With Two Strikes Against It, Detroit Future City Must Connect With Concerns of Citizens

DETROIT - It may have been opening day for the Detroit Tigers, but for Detroit's latest urban renewal plan, which changes names the way Justin Verlander changes pitches, it's simply time to step up to the plate and connect with the citizens of city. With two strikes already on the scorecard, the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program took to the mound on April 4 and served up their first-ever State of Detroit's Environment Report to the Detroit Future City Headquarters in hopes a connection can finally be made.

From Detroit's Right Sizing Plan (Strike one!), to the Detroit Works Project (Strike two!), to the current Detroit Future City Plan (DFCP) there seems to be one constant: The inability to deliver what Detroiters want. Of course, the backers of the plan contended that their goal has been to do just that, and with the release of the latest incarnation in January of the DFCP, their goal was achieved.

With great fanfare and the pledge of $150 million from the Kresge Foundation, the plan was rolled out following months of city-wide enhanced community engagement meetings. Outreach had been done to many of the community groups who initially criticized the top-down, thin-skinned, clicker-ridden fiascoes of past incarnations. Some of those groups and leaders were brought into the big tent and given positions in the outreach process. So, how could it be off base?

The first clue was that the only version of the plan available to the general public was delivered via the internet in a font size so small a magnifying glass was needed to read it. That was ironic considering many DFCP supporters used font size to delay the petition to repeal the Emergency Manger Law around this time last year. Of course, if you had neither a magnifying glass nor the internet, you were out of luck and had to pay $25 for a hard copy.

Fortunately, the Sierra Club was reserved and members of the Sierra Club staff and like-minded allies were afforded time to go over the plan. We found few -- if any -- substantive differences from earlier versions. What we did find were several glaring omissions that formed the basis of the State of Detroit's Environment Report. There was little to address the significant environmental justice issues around public health, industrial epidemiology, excessive heat events, air and traffic pollution in proximity to schools, Brownfields, water pollution, privatization of public lands and the cumulative impact from heavy industry near the industrial corridor.

As Sierra Club Environmental Justice Organizer Rhonda Anderson said during the April 4 press conference,

We feel that the Detroit Future City plan does not adequately address the environmental concerns and issues inside the city of Detroit. We have in the tri-cities area of Detroit, River Rouge and Ecorse, the most polluted area in Michigan and the third most polluted area in the United States. We are simply saying to Detroit Future City that they need to take a better look at the environmental situation going on in the city and come up with a better plan to address these problems.

Added Sierra Club's Great Lakes Program Director Melissa Damaschke, who listed climate change, the resulting sewerage over flows, water contamination and increased water utility rates among her primary concerns not addressed in the plan.

The bottom line is that the Detroit Future City Plan must do better. The plan can be the city's opportunity to create a just clean and prosperous future for all residents. We cannot miss this vital chance to protect our water and our communities. Detroit is a Great Lakes City and we must demand better for our community and our Great Lakes.

Much to their credit, DFCP responded by placing a statement on their website the very next day. It said in part,

As we transition into implementation, we will continue to work with organizations and other community partners to improve the quality of life for all Detroiters and create a more prosperous, connected, sustainable, and socially equitable city.

That's a good place to start, except that we are well into a seventh inning stretch. The fact that community groups, leaders and residents have repeatedly tried to engage in the process only to result in a report with these omissions is not a good sign.

Groups, leaders and residents have raised many of the same issues before. The question is why aren't these concerns addressed in the plan? How can you design a plan to revitalize the city and attract people to live here without addressing the pollution emanating from the industrial corridor and the Detroit Incinerator, which are so near the areas highlighted for redevelopment like Southwest Detroit and Mid-town?

Anyone driving through I-75 with Marathon's Petroleum's tar sands refinery on one side and DTE's coal-fired power plant and Zug Island on the other can see and smell the need for a solution. If this continues unaddressed, the DFCP will strike out like so many urban renewal plans before it.

Like another winning season without capturing the World Series, there are some promising things to celebrate in the DFCP. But wouldn't it be nice to actually win one for a city that deserves it like no other? Missing this precious opportunity to connect with the people of Detroit's present and future is not a winning formula. Genuinely listening to public concern is that winning formula.