The writer, a former Detroit Free Press reporter, is a Deadline Detroit contributor.
By Michael Betzold
Saying their major concerns remain unmet in the city’s redevelopment plan, activists in Jefferson-Chalmers are moving ahead with their own efforts to get a community center, illustrating a rift between some neighborhood residents and city planners.
In the wake of a meeting Saturday where city officials trumpeted projects they say emerged from a year of “community engagement,” the Jefferson-Chalmers Community Advocates (JCCA) vowed to fight on to get indoor recreation and meeting facilities—and a neighborhood school.
During the city-run meeting, officials pointed to plans to redevelop the Jefferson Avenue commercial strip and support affordable housing in the neighborhood, but some in attendance called the process an elaborate charade.
“I’m not good with going around in circles,” said Jocelyn Harris, a leader of JCCA. “It’s clear the plans were already made.”
The dispute in Jefferson-Chalmers, which is seeing business investment and new residents, is a reflection of how far apart official Detroit can be from the residents it seeks to serve. With proximity to the Grosse Pointes and an easy commute downtown, the neighborhood's footprint extends from Jefferson down to the Detroit River. Some parcels sit on canals that allow backyard docks and water access to both the river and Lake St. Clair. The housing stock is in generally good shape.
Its longtime residents want to regain amenities lost over the years when the city and school system were in decline.
► Related post today: Savoring a St. Martin Past and a Jefferson-Chalmers Future
The city planning process began last March as Jefferson-Chalmers was named one of ten Detroit neighborhoods to share in the $130 million Strategic Neighborhood Fund and the city retained six consulting firms to assist in engagement with residents.
Planner Allen Penniman characterized the process as “inclusive” and driven by responses to two questionnaires asking residents to rank priorities for the neighborhood. The first survey last year generated 362 responses, the second 162. Jefferson-Chalmers has about 7,000 residents.
A school, please?
JCCA has far different priorities for the neighborhood—summarized by the slogan “development without displacement”—which they say better represents the view of longtime residents they have surveyed.
Announcing the implementation phase, Penniman again shot down hopes that the neighborhood would get a K-5 school, saying the city has no resources to reopen public schools closed during DPS bankruptcy. Instead, the city will look for a developer to turn the vacant Guyton school into affordable housing units. Officials said the only way to save the building is to reuse it as something other than a school.
Proposals will be requested this spring. Additional housing could be built surrounding the school, depending on which developer plan is approved.
The city does claim it is responding to at least some citizen concerns by facilitating more affordable housing. It was announced in December that two buildings will be converted for housing and retail by Shelborne Development in conjunction with Jefferson East Inc. Jefferson East Inc. is a powerful nonprofit with city and business connections and is the looming presence behind most east-side Detroit development plans.
Huge gap in visions
But planners also again nixed community hopes for reopening the Maheras-Gentry rec center, saying costs would be prohibitive. Instead, officials said they might revive the tiny Lenox Center in Alfred Brush Ford Park and perhaps add a gym. The gym and auditorium, and perhaps other space at Guyton, would be available for community use while the second floor becomes housing.
Activists want a full rec center with a pool like Maheras-Gentry had. There’s a huge gap between what JCCA wants the city to do with residents’ tax dollars and what the city says it has money to do.
In its own follow-up meeting Tuesday at Monteith Library, JCCA announced a basketball league will begin this weekend at a gym at a local church. Harris says the group will use the facilities in a school attached to Faith Church on Piper as a temporary rec center—and also continue to use a second-floor space at Monteith for regular community meetings.
The group had come up with a $10,000 monthly operating budget, Harris says, for the Faith Church rec center at the request of city officials—who then said they could support only program expenses there. General Services Department director Brad Dick did not return calls for comment.