The old Michigan State Fairgrounds property sits at one of Detroit’s busiest crossroads, is adjacent to prominent rail and bus routes and has been mostly abandoned since 2009. But soon, the 157-acre property, beloved to generations of Detroiters and out-state residents alike, could see major redevelopment.
Just what that redevelopment should look like, however, is a matter of pointed disagreement among neighboring residents.
The question is also an important one, given the site’s enormous potential as a hub for transit, new retail and other businesses, residential development, green space and more.
The site sits along Detroit’s northern border with Oakland County and is bordered by Eight Mile Road to the north, Woodward Avenue to the west and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks — also used by Amtrak — to the east. In most other major American cities, property like this would probably have commanded hundreds of millions of dollars and been well on the way toward redevelopment by now.
Not so in Detroit. Since the last State Fair was held in 2009, upkeep and security on the massive property has reportedly cost taxpayers $1 million a year while the property sits in limbo. The state last year transferred the property to the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority, which then solicited bids on what to do with it.
Of the three proposals received, the Land Bank picked a proposal by a group called Magic Plus LLC as the only plan with credible financial backing and that met all the other requirements set forth.
Magic Plus, a trio of business partners headlined by former Michigan State basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, say the land has no value until developed. Instead, they propose paying the state 1 percent of any net lease revenue it receives or proceeds from property sales.
In exchange, the group wants to build a $120 million, 500,000 square-foot mixed-use development with big-box retail, a Cineplex, restaurants, office space, diverse residential and green space. It would demolish most buildings save for a few, like the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse and a band shell, and it would develop an Amtrak train station. Projections say the development will create 1,300 new jobs.
A separate proposal called the META Expo, short for Michigan Energy Technology Agriculture, lacks financial backing but asks, “What can Michigan show the world?” It too envisions a mixed-use project that would revive the State Fair, serve as a business, research and entrepreneurial campus and develop a bus and rail transit hub under the newly created Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority. Interestingly, it also goes beyond the fairgrounds border to incorporate and reimagine the heavily blighted Penrose neighborhood to the south.
You can read more about the dueling proposals and how the fairgrounds got to this point in Metro Times.
I’m a homeowner who lives a few blocks away from the fairgrounds site, so I admittedly have an interest in what happens there. I’m excited that I’ll soon be able to pick up things like diapers and organic milk 24 hours a day from the Meijer store — a Michigan business — under construction on part of the property known as the Gateway Marketplace, and for what redevelopment could mean for surrounding property values.
Frankly, aspects of both proposals strike me as far-fetched and needing more work. I can’t help but be reminded of the disastrous Bloomfield Park development in Pontiac, an ambitious mixed-use development that collapsed during the financial collapse and today sits in weedy, half-built abandonment. Magic Plus in particular would construct tens of thousands of square feet of housing and spec office space in an economy that is still far from robust.
And while it’s great that both plans incorporate residential development, plans should address the demographics and heavily blighted state of some of the surrounding neighborhoods. No one’s going to want to live across the street from burned-out houses, no matter how nice the new units may be.
The state has elected to begin negotiating with Magic Plus but says nothing is yet set in stone.
What do you think of the proposals for the fairgrounds? What would you like to see done with the property?