EXCLUSIVE: Snyder Plans To Send Bulldozers and Cops To Three Detroit Neighborhoods

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Reaching into Detroit in a bold and unprecedented way, Gov. Rick Snyder is planning to launch a plan to use state funds to stabilize parts of three Detroit neighborhoods by demolishing abandoned homes and sending in state police and social welfare and health workers.

Snyder’s people also say the state blitz will repair streetlights and other utilities and fill vacant lots with landscaping.

Snyder and other officials are scheduled to unveil the plan Aug. 2 at the J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy in the MorningSide neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side. The event’s centerpiece will be the bulldozing of a dilapidated home – one of 230 houses slated for demolition in a 10-block radius of the school.

“This is unique for the state,” Harvey Hollins, Snyder’s Detroit lieutenant, told a meeting of the MorningSide neighborhood association this week. “Usually states don’t fly this low.”

Public safety is an important focus, officials told residents and MorningSide leaders. They want to cut both crime and fires, partially by eliminating empty homes.

“There’s a correlation between violent crime and blight,” said Kevin Smith, chief of staff for Roy Roberts, the DPS Emergency Manager.

MorningSide, home for years to a group of dedicated activists working to revive it, has been the focus of a remarkable amount of philanthropy already in 2012.

Habitat for Humanity is active within its borders, and General Motors CEO Dan Akerson and his wife, Karin Akerson, donated $1 million earlier this year to support that effort. Last month, officials announced a three-year, $1.5 million tutoring program at Clark, funded by Lear Corporation, whose CEO, Matt Simoncini, graduated from the school.

Working in small areas around schools is the heart of the governor’s plan. Snyder administration officials have joined with the Detroit Public Schools to identify several schools in three areas of the city whose immediate neighborhoods will receive the attention.

Along with Clark, which is several blocks west of E. Outer Drive and Mack Avenue, and the East English Village Preparatory Academy, a new, $46.5 million building on the site of the old Finney High School, the other schools that will anchor the governor’s project are:

In southwest Detroit, an area west of Livernois and W. Vernor: Cesar Chavez Academy and Neinas and Harms elementary schools. Another school will be included but its name could not be learned.

In northwest Detroit, around W. 7 Mile and Wyoming: Bates Academy and Bagley Elementary.

There have been numerous plans to revitalize Detroit in the past few years alone, which Hollis acknowledged Tuesday. He insisted this time is different: the focus is concentrated, and various governments -- state, county, city, federal – are working together, with organizers doing their best to eliminate turf-related issues to build a program that can be sustained even when Snyder is no longer governor.

“We’re trying to tear down silos,” Hollins said. “The governor doesn’t care about credit.”

In working out the plan, Snyder administration officials already have united two disparate bureaucracies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Detroit Fire Department. They’ve worked together to prepare a sophisticated data base of targeted buildings.

For weeks, fire fighters have been cruising streets, snapping photos of homes, using an app that apparently belongs to the Corps of Engineers. The app geocodes the photo and enters it into a data base, along with other information, like the building’s condition, Hollis said.

Officials at the Corps and fire department on Thursday said they were unable to discuss the collaboration.

The state will spend around $10 million in the city and up to $2 million to tear down homes around Clark, Hollins said. Geralyn Lasher, Snyder’s spokeswoman, said officials are considering various funding options.

MorningSide, with a variety of distinct homes, was once a middle-class haven but now lies along a swath of the East Side of Detroit north of Mack along which blight has crept steadily eastward over the past 40 years. About 20 percent of the homes in MorningSide are vacant, said Eric Dueweke, the group’s vice-president.

“If Detroit can’t save a neighborhood like this, there are just going to be a few islands left, like Palmer Woods,” Dueweke said.

Hollins said if blight cannot be staunched in MorningSide, abandonment soon will overtake the next area to the east, East English Village, which already is struggling with empty homes.

Both MorningSide and East English Village border Grosse Pointe Park along Mack. Both districts are losing population, Hollins said, though they are shrinking slower than most other areas of the city.

Smith said one reason schools were chosen as anchors is that convincing legislators and others to help children is simpler than, say, asking them to help Detroit in general.

“It’s easy to say we need to make the environment safe for kids,” Smith told the gathering.

The plan is an unusual move for a governor, especially a Republican who never is likely to receive many votes in Detroit, one of the nation’s most Democratic cities. Snyder already has incurred the anger of some Detroiters over the consent agreement that officials signed with the city to stabilize Detroit’s perilous finances, which is resulting in deep cuts to Detroit services and state oversight of city hall.

Lasher, Snyder’s spokeswoman, noted that addressing blighted areas is one of the ventures envisioned in the consent agreement’s addendum.

The homes targeted for demolition already are owned by either the city, state or Wayne County, so there will be no complications with titles, officials said.

Hollins emphasized the governor’s project will not interfere with Detroit Works, Mayor Dave Bing’s project to revitalize city services in three communities and do long-term planning for the entire city.

“This initiative is not designed to compete with Detroit Works, or the master plan” of the city,” Hollins said, adding: “But the governor doesn’t want to wait” to see where those plans are going.

Two of the three neighborhoods targeted by Detroit Works overlap with areas selected by the state: southwest Detroit and the Bagley area east of Wyoming.

Clark School is at Bremen and Bershire, two blocks north of Mack. It was built in 1926 during Detroit’s frenetic growth years. Covered partly in ivy, the building appears to be in good shape on the outside and has a modern playscape and large, neatly mowed play area behind it. The basketball court, though, has no baskets.

The blocks surrounding Clark are filled with large homes that range in condition from immaculate to boarded up and falling apart. Directly across from the school is an abandoned home, but the house next door has flowers on the porch; a woman was watering its lawn Tuesday evening. Most of the lots in the neighborhood are occupied.

In a series in April, Free Press reporter Chastity Pratt Dawsey drew attention to the thousands of abandoned homes along Detroit students’ routes to school. Last year, the city targeted the area around Denby, Osborn and Cody high schools for increased demolitions and police patrols.

Last month, Mayor Dave Bing said within 90 days the city will demolish 1,500 abandoned and dangerous houses. The mayor promised to demolish at least 10,000 homes during his four-year term. To date the administration has demolished 4,500 houses, and the 90-day blitz will bring the total to 6,000, Bing said. His term ends Dec. 31, 2013.

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