Paul Krystyniak: One span or two, Southwest Detroiters should win bigger in the bridge game

Paul Krystyniak is this month's guest editorial writer. He is housing coordinator for the Bridging Communities nonprofit collaborative, which works to improve the quality of life for elder residents of Southwest Detroit.

Two years ago I decided that I was in the market for my first home. I had recently finished going to school in Chicago and was eager to re-establish myself in Detroit. I was looking for a neighborhood that offered the walkable amenities that I had been accustomed to and the affordability, character, and sense of community that can only be found in the Detroit. As I reacquainted myself with the various neighborhoods of my hometown I realized that there was only one community that fit my criteria. It turned out it was the same part of the city where my grandfather first settled when he came to this country over 60 years earlier: Southwest, baby!

So after taking a 20-year residency hiatus I bought a home in not too far from where I started my life. I was aware that the area was facing the construction of a new international bridge or two but it did not factor heavily into my decision one way or the other. My house is 3 miles from the Ambassador Bridge and 1 1/2 miles from Delray. My neighborhood, Springwells Village, is not directly threatened by either span, but would be impacted by the traffic and pollution of both. Working for a nonprofit organization that is playing a small role in the community benefits coalition also provides me with an understanding of the process. I have not been overly involved, neither as a professional or a resident, in either community organizing of either bridge project. I've gone to an occasional meeting but most of my resident participation and responsibilities at work have kept me involved with other parts of the community. In a way I am basically offering a perspective that is both that of an insider and an outsider.

Demand more

It is no secret that Southwest Detroit has what many people perceive to be our own version of Mr. Burns: Matty Maroun. One could write an entire article, probably an entire book, about the negative impact his corporation has had on Southwest Detroit. I would rather take this opportunity to discuss what could be done in the future rather than what he has done in the past. The fact is that the Ambassador Bridge Company wants to expand/rebuild their bridge. Some people are in favor of this, many others are not. If the company complies with all U.S. and Canadian laws, there is no reason they shouldn't be allowed to build the infrastructure necessary to run their business. There is also no reason why a democratic society can't make laws that require companies to be desirable neighbors and control the impact their business has on residents' lives. Don't hate the player, just change (and enforce) the rules of the game.

The Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) project and the MDOT process have clearly been more inclusive and democratic, but as a resident I would argue they could be taken a step further. For those who aren't aware, the DRIC has included a community benefits process that is attempting to mitigate the negative impacts that the project will have on the host community, Delray. The process is promising improved streetscapes, greenways, environmental buffers, and new housing for those displaced by the proposed bridge. In fact, the nonprofit organization where I am employed has agreed to build the new houses for those residents who want to stay in the community. Delray residents have worked with our state Rep. Rashida Tlaib and nonprofits such as Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision and People's Community Services to advocate for community benefits. I support the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition (CBC) and appreciate MDOT's willingness to work with the community. I would encourage anyone who is interested to check out their website The actions and steps that are included are comprehensive and well thought-out. They address environmental, health, housing, economic, and governance concerns. The only problem that I see with the agreements is that they are not binding -- although the CBC is working to make them so -- and they don't demand enough.

Another part of the story that is difficult to ignore is that Southwest Detroit has a long history of imposed large transportation infrastructure projects. Over the past 80 years the community has been gradually surrounded, first by the Ambassador Bridge and later by I-75 and I-94. The Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal is planning an expansion in the coming years. None of these projects created the depressed economic conditions that exist in the area, but they indirectly contribute. Every time a large transportation project consumes a different part of Southwest Detroit, the increased traffic, pollution and appearance provide further incentives for those who can afford it to move out the area.

Even without the assistance of benefit packages, Southwest Detroiters have proven that we are capable of surviving and flourishing in these situations. Considering the economic climate of the city and region, Southwest Detroit is doing a great job of surviving. I can only dream what the area could be with increased financial support of the government and business community. I believe that if either, both, or neither bridges are built, the primary desire of the residents is to see continued improvements throughout Southwest Detroit, especially in the neighborhoods directly impacted.

Take it a step further

I see no reason that MDOT or the Bridge Company can't leverage financial support for all of Southwest Detroit. Mr. Maroun has contributed buku bucks to the political campaigns of Gov. Granholm, Rep. Cheeks-Kilpatrick, and just about every other elected official (except State Rep. Tlaib) but can't offer anything to the community where his company resides? The DRIC project will cost nearly $2 billion but includes community benefits equal to roughly 1.2% of that figure.

Why shouldn't residents, MDOT and the Bridge Company push the envelope on the concept of community benefits? The Southwest Community Benefits Coalition website states that in other parts of the country host communities have successfully leveraged investments equal to 15% of total project costs.

If the bridge projects were required to invest 5% of the total cost into the community, we'd be looking at almost $100 million dollars per bridge. I can only imagine the amount of community projects and programs that could come from that amount of money. It could fund everything that the CBC board is seeking and still invest in the schools, put some extra police on the streets, fix all the street lights, start working on the west RiverWalk and maybe even tear down Mr. Maroun's train station.

If people saw improvements like that they might start asking for a 3rd and 4th bridge project.

Send feedback here. Previous guest writers have included Andre Brumfield on right-sizing, and Khalilah Burt Gaston on the Detroit Declaration.

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


Paul Krystyniak

Delray Neighborhood

Kovacs Bar in Delray

Carl Kamulski's Delray Angels

Ambassador Bridge

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