Reparative I-375 conversations focus on efforts to honor historically Black neighborhoods

A plan to reshape a stretch of highway between downtown Detroit and Detroit’s lower east side is more than an infrastructure project.

Replacing I-375 with a street-level boulevard also has implications for economic development and historic preservation, according to planners.

The Kresge Foundation was an original investor in planning studies to consider the removal of I-375 and is considering how restorative justice can be achieved through the project. In March, the nonprofit formed the “Reparative Roundtable,” a group of 20 stakeholders to devise a strategy for gathering feedback from residents, including descendants of those historically displaced. The group will meet twice a month in the coming year.

Participants also include representatives from Detroit Future City, Black Bottom Archives, Detroit People’s Platform, Doing Development Differently Detroit, Detroit Greenways Coalition, Joe Louis Greenway Partnership, Detroit River Project, Institute for Afro Futurism and The Carr Center.

A key question related to the I-375 Reconnecting Communities Project is how officials will deliver on the promise to recognize the cultural significance of the predominantly Black neighborhoods that were destroyed in the 1960s to make room for new housing — an early example of gentrification in action.

The demolition of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley culminated in the installation of I-375. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has committed to exploring how to recognize the significance of displaced communities and businesses.

MDOT planning documents specifically call land acquisitions through eminent domain and resulting highway development “racist.”

“MDOT recognizes that Detroit’s condemnation process was prima facie discriminatory at the time and, in today’s terms, can fairly be presented as an environmental injustice that

has disproportionately affected a large population of low-income and minority populations,” according to a 2022 MDOT planning document.

Kresge’s roundtable shared five initial expectations for the City of Detroit and MDOT:

  • Community Benefits – Commit to 3 to 5 community benefits based on community input. Areas could include mobility indicators. Examples include affordable housing, workforce development, small business development, and environmental justice action.
  • Special space for historical/cultural recognition – Acknowledge the cultural erasure caused by I-375 through the integration of Black history and cultural expressions into the built environment. Examples include dedicated cultural spaces for recognition, celebration and preservation of history
  • Intentional commitment to link mobility benefits to economic opportunities – Examples include the welcoming and thriving Black Business Corridor, streets designed to accommodate mixed-use, investment opportunities for residents, and continued land protection
  • Human-centered design – For vibrant and sustainable street life. Examples of this are a complete street approach, wide sidewalks, sustainable landscapes, respecting and strengthening the local ecology
  • Restriction of construction – For residents, companies and surrounding neighborhoods

A $1.85 million Kresge grant will also support the Downtown Detroit Partnership’s efforts to engage residents and stakeholders in highway design and mitigating the impacts of a multi-year construction process.

DDP, in turn, hired a group of design firms and held meetings with representatives from Eastern Market, Greektown, Lafayette Park, the city’s sports and entertainment district and others.

In 2014, the Kresge Foundation provided a planning grant to the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC) to study the possible elements to convert I-375 back into a boulevard. Kresge Detroit Program Managing Director Wendy Lewis Jackson spoke with BridgeDetroit about the foundation’s role in the I-375 project.

Editor’s note: This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

BridgeDetroit: Was the idea of ​​turning I-375 into a boulevard something the Kresge Foundation was interested in? Where did that idea come from?

Jackson: We have always viewed I-375 as an important issue, but also as part of the city, in terms of its potential to repair the past damage caused by the development of the highway itself and how it will benefit Black Bottom and Paradise Valley has obliterated.

When we were approached by the DEGC, we looked to this planning study (2014) as a way to take a serious look at how removing the freeway and transforming it into a boulevard would reconnect parts of downtown with the Lower East Side- neighborhood could connect and tackle the problem. of recognizing the significance of Detroit’s history in an authentic and meaningful way.

We have learned that there has been another effort to adopt some of the findings from that planning study, along with MDOT’s receipt of the federal Thriving Communities grant. We saw this as another opportunity to bring tech expertise to the city through an investment in the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

Wendy Lewis Jackson, director of the Kresge Detroit program. Credit: Courtesy of photo

Federal funding presented a real opportunity, from planning to implementation. As a result of MDOT receiving those dollars, there is a real opportunity to do something innovative in terms of redevelopment, but also to give meaning to what this part of the city means to Black Detroiters.

BD: Why was the Downtown Detroit Partnership selected as the entity to host conversations?

Jackson: DDP has a track record in the field of large-scale projects in public space in the city center. That’s one of the reasons why we provided them with technical support to bring together the best of the best.

There may be more to come, but in order to get the planning and technical expertise and bring it into the conversation and actual discussions between MDOT and the city, DDP was our first investment.

This is MDOT’s project and (MDOT) is leading much of the public involvement. What DDP has done is bring together technical expertise to identify what opportunities there might be for redevelopment in a way that is transformative and innovative.

What I mean by that are development opportunities that respect and honor the culture that Black Black Bottom and Paradise Valley represent.

BD: You mentioned the authentic and meaningful recognition of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. What do you think that will look like? Can you share any ideas or ways to think about that?

Jackson: We invested in what we call the I-375 Roundtable. It is a group of stakeholders with historical context and knowledge, but who are also involved in the various processes that MDOT leads. They have worked closely with DDP to bring these votes to the table.

It’s important for the entire city, not just focused on those living in its footprint. Especially for Black Detroiters, as this part of the city was a major gateway. That’s why it was important to have a variety of stakeholders in the city and to do this in a collaborative way.

BD: What feedback have you received so far?

Jackson: What happens to the excess land? How do you redevelop in a way that is fair and inclusive? Many of the elements DDP has put together begin to answer that question. That’s why their work is so important. How you develop determines what the road should look like.

You can’t just look at this as a road project. In many ways it is a development project.

The overarching message we hear as funders of this work is: ‘how can we respectfully and authentically recognize the art and cultural significance of what Black Bottom and Paradise Valley mean to the city.’

MDOT and city officials held a virtual town hall on the I-375 Reconnecting Communities project in May. View presentation materials online or sign up for email updates from MDOT here.