They call it the “fail jail.” In downtown Detroit, on Gratiot Road near Greektown, the half-built $300 million Wayne County jail sits abandoned, a victim of cost over-runs of nearly $100 million and an ensuing grand jury probe. It’s been untouched for more than a year. Accountability for the failure is still shaking out: Longtime county executive Robert Ficano lost his bid for re-election in an August primary, and on Monday, three county officials were indicted in an investigation of misconduct and willful neglect of public finances.
And Detroit has a gigantic problem on its hands: In this age of “placemaking” and downtown core revitalization, what to do about this monstrous unfinished structure at a major downtown entry point?
Dan Gilbert, the CEO of Quicken Loans who owns more than 60 major downtown buildings, proposed fashioning the site into a residential and commercial complex. Through his real estate arm, he offered $50 million to purchase the 15.5-acre site, but his proposals about what he would do with it are vague; he said he’ll spend $500 million to make rather ambitious conversions, like turning one jail complex into condominiums and another into a hotel. County commissioners have expressed that — in learning lessons from the jail mess — they are reluctant to leap without seeing where they are going. As I wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review (“Detroit’s Dan Gilbert and the ‘savior complex’”), that didn’t stop local media from mis-reporting last fall that Gilbert had “snapped up” the jail site, when in fact that has never happened; he’d only submitted sketches. Expectations are getting ahead of themselves here.
Maybe it’s true that Gilbert could do something great with the site. But Wayne County still needs a new jail. It explored converting a closed prison facility into a county jail and court facility, but that would cost up to $651 million — nearly twice as much as finishing the undone project, in a region that can scarcely afford it. Renovations on the current jail would reportedly cost between $20 million and $37 million — and only buy seven more years of use.
So, county officials are expressing interest in completing the jail — building it out into the new county facility as originally planned — rather than selling it to Gilbert.
“I think the administration sees Gratiot Road as the only viable way to complete this project,” said Commissioner Kevin McNamara, chairman of the Jail Task Force subcommittee, according to the Detroit News.
Gilbert was none too pleased to hear this, of course: He called the move “short-sighted” and “reckless.” In a lengthy statement, cited by the Detroit Free Press, he said that building a jail “just off the busiest freeway exit into our urban core at the very same time Detroit’s center is undergoing an unprecedented positive transformation should outrage every single citizen, business and government official of our great city.”
Gilbert argues that the visibility of the jail would bait the old image of Detroit as a crime-ridden and decaying city. “Let me not mince words: Building this jail at this crucial location would be nothing short of an unmitigated disaster that will echo with negative implications for downtown and the city for decades to come,” he wrote.
No doubt that the failed jail project was a fiasco. But the downtown location was never the problem.
Why build a jail on this high-traffic site? In Detroit, as is the case in most other cities, it is close to the courtrooms, the police stations, the bail bondsman, the law offices, the parking structures and the public transit network. That’s smart planning, and it can’t be simply picked up and recreated on the other end of town — not without phenomenal expense, inconvenience and pain for people who are at the most vulnerable moments of their lives (including the victims of crimes).
While Gilbert contends that it would be a radical departure from best practices to house a jail downtown, this is actually standard in many vibrant urban cores, including Seattle, San Diego, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan.
Is Gilbert saying that the downtowns of these cities are a “disaster”? It’s true that Detroit hardly has a history of making urban-planning decisions with the long-term health of the community in mind. And Gilbert is smart to be attentive to the “gateway points” where people enter and exit the city, and he’s aware to the synergistic elements that make downtown inviting and walkable.
But his warning that building the jail, as planned, will amount to a tragedy for the future of downtown Detroit is misplaced, and comes dangerously close to fearmongering.
Building a county jail is not the sexy stuff of “placemaking” that has become Gilbert’s business, as he fashions a downtown core that brims with restaurants, pubs and parks — ones that I enjoy visiting myself. But our community includes people who work in, visit family in, or are themselves lodged in for a short time jail. They matter too.
Building a safe and centrally located network of criminal justice structures is a fundamental responsibility of any functioning city. The revitalization of Detroit is not just about new shops, creative industries and entertainment venues; it’s about getting our house in order.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.