Development As If People Mattered… A Bridge to A Healthy Community
By Simone Sagovac
Have you heard they are going to build a new bridge to Canada? That’s what Delray residents have been hearing for 10 years. Families have not known whether to replace failing roofs or anything else because each year they are told “It’s coming.” And it is coming–but residents have suffered years of disinvestment and decay and there are still no guarantees that significant impacts from the bridge development will be addressed, despite many agreements in place moving the project forward. The $2-billion New International Trade Crossing (NITC) project is deemed “the most important economic development” for Canada, Michigan and Detroit and is coveted by industries from agriculture to auto (the heaviest border users), since Canada is the US’s number one trading partner and 40% of all US-Canadian trade crosses at the Detroit border. The new bridge would create a direct freeway-to-freeway connection across the border and is why everyone wants it.
The Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition (CBC) formed in 2008 after four years of MDOT community engagement. The community recognized that it needed to have organized representation and build broad support. The CBC filed 100 pages of comments on the Environmental Impact Study contesting the lack of environmental and neighborhood protections, drafted bylaws and elected a community board. The Coalition has been seeking guarantees to address trucks on residential streets and diesel emissions, neighborhood infrastructure, access to jobs, and a voice in the process. Nearly seven years later, Delray’s struggle has become part a citywide movement for more equitable development through Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) and currently a proposed citywide ordinance for large developments to guarantee results for affected communities as well as for the economy.
Delray, the community in Detroit where the bridge will land, already hosts many polluting industries mixed with residential homes—including our wastewater treatment plant where sewage waste from 1/3 of Michigan residents is currently incinerated, and Zug Island with US Steel Corporation (a major environmental violator), scrap yards, and many others large and small. The city’s master plan never changed so residents remain generations of families later, and many new immigrant families today. Delray’s significance includes having ancient indigenous burial mounds still at Fort Wayne, which is also the only remaining green connection to the riverfront, and it may become part of a bi-national Fort-to-Fort trail when the bridge is completed.
Residents have been pressing for guaranteed Community Benefits to address health and neighborhood impacts. The new bridge will displace some 200 families, 43 businesses, and historic churches. A $40-million dollar Environmental Impact Study says truck traffic will increase 128% and 75% of all border traffic will shift to the Delray bridge, yet the official concludes “Air quality will improve.” That is the biggest injustice and the community’s greatest challenge: Many residents already suffer from multiple health diseases—asthma, cancer, sarcoidosis, and heart conditions. Over 20,000 daily trucks will be idling to cross customs where there are no border trucks now, and residents living directly across the street will not be bought out. The community is seeking protections from all parties who share responsibility for the bridge development on both sides of the border.
Existing laws do not go far enough to protect communities that face such development impacts, so a community benefits strategy has been necessary, but it is taxing on a community with so few resources, and the nearly seven year journey continues. The community has built many partnerships over the years to help further the community benefits process and secure guarantees.
The journey has included dozens of residents and other stakeholders travelling to Lansing to fight for guarantees, thousands postcards and phone calls to mayors, the governor, and Secretary of State before a Presidential Permit was signed. Due to the pressure, a US-Canada Agreement signed in 2012 includes starter language that says there shall be community benefits as part of the bidding process for the bridge developer. But it does not say what benefits and who gets to decide.
Recently, when vacant city properties were requested by the Emergency Manager Orr for the bridge, residents fought to secure that revenues from the sale would get reinvested in the host community—where there are currently no dollars allocated to address taking down dangerous burned homes, for example. A victory came when city council voted unanimously to support 50 percent of the Delray land sale money to be reinvested in Delray and the administration came around to support the idea.
Next is to secure host community representation on a Citizens Advisory Group that will be able to provide input in the process with the bridge developer and determining what community benefits—remedies and investments—are needed to address community impacts and create a livable community with the bridge.
Still, the challenges are significant. To this day, no communication has been provided to a single household or business directly affected by this project, even though the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Canadian government are staffing-up to begin a buyout process at the beginning of the year. By default, this important communication has been left up to the coalition to communicate the impending steps to affected residents going door to door over the years. The coalition put together a legal team of non-profit law organizations to provide free legal assistance to residents. Michigan Legal Services, United Community Housing Coalition, and Sugar Law Center have met with over 80 families so far and the work continues. The coalition is also beginning a Delray Planning process with CDAD (Community Development Advocates of Detroit), and formed a Health Advisory Task Force with researchers at area universities to help in the advocacy with decision-makers.
All this on the backs of a poor community where a multi-billion dollar “most important development” will land.
For future developments, the coalition has been working with other communities to make the process more predictable and effective with a citywide Community Benefits Ordinance, so communities do not have to face such high burdens and hurdles to mutually-beneficial development. Successful CBAs have been negotiated between developers and communities across the country. Some cities due to their success have increased benchmarks with no negative impact on development (Milwaukee, WI.) For communities like Delray that face developments with clear negative impacts, new policy is needed to assure residents and businesses are treated like any community in Michigan, whether Troy, Livonia, Ann Arbor or Traverse City—every community’s residents have the right to quality of life.
Truck Traffic Will Double: Health Problems, No Mitigation
Rosie and her son live on the I-75 service drive that will be expanded for the bridge and where daily she fights to escape the truck exhaust outside and inside her home. Their home is just out of the bridge footprint and will not be bought. She describes herself as always having been healthy, never smoked. Her son and she both have asthma for the past 10 years. She was also diagnosed with cancer and has other health symptoms that her doctors can’t explain. She fears she will not be able to recover because daily she has to take her son for a drive outside the area to breathe, frequently even getting out of bed at night to escape the diesel fumes that fill their home from the line-up of trucks. Even after hours she says they return home, open their house, and the diesel is still trapped inside, immediately triggering their asthma. She describes black oily dust she tries to remove with bleach, cleanser, everything she can. Her sister who also lived off the service drive a couple blocks away died of cancer.
Rosie and her son are not an isolated incident. Many residents in southwest Detroit’s industrial suffer multiple health conditions. Patricia and her children will live a half block from the bridge truck plaza project. All of Patricia’s children who have grown up there have asthma. Two years ago, one daughter while a high school student at Western International High School died of cancer. Patricia says she cannot sit by if a truck plaza is going to locate a block away and the diesel trucks will further harm her children.