An International Village for Ypsilanti? The fight over gentrification in a rust belt city

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - 6:18pm

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Illustration by Elizabeth Stubbs, Photo by Aaron Baker

 

At a May meeting of the Ypsilanti City Council, Amy Xue Foster — a Chinese-born, Troy-based businesswoman — proposed an ambitious project to construct a glittering high-end apartment complex on a patch of dilapidated industrial land. To be dubbed “International Village,” the complex would sport distinctly East-Asian architectural decor and target well-to-do Asian nationals attending Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan or working in automotive research.

The project was to bring at least $250 million in investment — primarily raised through the controversial EB-5 visa, which grants green cards to wealthy foreign investors — to a city that had seen better days before most of its manufacturing jobs left, promising to revitalize a dilapidated 36-acre patch of land that was costing the city over a million dollars in debt per year. The “village” would contain high-end housing units and self-contained commercial spaces to serve tenants. To some city officials and residents — like resident Bob Resch — the proposal was akin to serving the city money on a plate.

“The property there has languished for the past 20 years, and this development seemed to be the first ray of hope that something would become of the 38 acres,” Resch said. “You’ve got to believe that anybody who’s willing to dump $250 to $300 million to the infrastructure … they have to be serious.”

Yet not all see the project through the same lens. Numerous residents — particularly those in the adjacent, predominantly working-class neighborhoods — balked at the prospect of creating a self-contained block that could increase their rents and provide them with little tangible benefit in return.

Public trust in the development process — already tenuous as opponents feel there has been insufficient public input — collapsed when allegations emerged in late September that city officials took a weeklong trip to China that was allegedly funded by a company represented by Xue Foster — a clear conflict of interest. Less than five months after the project was initially proposed, the four officials found themselves sitting in the same City Council chambers facing an investigation initiated by the City Attorney.

In many ways, the disagreement that evolved over International Village in Ypsilanti echoes those over gentrification taking place in cities from San Francisco to Detroit. All of these stories carry common threads: new residential developments are proposed to serve growing housing demand from higher-income workers moving into the local economy, raising economic and social anxieties among pre-existing residents.

Washtenaw County itself is no stranger to such public polarization over gentrification. In Ann Arbor city politics — where Democrats hold all but one local office — the fault lines lie not along party identification, but rather where one stands on the issue of building luxury high-rises downtown. Yet the debate over International Village in Ypsilanti is unique and carries major implications for the future of the post-industrial rust belt town.

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Architectural concept photos for International Village

Architectural concept photos for International Village Buy this photo
Courtesy of the City of Ypsilanti

As originally proposed to the city, International Village was to contain 1,750 units, each listed at least $1,100 per month. The complex would also contain commercial units targeting its residents. The presentation explicitly notes the proximity of the proposed site to Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan and several high-tech research hubs such as the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti and Mcity in Ann Arbor.

But placing a luxury housing complex and 3,000 wealthy foreign nationals in a city with a population of 21,000 did not sit well with some residents concerned with the potential displacement of working-class residents. Particularly troubling to some were concerns that the “village” would displace its predominantly African-American neighbors.

Longtime Ypsilanti resident Bryan Foley, who lives near the proposed project, said the International Village was introduced with little consideration for the needs or history of the surrounding community, adding that he would prefer a business that would add jobs to the local economy to take the place of the proposed high-rise.

“We had an automotive plant … that closed in the late ’80s or ’90s, and just outside of the township you had a General Motors plant and a Bosch plant. All those closed,” Foley said. “Immediately after those businesses closing, we had an epidemic of crack cocaine, and we’re just now getting stabilized. So now you’ve got an influx of new people coming in and rents will go up … basically we’re getting displaced again, in our own communities.”

Amber Fellows, a local activist and member of Ypsilanti’s Human Relations Commission, argued the development adds insult to injury to the African-American community, which is facing pressure from socio-economic forces outside of their control.

“This development is fundamentally not serving African-American communities, and it would actually likely put pressures on that community, which is already being turned over,” Fellows said.

Ypsilanti City Councilmember Brian Robb, D-Ward 3, argued there is little empirical evidence that International Village will contribute to or speed up gentrification, though he conceded gentrification is a real phenomenon in Ypsilanti.

“They’ve never actually been able to explain why this would drive African Americans out of South Side and the whole concept is: If you own your home, this development’s not going to impact you,” Robb said. “I think it’s a leap to say that this would gentrify people out of the community.”

What underlied all these concerns was an anxiety that the residents of the International Village — predominantly international students from Asia — would be largely self-contained in an insular community. At a coffee shop meeting of community activists opposed to International Village, a sign with pseudo-Chinese writing hung on the wall calling the EB-5 visa “Donald Trump’s vision for immigration.”

However, community members like Nathanael Romero denied any suggestion of a soft xenophobia toward Asians as a driver of their opposition.

“There was a sense that if you were against International Village, you were against international students, against Chinese people, against the sort of diversity that would come from that,” Romero said. “A lot of the opposition that we’re seeing to International Village is coming from millennial renters and the Black community on the South side, and some of the conversation was: ‘Is there anti-Asian sentiment in the Black community?’ ‘Is there anti-Black sentiment in the Asian-American community?’ ”

Foley was more blunt in his assessment.

“I wouldn’t care if they’re from Nigeria or Toledo, Ohio or whatever,” Foley said. “But you’re purposely bringing a group of people and isolating them — and this land is going to be exclusively for their benefit, and exclude the rest of the community.”

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A sign opposed to the construction of International Village hangs in downtown Ypsilanti

A sign opposed to the construction of International Village hangs in downtown Ypsilanti Buy this photo
Aaron Baker/Daily

Those opposed to the development plan were further frustrated by a lack of transparency in Ypsilanti City Council, which held only two community meetings this past summer to discuss the matter — one the day before the body approved the sale of the property.

Adding a further layer of mistrust to the project were the allegations that a trip to China taken by city officials was improperly funded by the developer.

According to emails released to the public as part of an investigation by the Ypsilanti City Attorney’s office, City Attorney John Barr explicitly warned city officials in May that it would be an ethical violation to accept any trips to China paid for by the developer.

“A trip to China would be worth thousands of dollars and cannot in any way be considered minimal,” Barr wrote in the May memo. “Even though a China trip would be educational, the benefit conferred, considering that the developer is requesting action by the city, would, in my opinion, make accepting the trip unethical and illegal under the city ordinance.”

Yet in late September, Mayor Amanda Edmonds, Mayor Pro-Tem Nicole Brown, Police Chief Tony DeGiusti and City Manager Darwin McClary took a trip to China, ostensibly to meet potential investors. Released emails showed the officials sought alternative funding for the trip, and received a “scholarship” offer from the Wayne State University Chinese Students and Scholars association to fund the trip for the purpose of promoting “cultural exchanges between China and the United States.”

However, an investigation by the Detroit Metro Times and a subsequent probe by the Ypsilanti City Attorney found evidence the city officials were aware their $16,800 grant had been indirectly funded by Xue Foster’s development company — a clear conflict of interest.

All four accused city officials have claimed to be unaware of the source of funding for their trip, and the matter is currently under investigation by a special counsel appointed by the City Attorney. In an email to The Daily, Xue Foster declined to discuss the allegations of impropriety. Edmonds and Brown did not respond to requests for comment for this story. DeGiusti redirected all inquiries to the Department of Economic Development.

Even supporters of the International Village development acknowledged that public trust in the issue had been compromised, making the future approval of the project unclear.

“It’s almost laughable  — it’s a little frustrating that you’re looking at this kind of a development and your guys can’t even get out of the huddle without fumbling and bumbling,” Resch said. “I’m glad that they’ve decided to do this internal investigation with this outside law firm. … I think personally it’s a jumble of miscommunications.”

For those like Foley, who already held a dim view of their city’s handling of the International Village project, the scandal only serves to validate their impression that some city officials aren’t acting with their constituents’ best interests in mind.

“I really do believe (city officials) acted out of bad faith,” Foley said. “I really do believe that they thought this was just going to be business as usual, and nobody was going to do checks and balances on them and they were going to just squeeze it on through.”

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Ypsilanti residents opposed to International Village meet Monday

Ypsilanti residents opposed to International Village meet Monday Buy this photo
Aaron Baker/Daily

The uncertain fate of International Village and developments like it illustrate the dilemma facing Ypsilanti in the 21st century. Founded in 1825 by three settlers on a crossing over the Huron River and named after a general from the Greek War of Independence, Ypsilanti grew from the automotive industry.

Like too many factory towns in the Industrial Midwest, however, Ypsilanti’s fortunes soured with the departure of many of these factory jobs.

Since 2001, 13,000 manufacturing jobs have left the city, with the Willow Run plant — a famous bomber factory in World War II — shuttered by General Motors in 2009.

Ypsilanti’s population has hollowed out by roughly one-third from its peak at almost 30,000 in the 1970s. The 2008 financial crisis hit the city disproportionately hard, and average incomes continue to lag behind the national average. Following the recession, though, the population has grown alongside a revitalized Depot Town-centered downtown.

The knowledge-based economy, rooted in the presence of the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University and their affiliated research complexes, offers to breathe new life into the city. However, as new, more affluent residents have pushed into Ypsilanti, a dilemma is increasingly evident in the community. How can a community grow itself economically, while still protecting the interests of its longtime residents?

“What we’re seeing is a process of tech gentrification and it’s going to change the character of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township,” Romero said. “The question of international capital is an important one, because the number one concern is our community stakeholders having a seat at the table, particularly the most vulnerable ones — and it doesn’t seem like it.”

According to Robb, Ypsilanti must find a new source of vitality as manufacturing declines throughout the Midwest and the rest of the United States, though he maintained the city did not specifically court the technology sector.

“Manufacturing in Michigan is disappearing, so the logical move is into service and technology type of businesses,” Robb said. “(However) if you draw parallels between this and we’re moving toward a technology-based community, I think that’s coincidental.”

The development itself is now in jeopardy in light of the allegations of impropriety. On Monday, Ypsilanti City Council put the International Village development on hold, after Xue Foster’s qualifications as a developer were called into question and the architectural and construction management firms exited the project. McClary wrote in an email that if no development agreement is in place by Dec. 31, the purchase agreement will likely expire and kill the project.