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Requesting investigation of Detroit planners’ illegalities and environmental threats

DETROIT PLANNING & DEVELOPMENT DEPARTMENT LOGOBy Ron Seigel

Recently, I sent a request to the office of Detroit’s inspector general and City Council President Brenda Jones for an investigation of the Detroit Planning and Development Department because of the department’s arbitrary and secretive decision to change the development plan for the Art Center urban renewal area to build housing on E. Ferry Street near the I-75 expressway.

Hilanius Phillips, a former P&DD employee, warns because of environmental problems, if the houses are built, those unfortunate  enough to live there will be subject to sickness, breathing problems and lead poisoning, and children there may develop learning disabilities.

Phillips said the original development plan deliberately designated that land non-residential, precisely because of its closeness to the pollution from the incinerator and a liquid waste plant as well as the traffic from the expressway’s service drive.

What is particularly disturbing is the secrecy in the plan change. The P&DD arranged matters so the public was left in the dark.

Like all urban renewal areas the Art Center area has a citizens’ district council established to represent community residents and businesses. The P&DD submitted these changes to the Detroit City Council without informing the citizens’ district council representing the residents.

Through such secrecy, P&DD was breaking the law, and if the City Council approves the plan change, its members will be breaking the law.

Section 4  (d ) (6) of State Act 344, the Blighted Area Rehabilitation Act clearly specifies,  “a local commission,  public agency or local legislative body of any municipality shall not approve any development plan unless there has been consultation between the citizens’ district council and the officials responsible for the development plan.”  In 1998, the City Council itself unanimously passed a resolution that communities be involved in planning from its “inception.”

Given Detroit’s recent history, one must ask (and one hopes investigators will ask) what is the reason for this policy of illegal secrecy?  Was this under cover planning a result of under-the-table deals?

To be fair, this secret plan change was hatched under the old administration of David Bing. The newly appointed P&DD assistant director, Bryan Ellison, stated he is studying the entire Act 344 in order to determine what to do.

If he takes back the proposed plan change and allows public scrutiny by area residents, it will be a good step toward restoring confidence in public officials.

Even so, an investigation of the past will still be necessary, because there has been a historical pattern in the P&DD of disregard for the law and the safety of residents.

Ten years ago in a very similar incident, the P&DD rammed through housing in the University City “A” urban renewal area above an old factory site with dangerous chemicals and possible residues of a dangerous pesticide called Cobex, which Canadian officials ordered out of  their country.

University City “A” citizens’ district council members were not informed until six months after the City Council passed it.

When they finally did know, they went before the Detroit City Council with a lot of spirit and a good deal of factual information. Among other things they presented a statement from state environmental officials that the site was unsafe.

The City Council made modifications. P&DD officials actually went to a citizens’ district council meeting and publicly apologized.  However, there was no mention of anyone responsible for this violation of the law and this threat to public safety being fired or even officially reprimanded, and no one ever went to jail. There were no assurances of structural change in the P&DD.

P&DD officials felt free to do the whole thing again one decade  later.

The fact Washington may be giving federal funds to the city to demolish vacant houses should also raise some concerns, if we look historically at  the ways P&DD handled past state-funded demolition programs.

For decades, those who opposed urban renewal policies said they were endangered.

Those who are concerned about the historical illegalities committed by the P&DD should call Council President Brenda Jones at 313.224.3443 or the city’s inspector general’s office at 313.628.2517 and support my request for an investigation.

 

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