Most hurdles in way of bridge have been overcome

The struggle has taken years, but most of the hurdles in the way of a new Detroit River bridge have been overcome. Agreements have been signed; the site chosen, environmental and presidential permits issued.

True, Washington has yet to appropriate the $250 million needed for a customs plaza, and Matty Moroun, the 87-year-old owner of the Ambassador Bridge, is still having attorneys file a seemingly endless procession of nuisance suits.
However, few think these are serious concerns. But there is one more solution yet to be worked out: Making things right for the people in the old Detroit neighborhood where new bridge’s American footprint used to be, a neighborhood known as Delray,

“We aren’t asking for swimming pools or anything outrageous,” said Simone Sagovac, the voice of a group called the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. “We are concerned with things like air quality, noise abatement and jobs,” she said.

Her concerns aren’t surprising. Detroit has a long history of trampling over and ignoring community groups when major developments are on the table.

Earlier this summer, for example, Detroit City Council refused to require a community benefits agreement of any kind in connection with the new hockey arena being built by Olympia Entertainment, owned by the Ilitch family of Little Caesar’s Pizza fame.

That was case even though the bankrupt city “sold” the land to the billionaire, for a dollar. But when it came to the bridge project, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr offered the city a better deal in July: He wanted the city council to sell 301 city-owned parcels of land in and around where the American-side the “footprint” of the new bridge would be. This time, however, Detroit would get $1.4 million.

While the land would technically be sold to the state, the money is actually being put up by the government of Canada, which is covering all Michigan’s costs. (Those funds are to be repaid years from now, out of the state’s share of the new bridge’s toll fees.)

But at the last minute, the emergency manager pulled back the request, after it became clear that city council wasn’t ready to approve it. Why? For the first time in a century, most council members are elected from districts, rather than at large.

Raquel Castenada-Lopez is the newly elected council member from the district that includes both bridge sites. Detroit’s first-ever Hispanic councilwoman doesn’t want the land transfer to go through without some guarantee of benefits for those living there.

“For me, it is all about supporting the community,” she told me last week. Back in the neighborhood, Simone Sagovac is trying to look out for people who have had a long history of hard times.

Before the Great Depression, Delray was a thriving Hungarian-American community with nearly ten times the 2,783 people it had in the last census. Gradually, factories closed and people left. Gangs, crime, and foul smells from a wastewater treatment plant drove more people away.

In recent years, even if anyone had wanted to help develop the area, talk of a new bridge — and uncertainty about where the precise “footprint” would be — would have been enough to drive them off.

Canadian diplomats are eager for these concerns to be satisfactorily addressed, but have to walk a fine line. They do not want to be seen as criticizing America or meddling in domestic policy.

On the other hand, they want to see justice done — and most of all, they want to get on with the bridge, which will open in 2020 at the earliest. Last year, then-Canadian Consul General Roy Norton told the Southwest Detroit Business Association Canada would insist that the public-private partnership that will build and run the bridge “establish and maintain mechanisms to understand and address community concerns.”

Eventually, he added, when companies bid to get the contract to actually build the bridge, they will have to explain “how they would reach out to the community, be a good neighbor, employ locally and so forth.” Plus, explain “what kind of community outreach the consortium would be undertaking so as to minimize detrimental impacts for items such as vibration, noise, traffic routing …”

To Sagovac, that all sounds good in theory. But Norton has now gone off to another post in Chicago, and in any event, she has to deal with local and state governments in this country. She knows all about noise and air pollution. She doesn’t actually live in Delray, but for the last 23 years, has lived near the Ambassador Bridge, where trucks can sometimes be stacked up for hours, belching fumes and keeping people awake with their engines.

Her coalition is not against a new bridge, she hastens to say. In fact, they have no use for Moroun, who once panicked Delray residents by having phony eviction notices put on their homes.

They just don’t want their tough lives to get any tougher. A well-placed source in Canada said he could “understand why folks in Delray have difficulty summoning trust.”

But they added that “patience, faith and trust all are called for here.” The worry is that somehow, misguided zeal on behalf of the residents could cause Detroit City Council to stall a project vital to the business interests and future economies of both nations.

Last month, Sagovac asked for a meeting with the newly appointed International Authority which will oversee the construction of the new bridge. She is still waiting for an answer.

Detroit City Council is expected to be finally formally asked about transferring the land, presumably sometime this month.

The key to the future may lie in what happens then.

Written by Jack Lessenberry in the: Traverse City, Record-Eagle