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10 reasons why Detroit City Council should say ‘no’ to proposed lease of Belle Isle

By JoAnn Watson

The state of Michigan claims that “establishing Belle Isle as a state park provides financial relief to Detroit … brings … restoration and enhancements to the park, and guarantees a beautiful place for Michigan residents to enjoy for decades to come.” However, the proposed lease guarantees zero dollars in compensation to the city of Detroit for a 30-year lease of Belle Isle with two automatic renewable lease terms, or a 90-year agreement, for the property which the city of Detroit paid nearly $200,00 for in the 19th century. Further, the state has stated it should not be held liable for improvements to the park if the state legislature fails to appropriate funds for same; and the state has stated that the lease should be recorded with the Register of Deeds — which normally records property sales, not leases.

1. Based upon the Charter of the city of Detroit and the Michigan Constitution, the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit are prohibited from entering into contract agreements until the state of Michigan cures a default based upon hundreds of millions of dollars owed to the city by the state.

2. Based upon the Charter of the city of Detroit, all contracts which are voted on by the legislative body must first be reviewed and approved by the corporation counsel of the City of Detroit — a step which has not taken place with this proposed lease.

3. A state law exists that mandates that if a unit of government is not charging fair market value for a property owned by the government, the unit of government is extending credit and, in effect, lending money to the other party by not requiring the financial quid quo — and said transaction is not lawful.

4. The Belle Isle Park is a major asset among the holdings of the city of Detroit, and there has been no officially convened public hearing, and no public vote on this significant treasure.

5. Belle Isle is listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, is cited as a listing in the U.S. Historic District and is a Michigan State Historic Site, which should call for approval by the Historic Policymaker oversight bodies before any agreement can be reached.

6. In 1879 the Michigan Legislature responded to the public demand and passed two bills — one providing for the construction of Grand Boulevard, and the other bill to facilitate the purchase of Belle Isle by the city of Detroit as a city park. Frederick Law Olmsted was hired by the Commission of Parks and Boulevards in 1883; and he was the most prominent landscape architect and park planner in America. Among his significant contributions were urban park designs for the cities of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Louisville, Buffalo and Rochester. The history of the park since its opening in 1884 confirmed Olmsted’s wisdom of making the most of the island’s natural features, and during this development, the island was increased in size from its original 690 acres to the present 982 acres. In his report of 1883 to the Commission of Parks and Boulevards, Olmsted warned that the value of a park, given proper management, increases with age even though it shows little immediate return on its investment. The protection of Belle Isle as an historic site is essential if it is to be freed of the short-sighted development that has retarded its effectiveness in the past. Protection is sought for the entire island park as an historic site.

7. The city of Detroit, through the Recreation Department, has approved a Strategic Master Plan for Belle Isle, and there is no indication that the proposed lease will honor the plan nor support the projects approved going forward.

8. The citizens of Detroit have approved a number of bond proposals that have earmarked Belle Isle for improvements to be funded by the citizens for many years going forward. The lease does not reference said investments by the city.

9. There is no clarity regarding the ongoing relationships with U.S. Coast Guard, Yacht Club, Detroit Boat Club, Dossin Museum, Belle Isle Nature Zoo, Grand Prix, Gold Cup races, nor of the multiple functions at the island that are related to the Water Department.

10. Finally, the City Council has budgeted funds to maintain, clean and beautify Belle Isle in the annual budget. That resource continues to exist, along with the employees who have been designated to provide services at Belle Isle. Transfer of Belle Isle is not related to the city’s fiscal challenges; and the Belle Isle reference in the Consent Agreement is not valid at this time as those issues are suspended pending a vote of the people to repeat the Emergency Manager Law, Public Act 4, on Nov. 6.

JoAnn Watson is a Detroit City Council member.

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