A Common-Sense Rezoning Hits Billionaire Resistance

You can’t escape the Morouns in Detroit. Billionaire owners of the Ambassador Bridge (the largest privately-controlled international crossing in the United States), the family has for decades bent local politics to its will as it has built a massive industrial empire. Their latest scheme—to stymie an attempt to downzone industrial property in a Detroit neighborhood—shows the extent of their influence and the costs of their greed to the people of Detroit.

The push to downzone

Before the city council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee this week is a proposal to downzone a package of industrial land in Southwest Detroit. Identified for change by the neighborhood’s SNF planning study, the industrial parcels follow a rail corridor through what is otherwise a dense and diverse residential neighborhood. Intensive industrial development here would be disastrous for health and quality of life in what is one of the few neighborhoods outside of the 7.2 that’s experiencing rapid growth– growth in a vibrant area already threatened by high rates of air pollution from trucking, the border crossing, and heavy industry along the riverfront. The planning department and Councilmember Castañeda-López’s office put forward a proposal that seems common-sense. Much of the land has been abandoned or nonconforming for decades, the planning study identified downzoning industrial land as a neighborhood priority, and a growing body of evidence shows the toll on health that heavy industry has taken on health in the area.

A portion of the rail corridor targeted for downzoning. In this case, downzoning refers to updating the zoning code to mitigate industrial incursion into a residential neighborhood. It does not mean “preventing development” per se. The lot in question where the Morouns are interested in developing a new trucking facility is the tree-bordered vacant lot roughly in the center of the above image. They appear to have begun construction, but no permits have been obtained.

But enter the Morouns. One of their numerous companies objected to the change on the charge that it would reduce the property value of four impacted parcels that they own at West Grand and Toledo. Their complaint appears to have gained traction with at least one Detroit city councilman, Scott Benson, who proposed an alternative use designation for the Moroun properties. Benson, who represents a different city district but received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a Moroun-financed PAC in 2017, supports a more limited downzoning from M4 to M2 instead of M4 to M1. An M2 designation would allow for a wider variety of industrial activity, including more of the trucking-related uses that the Morouns have made millions off of building in Detroit’s neighborhoods. 

The industrial slumlord empire reigns

It should be no surprise that the Morouns are again working against the interests of Detroit residents. It’s especially rich to see them worry about the hit that the downzoning would have on their property value considering that they are slumlords who have for years bought up and abandoned property throughout the city without regard to neighbors’ property values or quality of life. The Morouns are perhaps most famous for letting Michigan Central Station rot for decades, but their record of scummy business practices goes much further, including illegally closing city streetsdestroying a Canadian neighborhoodfighting to truck hazardous materials over the Ambassador, refusing to finish a project to take thousands of trucks off of residential streets, and risking the collapse of unsafely-stored aggregate into the Detroit river

The (again, abandoned for years) parcels were actually owned by the city when the original SNF planning study was released in 2018. It would have presented no problem to rezone them then, but in 2019 the city gave the land to the Morouns as part of a highly controversial and very stupid land swap during negotiations to build the new FCA plant. In what might be one of the dumbest corporate disputes imaginable, FCA refused to build the plant unless they could buy a parking lot that they were already renting from the Morouns. The Morouns, sensing an opportunity to gain fabulous concessions for their parking lot, refused to sell. Desperate for the plant to get built, the city stepped in and offered to trade a package of more than 200 acres of land throughout the city for the parking lot, which it then transferred to FCA. The property remains a parking lot. 

Areas of the proposed rezoning. The downzoning proposed would address nonconforming uses along the M4-zoned parcels that border the rail corridor. In layman’s terms, this means “not allowing industrial uses like trucking facilities in an industrial neighborhood.” Zoning was developed after most of these neighborhoods were developed, so “nonconforming uses” usually refer to things that existed and were allowed to remain (by grandfathering) once zoning codes were created. The city of Detroit’s zoning code is monstrously complex and the planning department was in the process of piloting a new, form-based code as an alternative to the current, antiquated, use-based code when planning director Maurice Cox departed in 2019.
A Call To Action

Downzoning industrial land in a dense residential neighborhood should be uncontroversial. Southwest Detroiters have borne the costs of intensive industry for decades and shouldn’t be stuck with future industrial projects that will further degrade air quality and safety on their streets. But once again, greedy billionaires are pushing back on efforts to avoid that future. The political influence of the Moroun family is toxic for democratic representation in Detroit and the health of Detroit residents. Council should ignore the Moroun amendment and pass the package of rezonings favored by residents. 

Sign the petition to support the full M1 designation here ahead of Thursday’s PED meeting. Also, consider signing this petition if you’d like to pressure Councilmember Scott Benson to resign from the city’s green task force over his position.

This article was originally published on Crisscrossing Communities, a blog written by Dion Thompson-Davoli. Dion is a Florida native, aspiring urban planner, and spending a year in Detroit working with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps on housing.

Handbuilt has written about the Morouns in the past, most recently in January regarding an ongoing study of properties that have mysteriously evaded enforcement by the city. Or, our birthday celebration for the bridge. Or the construction-era transit hiatus on the bridge, which frankly screwed a lot of cross-border commuters.

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