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A bridge too close - A Neighbourhood is Reborn

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A bridge too close: In the shadow of its biggest landowner, a Detroit neighbourhood is reborn

Dave Battagello

Windsor Star

Saturday, October 16, 2004

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CREDIT: Dan Janisse, Star photo

NEW HOUSING: Condo developments are in full swing on the U.S. side of the Ambassador Bridge in Mexicantown.

DETROIT -- Physician Daniel Mekasha, a native of affluent Farmington Hills, says he found an urban "oasis" three years ago when he went housing hunting in Detroit.

The resident physician at Detroit Medical Centre is among thousands of newcomers who have flocked to Mexicantown in southwest Detroit, moving into a home two blocks from the Ambassador Bridge plaza.

Once a blighted area of garbage-strewn vacant lots and abandoned homes, the neighbourhood in the shadow of the bridge is making a comeback.

Mekasha said he drove around the area at all hours of the day and night before deciding to move in.

"It was incredibly quiet," Mekasha said. "I scouted it out. There is a police station two minutes away and fire station three minutes away. I love it. I keep trying to recruit friends to live here.

"It's the value and amenities around here. It's amazing. Very neighbourly. Everybody watches out for everyone. It's a quiet little oasis nobody knows about. It's beautiful."

For a city that struggles with crime and poverty, the rebound of southwest Detroit has become a symbol of hope.

Southwest Detroit's population grew seven per cent from 1990 to 2000 to 50,730 -- the only Detroit neighbourhood to show an increase during that period, according to census figures.

The community has the second-lowest crime rate in Detroit, is the most densely populated and has the most densely developed commercial district, says a recent study by the University of Michigan School of Public Policy.

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CREDIT: Dan Janisse, Star photo

COMMUNITY PRIDE: Students from Western High School in Detroit put a fresh coat of paint on a West Vernor Street business. The youths are part of an after-school organization that aims to beautify the community.

But residents say the community's growth is jeopardized by a three-decade struggle against its biggest landowner -- the Ambassador Bridge company. It's a battle that will escalate if the bridge proceeds with plans to add a second span and bring even more trucks into the heart of the revitalized neighbourhood.

Soon after purchasing the bridge in the late 1970s, Manuel (Matty) Moroun waged an aggressive campaign to buy property and expand the plaza in Detroit at the expense of the surrounding community, residents say.

Dozens of homes purchased by the bridge were left vacant to rot or were torn down, leaving an urban blight that encouraged others to move. Countless business owners followed suit. Dozens of warehouses and other businesses owned by the bridge were also left vacant or were demolished.

The bridge plaza slowly expanded over former city streets, surrounded by vast parcels of fenced off vacant properties filled with overgrown weeds and rubbish. At least 150 homes and huge chunks of several streets -- including Porter Street, Howard Street, 20th and 21st and 22nd streets -- were lost to the bridge company.

Dan Stamper, president for the Ambassador Bridge, concedes the company has been active in purchasing property throughout the neighbourhood to expand its operations.

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CREDIT: Dan Janisse, Star photo

COMMERCIAL HUB: Shoppers load up at a modern strip mall on West Vernor Street in Detroit.

"Any property adjacent to the plaza as it becomes available we try to buy it," Stamper said. "We are continuing our expansion. We are always looking for more space.

"We have no houses right now that are vacant. The vacant buildings, we are always looking for additional businesses to bring in there."

Stamper described the bridge company as a "big player" in southwest Detroit at which everyone in the area likes to throw stones.

"Everybody has their own agenda," he said. "Some groups have the agenda to rebuild. They are employed to do that. I think the community likes to have a defined expansion plan from us. We've been trying hard to do that. We try to keep a dialogue going.

"Is everybody happy? No. Are we standing in the way of anybody else? No. We expect to move forward and expect they will be doing that too."

But critics say that thanks to the bridge expansion effort, the surrounding Mexicantown neighbourhood nearly disappeared, leaving a handful of restaurants, aging dilapidated homes -- and the church.

Ste. Anne, billed as the second oldest Catholic church in the U.S., has served as a beacon for the area. Its beauty held on to parishioners from the neighbourhood and beyond despite the destruction surrounding it.

Enter Vince Murray.

Murray, a displaced New Jersey resident with a background in community development and psychology, moved to Detroit in 1986. Murray, who lived in the luxury high-rise Riverfront Apartments next to Joe Louis Arena just blocks from Mexicantown, was among the faithful group attending Ste. Anne each Sunday.

"I couldn't believe the desolation," Murray said. "What interested me was the church was gorgeous. There were good people continuing to live there, but their housing was in disrepair and disappearing.

"There were many groups trying, but they weren't able to get much seeded and the bridge company continued to flourish."

Much changed, Murray said, when Dennis Archer replaced Coleman Young as Detroit's mayor in 1993.

"There was a new spirit of hope," he said. "I thought this might be the time for it to take off."

The 62-year-old founded the Bagley Housing Association more than 10 years ago and the association -- along with a handful of other neighbourhood and business groups -- set about igniting a rebirth of the neighbourhood despite the bridge's ominous presence.

Over 50 new single-family homes occupy several blocks and another 30 are planned. A $6-million 65-unit senior citizens apartment building was built three years ago. Bagley Housing has also helped local homeowners with subsidies or low-interest loans to complete more than $1 million in renovations.

Earlier this year, construction began on a townhouse and condominium development one block east of the historic church. Once completed, the trendy new development -- usually reserved for suburban communities -- will cover three city blocks and include 72 three-storey units selling for more than $165,000 US each.

"We felt the neighbourhood had not only stabilized, but has become quite attractive as a living experience," said Steve Taglione, president of Westminster Abbey, a branch of the Burton-Katzman Development Company which has been building homes in Michigan since 1912 and is the developer for the condo project.

"There is shopping nearby, entertainment venues and Ste. Anne's church is only a block away."

His company was the successful bidder on the future condo property made available a couple years ago by the City of Detroit.

"Southwest Detroit is one of the fastest rising real estate values in the city," Taglione said. "There is a group of people committed to making the area a clean, safe and decent place to live.

"Once an area is made nicer, people have tremendous pride in ownership and making it an even more desirable area. The whole area is revitalized. People want to live where there are things to do and be close to work. It's only 17 blocks from downtown."

Accompanying a residential rebirth in the Bagley Avenue neighbourhood is a blossoming of commercial activity in the West Vernor area of Mexicantown on the other side of Interstate 75 -- long a popular haunt for Windsor residents in search of Mexican food and margaritas.

Ten years ago, drugs, crime and boarded-up storefronts were rampant on West Vernor and neighbouring streets.

But an influx of Mexicans and other Latinos has created a vibrant neighbourhood with new signs of life -- streets filled with people, shoppers, busy construction workers and homeowners upgrading their old houses.

The area has developed into a Little Mexico with bakeries, cantinas and mercados. More than 100 new businesses have opened in the past five years -- many in the refurbished storefronts that just a few years ago were boarded up.

Margaret Garry, vice-president for real estate development for Mexicantown, has also been a driving force in the revitalization.

"The new homes have added a lot of stability here in the midst of the bridge company's insatiable appetite for land," Garry said.

She said getting every level of government involved through tax incentives and funding support has been instrumental.

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CREDIT: Dan Janisse, Star photo

'INCREDIBLY QUIET:' Daniel Mekasha, a medical resident, moved to his new home near the Ambassador Bridge three years ago.

The City of Detroit, for instance, has agreed to act as the guarantor for a $7.8-million loan for the new $15-million Mercado welcome centre planned for the foot of the bridge plaza, has provided a $1-million grant for streetscaping and has pledged $750,000 for staffing costs to groups working on community revitalization.

Garry said Mexicantown residents are "adamantly opposed" to another border crossing in the area, which they say would increase truck traffic and pollution.

"We bear enough of a burden for the nation's economy and we are not receiving the kind of benefits we could receive," Garry said.

"You can't help but feel taking up that much more land will hurt the neighbourhood we are trying hard to build," added Alison Benjamin of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. "We are trying to bring people back to reinvest here. Definitely people will wonder about air quality and want to know what is happening.

"Windsor and Detroit pay a high price locally for the economic benefits for the whole state and two countries. We don't want to wreck the economy, but we need to find the best results for residents on both sides of the border."

Despite the many community advances, there remain ample reminders of urban decay in the neighbourhood.

Murray and Garry point to the Moroun-owned Michigan Central 16-storey rail station -- once a Detroit landmark but now a dilapidated hulk that looms a couple blocks from the new housing.

They said most residents want Moroun to sell the building -- visible from the Windsor shoreline east of the bridge -- so it can be refurbished as a casino, police station -- anything.

Vacated by Amtrak in 1988, the depot has been ravaged by vandalism, vagrants and the elements. Nearly every window is broken.

The station, built in 1913, would cost $200 million to $300 million to renovate, say its backers and developers.

Moroun has owned it since 1995. His company has talked of developing the building as an international trade centre, a casino and hotel/office complex. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has made overtures recently to work out a deal with Moroun that would see it become the city's new police station.

Stamper said engineering and structural studies are being done to put a final cost on renovation, before a sale to the city can be completed.

"It's more than just conversation," he said. "We are going through the process."

Stamper expects the sale of the rail station to the city to be completed by year end.

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