As Wayne County seeks an ultimate solution for a judicial campus in Detroit — either the completion of the now-stalled jail site at Gratiot and St. Antoine, or the redevelopment and expansion of the Mound Road Correctional Facility on the city’s east side — a great deal of economic activity and tax revenue is there for the taking.
In this issue (July-August 2014), Norm Sinclair, our investigative reporter, details the legal battle between the county and the contractors of the abandoned jail site ( “Jail Break,” page 72). If there’s one thing that rings true from the report, it’s the fact that there’s no easy way to keep everyone happy. Most judges and court personnel favor remaining in their current location next to Greektown, given they have ready access to restaurants, stores, entertainment, and other activities.
Yet in the grand scheme of things, if the county decides to complete the jail project in the central business district, they will be hurting Detroit and county taxpayers. Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures, has a $50 million offer on the table to acquire the jail site, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, three other jails, and related buildings.
Under his proposal, the judicial campus would be moved to Mound Road over the course of three years, where $385 million in economic activity and 575 construction jobs would be generated, according to the county. Relocating to Mound Road would be a wash from the city’s standpoint, since it can’t collect taxes on public projects.
If the move is approved, Gilbert has proposed that the existing downtown buildings, along with any vacant parcels, be developed or converted into residential lofts, hotel rooms, restaurants, entertainment venues, commercial retail space, and possibly a soccer stadium for 5,000 fans that would offer multiple, year-round activities.
(Hint: Mayor Mike Duggan’s brother, Dan Duggan, is owner of the Michigan Bucks, a men’s professional soccer team that in April completed a preliminary agreement with USL PRO to bring a professional outdoor soccer team to Detroit.)
If Gilbert’s development materializes, the city and county stand to collect millions of dollars in tax revenue to be paid by Gilbert, his future tenants, and visitors. The county estimates that Gilbert’s project would generate an estimated $836 million in economic activity, along with 5,500 construction jobs, over a five-year period.
What’s more, history is on Gilbert’s side. When the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice was completed in 1968, it and other related buildings replaced what was a mishmash of crumbling structures dating from the late 1800s, a park, two cemeteries, and Memorial Hospital — not exactly the recipe for generating the highest and best use of land in a downtown district.
In fact, the judicial complex might as well be walled off from the rest of downtown, since few people visit there other than for court appearances or legal work. After all, who wants to visit a court facility on their free time?
Since downtown Detroit is on its way to becoming a thriving urban space of residential lofts (98 percent occupied), trendy offices, restaurants, casinos, and major stadiums (two already operational and a third one on the way for the Detroit Red Wings), it doesn’t make sense from an urban planning standpoint to shoehorn more jail cells into the mix.
he smarter — and more lucrative — plan is to go where the money is and allow private enterprise to create an urban district that generates much more economic activity than a complex populated by prisoners. db