Detroit residents reflect on new ‘U’ building, effects of gentrification

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 7:48pm

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Illustration by Christine Jegarl

The University of Michigan’s plan for its Detroit Center for Innovation, announced in October, has generated mixed responses from the campus community, with some students creating a petition condemning the center as a sign of gentrification. The Daily spoke with several Detroit residents about their views on the Center.. 

The Center for Innovation will be built on the site formerly set aside for the construction of the proposed Wayne County Jail. Construction of the jailcame to a halt in 2013 after going $91 million over its initial $300 million budget.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University aims to attract businesses and entrepreneurs to Detroit through the Center for Innovation. 

“This new Detroit Center for Innovation enhances that legacy by meeting another pressing need — helping to further the economic development of the city and the region,” Fitzgerald wrote. “As the president wrote in his message to the campus community last month, the university will help provide a pipeline of talent and platform for research collaboration to help grow and attract businesses and entrepreneurs, while positioning the future workforce for success in a dynamic and diversified economy.”

A majority of the concerns about the center lie around the building’s impact on Detroit residents. The petition, titled “#UMichRegentrifiers: Invest in Detroiters” stated the University’s decision to spearhead the center “signals its priorities in Detroit do not lie with Detroiters.” The petition said the University’s investment in Detroit Renaissance Real Estate Fund LP, a firm with ties to a string of evictions in Detroit, was a sign of the University’s lack of genuine commitment to the city. It also claimed the University was more invested in gentrification and furthering business interests than supporting Detroit residents. Staff of the University’s Semester in Detroit program also released a statement questioning the Center’s intentions.

LSA junior Oluwakemi Dauda, who graduated from the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine in Detroit in 2017, said she, too, has questions and concerns about the building that have yet to be answered.  

“Being a site that has had so many promises for it, but that they failed, I am concerned if this amazing idea of an Innovation Center is going to actually fall through,” Dauda said. “My only other concern is how it will impact the Detroit residents. How does that impact residents from Detroit being able to have access to the Center, even if they are not students? Are people who are students from U of M who are from Detroit, do they have access to this center? How will it affect people who live around this center?” 

Dauda told The Daily she sees potential in the Detroit Center for helping Detroit residents and she hopes that the University sees that potential too. 

“I really hope that they are seeing more as a way to create impact and not money,” Dauda said. “Although, of course, them being entrepreneurs and businessmen, that’s always in the back of their head. But I feel when it comes to initiative for a new business plan, like the Innovation Center, I feel like the forefront of their minds should be that and not the financials that come after it.”

LSA freshman Chanel Barnes attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, which is close to the proposed location of the Innovation Center. Barnes said her experience at the University has really showed her how much Detroit Public Schools are lacking in providing a quality education. She also said people often come to downtown Detroit and take resources that residents need. 

Barnes said she thinks the new building does not have any direct initiative for students in the Detroit Public School system and will have greater benefit for those outside of Detroit.

“It seems like they’re putting more of the building on people who are not of lower income. It seems like it is going to students who have a higher privilege of education,” Barnes said. “It is in the downtown area, so I see it will have an impact on the local students and community in general. But I won’t say it will have a positive impact.”

Thomas Page, a Detroit native and Los Angeles Police Department retiree, has returned to Michigan after retiring and now works in the community by leading bike rides around Detroit. As an alumni of the University of Detroit Mercy, Page said he believes the new Innovation building will be the catalyst for other universities to create other initiatives in Detroit.

“Wow, look at what Michigan is doing here,” Page said. “And the students that Michigan attract come from all over the world… So I think it’s great,” he added. “Michigan State has a presence and I expect them to try to have a bigger presence. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the big private schools, maybe from around the world, say we want to have a presence in Detroit now too. Detroit has the land and things like that — I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the Ivy League schools do something.”

Page also told The Daily he believes more good will come out of gentrification than bad.

“When I moved back here, I mean, we didn’t have a tax base. We didn't have a functioning city government. It was really astonishing and incredible to me that this investment hadn’t taken place. Now you have a tax base, a rising tax base, that allows things like good bus service, better police response, and getting roads paved in Detroit,” Page said. “All of those things are positive. So I look upon: who’s the beneficiaries of that? Is it the gentrifiers or the people that were there? If you look at it, the gentrifiers can live anywhere. It’s the people that really benefit that might not have the resources to leave.”

In an interview with The Daily on Monday, Schlissel clarified that the Center is only one of many ways the University is involved with in Detroit. He also noted the University is not involved in the construction of the center, but rather is providing the education and research workforce. 

Schlissel told The Daily the University is currently working with groups in the community to receive their input and thoughts about the project. 

“One thing we’re involved in now is working collaboratively with community groups, particularly in the neighborhoods near this site, explaining what we envision, hearing their thoughts and ideas, discussing ways the community may become involved in some of this project, whether the facilities we build can be made available to the community for all kinds of purposes and to do it collaboratively,” Schlissel said. “So I’m not quite sure where the criticism came from, to be honest.”