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Laura De Palma Headshot

Whose Cass Corridor?

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According to a recent article published in The Guardian entitled "Detroit: bankrupt city readies for divisive $450m Red Wings arena," the occupation of the Lower Cass Corridor is underway. Parking tickets are being heavily distributed near local businesses such as Comet Bar, and benches are being removed from the area so community members who lack housing must go elsewhere to sleep. This is an attempt to prepare the area for the construction of the new Red Wings arena, which Detroit City Council approved in February.

The Detroit Downtown Authority, which purchased the public land from the city for $1, will own the arena and lease it to Olympia Development of Michigan (a private company owned by the Ilitch family) for the next 95 years. According to Guillen (2014), this is essentially a free transfer of public land that is valued at about $2.9 million. Ferretti (2014) states that the state of Michigan will begin selling $450 million in bonds, which will be backed by local property taxes, to pay for the new Red Wings arena. The city will not collect any property taxes on the arena. The plan is to create a mixed-used district by developing the 45 blocks around the arena for retail, office and residential purposes. Felton (2014) writes that "researchers and academics have pointed out, those mixed-use districts tied to arenas don't have the best track record." This deal has transpired in the context of a bankrupt city that is cutting city services, slashing pensions, and closing schools in order to stay afloat. There is limited access to emergency medical care, trash collection, firefighters and police officers. The argument being put forth by the Downtown Development Authority is that the new arena will bring economic growth to what is considered an economic dead zone and will help revitalize the Lower Cass Corridor and Detroit at large.

The economic growth and jobs brought to the area will not necessarily benefit its current community members. The arena is expected to bring, according to Ferretti (2014), 8,300 construction jobs and 1,100 permanent jobs. Guillen (2014) says "at least 30 percent of the construction companies hired must be either based or headquartered in Detroit, and that at least 51 percent of the workforce will be Detroit residents."

One of the reasons it won the city council's vote (6-3) was because no viable alternative was brought to the table. Jenkins, a city council member, voted for it because she thought it would be a better alternative to the blight and abandoned buildings that have adorned that region. Other council members saw that the city needs an economic boost in the midst of an economic crisis. Although the new arena is supposed to engender economic growth, council members were not guaranteed that a certain number of Detroit residents would get jobs at the new arena post-construction. Regarding long-term jobs at the arena, Olympia has declined to say what percentage of Detroiters will be hired.

Guillen (2014) writes that this is why council members Jones and Tate voted against it. Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez voted against it, because it did not include a strong community benefits agreement, which she heavily pushed for before the proposal was put to a vote by city council. Castaneda-Lopez says:

Generally speaking, with any type of development, it's important to engage the community in talks from the start since residents in the surrounding area will be the most impacted by the project. Unfortunately the trend is to engage the community as an afterthought, if at all. Moving forward, the community should be considered an equal player at the negotiating table as opposed to an afterthought. As a council, we are working to shift this paradigm via the creation of a community benefits ordinance.

The Corridors Alliance, a community organization in the Cass Corridor, was also pushing for a community benefits agreement. A community benefits agreement is a legally binding contract negotiated between a developer and a coalition comprised of community members and stakeholders. A community benefits agreement in this context would ensure that residents would have job opportunities at the arena, would not be pushed out of the neighborhood, and would directly reap the benefits of the economic growth spurred by the arena's construction. Many Cass Corridor community members have organized for the inclusion of a community benefits agreement in the proposal and are dissatisfied that there is not one. Without a benefits agreement, native Corridor residents are not guaranteed post-construction jobs and may be forced out of their homes when the cost of living in the region rises. In the Detroit Free Press, Detroit resident Norman Thomas says that "few city residents attend Red Wings games, but most city residents are concerned with the quality of life in our neighborhoods." People who live in the Cass Corridor care about their neighborhood and are proud to live there. Although the Cass Corridor has been referred to as a blighted, economic dead zone by mainstream media outlets, it houses beloved independent businesses such as Comet Bar and Temple Bar and innovative organizations such as Allied Media Projects and Back Alley Bikes. It is home to incredible Detroit organizers and visionaries who love their neighborhood and authentically engage with one another to build community. The building of the arena threatens the indigenous community of Cass Corridor and the longevity of independent businesses, organizations, and resident occupancy in the area.

Thomas A. Wilson Jr. (2014) says, in the Detroit Free Press, "If you build it, they will come." Who are they and where will they come from?

Reverse white flight from the suburbs into the city will not "save" Detroit. Detroit needs a paradigm shift. Marvin Surkin, author of Detroit I Do Mind Dying, writes that "stadiums don't address the central issues of falling population, falling tax base, declining wages, unemployment and the underfunding of schools."

Stadiums and arenas are band-aids. Their construction does not take into consideration the city's rich and unique history; does not change structures that favor the wealthy and uphold the status quo; and does not facilitate participatory processes that allow community members to have equitable decision-making power. It has the potential to displace long-standing Detroit residents and does not ensure that developers will be held accountable to the community for developing the arena in a way that benefits those who currently live in the neighborhood. Detroit needs Detroiters -- resilient, critical and creative Detroiters -- to engage in community work that engenders structural change. Detroiters, for decades, have banded together in the face of institutionalized racism and economic oppression to give new meaning to community building and create innovative ways to share resources and rely on one another. Processes, systems and structures, such as the arena, that undermine the value and resourcefulness of indigenous Detroiters are subversive to the kind of authentic community building and paradigm-shifting change we need in the city.