Officials weigh in on plan for downtown

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published August 11, 2021

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WARREN — With approval of a “transformational” plan for mixed-use redevelopment in Warren’s Civic Center far from certain, city leaders are sharing thoughts on the project as it was recently presented, ahead of any formal consideration by the City Council.  

Last month, planners, developers, administration officials and their financial advisors went before the Warren council to present a proposal for a Warren Town Center development that calls for an initial sale of $30 million in bonds, to be repaid over 20 years with business taxes “captured” by Warren’s Downtown Development Authority. The money, administrators and advisors said, would leverage $140 million in investments from private developers on what is now city land on Van Dyke Avenue, north of 12 Mile Road, across from the General Motors Technical Center and surrounding Warren’s municipal facilities.

Tom Bommarito, director of Warren’s Department of Community, Economic and Downtown Development, told council members the DDA would supply the land and bond for the “gap funding” to get the project rolling.

The proposed commercial development would include 60,000 square feet of space, with 20-25 retail units, including a grocery store, and an initial phase of 250 one-, two- and three-bedroom residential units, with rent ranging from $1,100 to $2,500 a month. A 210-room Marriott “Tribute” hotel is also proposed, with a 5,000-square-foot ballroom and a reflecting pool, a restaurant with outdoor dining, and a rooftop terrace with a bar overlooking the city.

Mayor Jim Fouts offered introductory remarks before the presentation on July 15 and called the proposal a “game changer” for Warren and a “chance to fulfill a dream of Warren leaders for 55 years.”

His predecessor, former Warren Mayor Mark Steenbergh, appeared before the City Council on July 27 and urged the current leaders “to work together to put together a good plan.”

“I’m just here as one citizen, one voice. I have no intention of reentering politics. That’s not why I’m here,” Steenbergh said. “I’m just here to say, quite simply, that I could hope that the council would find some way, some common ground, because you are in control of the purse strings and you will be needed at every turn while the city moves forward to try to put together a good development plan, and I would hope the administration would reach out to you, and you would also be able to embrace the administration and their technical people as you work through the issues that you’re about to see.”

Steenbergh served three terms as mayor prior to his departure under term limits in November 2007, after which he was succeeded by Fouts. In his final term, he called revived interest in development in the Civic Center “a second chance for downtown Warren.”

A new City Hall and City Square Park was built on property in the DDA, and the city later acquired more land after the former Royal Coventry Inn was purchased and razed. But development talks stalled with the Great Recession and only resumed over the last few years.

“One thing I did want to say is that this is generational,” Steenbergh told council members at the meeting. He said plans for more intense development in the Civic Center, “a commercial-type district that would be a great benefit to the core of the city,” went back to the original master plan of the early 1960s.

“Our generation moved forward with what we did with the City Hall and the central main library, which was all about the people that have served so many years, so admirably on the Library Commission,” Steenbergh said.

“You are the generation now given this task,” he said of a future development. “I know it’s going to be a giant task, a hard task, and there’ll be big lumps in the road, but yet on behalf of all the citizens, I would say that this would create the most value that you could possibly put together in this term of office.

“I’m hoping you’ll work with the administration, the administration will work with you, and we will move the Downtown Development Authority ahead,” Steenbergh said.

Addressing the plan during announcements at the July 27 meeting, Councilman Jonathan Lafferty said he has concerns about the proposal but that he is “supportive of a concept of the development of a Town Center strategy.”

“I strongly believe that it could be a catalyst for the rebirth of Warren and the springboard for what I would hope would be the redevelopment of the entire Van Dyke corridor. It’s something we need so terribly, provided that it is inclusive and that it appeals to the desires of our entire community, and not funded by the taxpayers,” Lafferty said. “If we’re to vote on this proposal, in its present form, my concern is that every developer in the county would be lined up tomorrow morning at City Hall with their hand out, waiting for a subsidy for their next project, not to mention free land in Warren for them to build on.”

Lafferty added that while General Motors, Chrysler or other large corporate taxpayers may have received tax incentives recommended by the administration and approved by the City Council ahead of major investments, they didn’t ask for the city to “write a check to build their buildings.”

“That’s on them,” Lafferty said. “Let’s bring a real plan to this council. You bring me a real plan, I will consider voting for it. Absolutely. Don’t put a plan in front of my desk and tell me to tell my neighbors to fork out $30 million for a private developer to begin building in hopes that brighter days are ahead.”

Bommarito told council members previously that the plan would cost Warren’s residential taxpayers nothing. He said the bonds would be repaid with new business taxes resulting from further investments by the developers and that the project would generate an estimated $250 million in annual economic impact.

The administration’s financial team said now is the time to issue bonds at historically low interest rates.

“For taxes to be legitimate, they need to be apportioned, distributed fairly and spent for the public interest. Taxation meant for the public good cannot serve private benefits first with only secondary benefits for the public, no matter how large the purported economic spinoff effects,” City Council President Pat Green said in a statement. “Gifting $30 million to a private enterprise is not an acceptable use of public funds, and I am truly disappointed the mayor suddenly feels the temptation to do so. That being said, this council will do everything we can to protect taxpayer dollars.”

City Councilman Garry Watts said at the July 27 meeting that he’s not for or against the downtown.

“I need more facts,” Watts said. “I need more information to be able to make a good decision. I think a walkable downtown, what have you, is probably not a bad idea. You need something to welcome the new people here, get a lot of activity going. That’s all good.”

But Watts said the $30 million, regardless of where or how it is generated, would still be city tax dollars.

“I was elected to watch out for your tax dollars, and that’s what I’m doing,” Watts said. “I’m not interested in spending another $30 million unless I know exactly what’s going to go on. We’re already paying $6.5 million a year in the DDA now on bond payments, so add more bond payments to that. That’s a lot of money. Think about $6 million right now, if you were fixing roads with that, or if you were taking care of the blight problem.”

City Council Secretary Mindy Moore said there were no plans to place consideration of the proposal on the council agenda for its next meeting on Aug. 10.

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