Detroit’s Choice Isn’t Jail vs. Soccer

In a vibrant downtown, not every single property needs to be devoted to entertainment or glitzy jobs.

Detroit's uncompleted jail building project, as seen in 2014 (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

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Dan Gilbert can’t seem to believe that there is a single structure in downtown Detroit that he cannot buy.

The billionaire founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers already owns more than 80 different buildings in the fast-changing center city. But since 2013, he’s had his eye on a property on Gratiot Avenue that’s owned by Wayne County. A partially built jail is on the 15.5-acre site, a mismanaged project that long ago stalled out, though county officials say construction is expected to begin again soon. In the meantime, Gilbert’s attempts to purchase it and turn it into a vaguely defined entertainment complex have fallen flat.

The county still needs a jail, after all, and, as I’ve written before, it needs to be centrally located. It’s part of an entire infrastructure that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to reconstruct: convenient to the courthouse, law offices, police department, bail bondsman, city hall and county offices, safe and ample parking, and the public transit network. It may be unsexy, but this is smart planning, and it’s fundamental to basic public services, not just for the benefit of thousands of workers and inmates, but also the families of incarcerated people and the victims of crimes. These are residents who are at the most vulnerable moment of their lives, and when it comes to community development, they deserve to be counted too.

Wayne County has indicated that it doesn’t want to sell the property to the businessman, but that didn’t stop Gilbert from hosting a press conference on Wednesday, complete with hype video, to promote the idea of a new $1 billion Major League Soccer stadium for the site. The venue would seat up to 25,000 fans. Like the new NHL Red Wings arena being built a few miles away, it would come along with other commercial developments, including restaurants and hotel rooms.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge Detroit sports fan, and I love seeing Gilbert partner with Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores to bring professional soccer to the city. Seven cities are vying for four MLS expansion teams, and Detroit would be a terrific home for one. This move builds on an already strong and active soccer culture, and it will round out a Detroit sports culture that is already rich with professional teams in baseball, basketball, football and hockey.

The league has said that its interest in expanding in Detroit is contingent on there being a viable stadium site to invest in. That makes sense. But it need not displace a much-needed county jail, which taxpayers have already poured money into. There is plenty of property in the city that would welcome the development of a new stadium. And while some point to a closed prison on Mound Road on Detroit’s east side as a potential alternative to the current jail site, thereby making room for the downtown stadium, it would require up to $488 million in new construction and compel the county to issue new bonds — on top of the ones they already issued for the downtown site. Plus, it would be farther from the hard-to-replicate judicial infrastructure and public transit.

Matt Cullen, with Gilbert’s Rock Ventures company, was asked by the Detroit News about the cost to county taxpayers for their development. Cullen told the News that they haven’t worked out the economics yet.

Gilbert’s high-profile gambit — “There really is no Plan B,” he says — is designed to put public pressure on county officials to sell him the site. He positions this as a choice between “development or a jail,” but that is a false binary. Building a new jail is also development, one with staffing and productive use. To say otherwise suggests a view of a city that is merely a playground, and not a multidimensional entity designed to meet the practical needs of a huge number of people.

In a vibrant downtown, not every single property needs to be devoted to entertainment or glitzy jobs in the tech and creative industries. Plenty of other major American downtowns, from Manhattan to Chicago to San Francisco, also have a centrally located jail. They are hardly the worse for it.

Again, I’d love to see the beautiful game played at its highest level in Detroit. I got hyped by the hype video. And I love how the stadium plans also make room for amateur soccer, rugby, lacrosse and other activities. So, let’s make this happen. On a different site, that is.

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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.

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Tags: jobsdetroitdowntown revitalizationstadiumsdan gilbert

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