Deadlines for the University of Michigan’s (U-M) plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art facility in District Detroit downtown are fast approaching. But the university has yet to break ground or engage in any meaningful community benefits process with the surrounding community. 

The University of Michigan Center for Innovation is expected to be 200,000 square feet and cost $250 million to construct. 

The project is being financed in part by $100 million in state money earmarked in this year’s budget. Those funds would need to be reapproved by the state if the university doesn’t break ground by the end of 2023. The project also cannot move forward without formal approval from U-M’s Board of Regents, but the board has yet to discuss it.

Rick Fitzgerald, associate vice president for Public Affairs, said the university expects construction to start later this year.

“We hope to have additional details to share about the project soon,” he said by email.

The increasingly tight time frame to begin the project makes it less likely U-M will sign a community benefits agreement (CBA) before construction begins. Generally, the process takes several months. Because its public financing is coming from the state and not the city, the university is not required to have this kind of agreement, but some faculty and community groups have been pushing U-M to voluntarily enter into one. 

So far, U-M has resisted these calls to negotiate with residents on an agreement.

Earlier this year, District Detroit developers agreed to $12 million in community spending beyond the project’s budget through the city’s community benefits process. 

How much community engagement is enough?

The university has offered few specifics about programming at the center and declined to answer questions from Outlier Media about how it will incorporate community input from the engagement it’s done. U-M President Santa Ono previously said the center would provide opportunities to both graduate students and Detroiters through workforce development, but there is nothing holding the university to these assertions. 

Over a hundred people associated with U-M who live in Detroit signed a petition in February this year asking for the institution to enter into a CBA in order to codify “measurable and long-term benefits” for residents. 

A community benefits agreement could, for example, require the university to hire residents for construction jobs or cater programming to residents — as other agreements signed between developers and communities have done. 

More than a dozen U-M professors co-signed a letter to Ono saying that developing the center without a CBA could do harm to the community relations they’ve worked hard to cultivate over years of work in Detroit. 

“This is a great opportunity for the university to show it’s serious about its public commitments to Detroit,” said Margaret Dewar, a professor emeritus of urban planning and a co-signer of the letter. 

Dewar is supportive of the project overall even if she feels the university could do more to get community buy-in. However, some are opposed to it altogether. 

U-M Professor Stephen Ward has been a faculty director of the Semester in Detroit program for more than a decade. He says the project is too far along to really take Detroiters’ concerns into account. 

“I’m critical of the whole project,” he said. “We don’t know much about the university’s plans for the building and that lack of transparency has made me very skeptical.”

In a letter responding to the one written by U-M faculty, Ono said the university has taken “a number of actions to engage Detroit residents,” not just for construction of the facility, but also “as part of a deeper, long-lasting relationship with the city.” 

Ono did not commit to signing a formal agreement, instead stressing other forms of engagement the university has undertaken. The letter cited conversations with city councilmembers as well as “listen-and-learn sessions” with six Detroit-based organizations. 

One of those organizations is Global Detroit, an immigrant advocacy group. The organization’s executive director, Steve Tobocman, said he was “surprised” to see Global Detroit listed in the president’s letter.

“The 30-minute meeting, which was very welcome and pleasant, contained little information about the programs that would be offered at the U-M Innovation Center,” he said by email. “I would describe it as a very introductory meeting rather than a consultation.”

The other five organizations in the letter did not respond to a request for comment. 

Ann Zaniewski with U-M’s Office of Public Affairs said the university also organized six “informal” focus groups to gather more community input. But an email shared with Outlier outlining takeaways from those meetings reported that only 64 people attended. 

Outlier spoke to five U-M faculty members who work or study in Detroit. All said the university’s outreach is a decent start, but not enough to truly gauge how the building can align with the needs of the city. 

“If U of M is serious about building reciprocal relationships with communities, neighborhoods and the people of the city of Detroit, we need to put hard resources into them and we need to be specific about them,” said one current U-M professor who requested anonymity because they’re not tenured. “A public, signed agreement puts some clear accountability out there for all of us to strive towards and be measured against.”

Bypassing Detroit’s ordinance

Developers building in Detroit are required to participate and ultimately sign a CBA when their project’s cost exceeds $75 million and either receives more than $1 million in property tax abatements or city-owned land.

Even though the University of Michigan is not getting any money from the City of Detroit for the innovation center, the amount of other subsidies and in-kind donations they are said to be receiving might mean U-M will not have to pay directly for any construction costs associated with the project. 

Olympia Development of Michigan LLC owns the land the center will sit on and is said to be donating it to the university. To pay the expected $250 million cost of construction, the state put a $100 million earmark for the project in its annual budget. Billionaire Stephen Ross committed another $100 million. Ross personally lobbied for the $100 million earmark, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. U-M is looking to raise an additional $50 million from donors. 

Ross is a frequent donor to the university and chairman of the Related Companies LP, a real estate firm co-developing 10 buildings downtown with Olympia Development at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. 

Both developments will be in the District Detroit area. One of the planned buildings will house apartments for university students. Despite the two developments being intimately linked, the CBA for District Detroit doesn’t cover the innovation center. 

Other universities have voluntarily signed agreements when developing major projects both on and off their campuses. 

Sam Butler, executive director at Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit, cited an agreement signed by Columbia University when it built a second campus in Harlem, New York. That agreement included a $76 million contribution to a local nonprofit development group and a $20 million commitment to affordable housing. 

Butler provided a hypothetical approach to a CBA where the university works with an advisory group with community leaders, Detroit-based faculty and other experts who develop a list of commitments that could be finalized before construction starts. 

“It needn’t be an arduous process,” Butler said by email. “This could be a perfect time to begin the process of identifying meaningful and measurable commitments to Detroit.”

U-M’s Board of Regents meets again on Sept. 21, at which time it may be asked to approve plans for the center. The agenda for the meeting has not been made public. 

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.