s Street and in the interior of the Hubbard Richard neighborhood transferred into a community land trust, which they believe would block expansion of the bridge’s customs plaza into the neighborhood.

Santiago-Romero, whose district includes the Ambassador Bridge and Hubbard Richard, said that delaying the deal was the only “leverage we have” to secure community protections and prevent the displacement of residents.  

“We’re devastated,” Sam Butler, president of the Hubbard Richard Resident Association, said of the ruling by council. “They have a gun to our head, and council just cocked the hammer.”

Butler and neighbors had been trying to negotiate a deal with the DIBC ahead of the council’s vote. On Monday, more than 40 residents gathered on the corner of St. Anne’s and Porter Street to call on council to block the transfer.

Ambassador Bridge owner Matthew Moroun said at the meeting that the company had completed their end of the 2015 deal and that the city needed to complete that agreement “before I can move on to the next one.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) spoke at the rally and referred to the fight against the DIBC as a multi-generational effort to stop the pollution and blight that the bridge and Moroun-owned trucking and real-estate companies had brought to the neighborhood.

“All I see is them wanting to take away from our community, not invest in our community,” Tlaib said. “And I am ashamed that our city would even want to give him any public spaces at all, after all the blight tickets, after everything they’ve done.”

Tlaib said that the bridge company no longer possessed the permits needed from the Canadian government and U.S. Coast Guard to build a second span for the bridge, saying, “this continues to be a land grab by them.”

Yet, Santiago-Romero previously told Planet Detroit that if the company were to move forward with a second span, the city wouldn’t have any power to stop them. 

But on Tuesday, council members seemed to be weighing community concerns against the need to honor a now almost eight-year-old deal. Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett said that having failed to finalize the deal, the city was “in breach of the contract,” which could expose it to potential legal action from the DIBC.

And Brad Dick, group executive of services & infrastructure for Detroit’s General Services Department, said that failing to complete the transfer and provide needed improvements to Riverside Park could delay the rollout of the 27.5-mile Joe Louis Greenway. “It’s going to connect basically to a dirt road,” he said.

However, at Monday’s rally, Tlaib challenged the idea that the issue was really about securing money for Riverside Park, saying that she had offered to help get federal funding to make the improvements. 

Councilmember Coleman Young II asked Moroun if he would work with residents to help the community get “some of what they want.”

“You got me,” Moroun said. “I promise I will do it.”

Yet, Butler doubts that residents can secure protections without the leverage withholding the transfer would have provided.

“I’m highly skeptical they’ll come back to the table in good faith,” he said. “Experience tells us their promises are usually hollow. I’m hoping they prove us wrong.”

Santiago-Romero drew attention to what she said were ongoing issues with Moroun-owned businesses, including illegal activity on residential parcels and the Ambassador Port Company’s unpaid drainage fees.

“I am working off of what I know to be true: the history of the company, the current status of how you manage to do business in the district and across the city, and it being very hard to believe that if we were to pass this today (you) would actually be working with us and coming up with any kind of protections for residents,” Santiago-Romero said.

At Monday’s rally, 60-year-old Ruben Romero, who lives on St. Anne’s Street, next to the wall of the bridge’s customs plaza, expressed concerns about seeing the bridge company continue to do the same things they had done in the past. 

He said that he had been protesting the bridge company since he was 12, and he believed that if the deal went through, the DIBC would keep buying up properties and bringing blight into the neighborhood to push residents out.

“I believe that if we give them an inch, they’re gonna take a foot,” Romero said. “And they’ve been doing that forever and ever.”

Photo by Brian Allnutt