Plans for Warren’s proposed downtown development include an “upscale” grocery store as part of 60,000 square feet of new commercial space, an initial 250 residential units and a 210-room Marriott “Tribute” hotel.

Plans for Warren’s proposed downtown development include an “upscale” grocery store as part of 60,000 square feet of new commercial space, an initial 250 residential units and a 210-room Marriott “Tribute” hotel.

Design drawing by Gibbs Planning Group Inc., provided by the city of Warren

Downtown plan gets another hearing, but no vote yet

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published October 4, 2021


WARREN — Discussion about the proposed Warren “Towne Center” development by dozens of residents, city employees and elected officials added hours to the City Council’s agenda Sept. 28.

But despite the many comments, a spirited debate among council members and Mayor Jim Fouts’ call for a vote on the matter, no vote was taken.

At issue is the administration’s request to invest an initial $30 million in gap funding through the sale of bonds to be repaid with new business tax dollars from project developers captured in the city’s Downtown Development Authority district, and by additional transformational brownfield redevelopment credits through the Michigan Economic Development Corp. In return, proponents of the plan said the funding would leverage another $140 million in investments from developers that would transform Warren’s Civic Center along Van Dyke Avenue, north of 12 Mile Road, into an active mixed-use “downtown” area.

The plans include an “upscale” grocery store as part of 60,000 square feet of new commercial space, an initial 250 residential units and a 210-room Marriott “Tribute” hotel with a ballroom, a restaurant with outdoor dining and a rooftop bar.

Proponents said the overall economic impact would be about $250 million annually, at no cost to residential taxpayers. They said it would also add hundreds of commercial jobs and more than 1,000 construction jobs.

The council included an item for questions and discussion about the development as part of the night’s regular meeting agenda.  

“The proposal is requiring, from the last look I saw, in excess of $30 million in city funds,” Council President Pat Green said. “A $30-million-plus bond issue requires city taxpayers to pay it back if the project fails. The taxpayers are on the hook, whether they are residential or business taxpayers.”

Green read a list of financial, land use, feasibility and legal questions about the project into the record and moved to have it forwarded to the administration and its project team to be answered in writing and discussed at a later meeting. He questioned whether the project has a public purpose, which he said, was required.

“We’ve read the proposal and we took our time on it and we conferred on it, and now we’re writing out our questions,” Green said. “We want the answers back in detail with enabling legislation that allows us to do this.”

He added, “Our job up here isn’t to declare whether it’s a great project. Everyone wants a downtown. We don’t disagree with that. But our fiduciary responsibility is that we do it in a proper manner and we do it in the best use of tax dollars, and that’s what we’re trying to get to here.”

Councilman Ronald Papandrea took issue with Green’s questions, particularly one about an optional pedestrian bridge spanning Van Dyke between the General Motors Technical Center and the Civic Center.

“There’s no bridge that’s part of this project,” Papandrea said. “Why don’t you ask how many unicorns are part of this project and how much the unicorns are going to cost us?”

Papandrea echoed comments made previously by Fouts, alleging that the City Council was attempting to “kill this project through delay.”

Both Papandrea and Councilwoman Angela Rogensues asked to have the questions answered verbally at the meeting by the development’s team of experts present in the audience at the request of the administration, ahead of a formal response in writing, as requested by Green.

“We have them all here. They can provide them in writing but I’m sure the audience would love to hear, as well, their responses to those questions,” Rogensues said. “Why can’t they do both?”

Green responded by saying, “This has turned into a political event as opposed to a fact-finding mission. I’m asking the questions in writing because I want them back exact. I don’t want them verbal. I want them written.”

Council Secretary Mindy Moore said the purpose of the agenda item was to compile a complete list of questions the council would like answered and to submit that to the administration formally. The answers, she said, could be discussed further at a later meeting.

“This is our council meeting, not the mayor’s council meeting,” Councilman Garry Watts said. “We did not invite all these people. I appreciate them all coming. I appreciate that. But we did not invite them all here to have this debate tonight. It is better to do this debate in a committee of the whole meeting, in the public. We can bring them in, prepare for the evening and spend the time.”

Later in the meeting, Papandrea and Rogensues sought approval of a “full partnership” between the administration and the City Council “for the creation of the Towne Center,” and the approval of the development plan. The item brought out more discussion about the location of the development, the real estate transfer, and concerns about the retail climate.

Councilman Eddie Kabacinski said he was worried about gentrification. He questioned how the development would benefit residents in south Warren and asked if those taxpayers would be “priced out” of the upscale amenities, commercial and residential spaces planned.  

“Are they going to be able to benefit from the income that’s made in the south end, to afford a loft-style apartment that costs $1,200 to $2,400? Are they going to be able to afford a nice fancy dinner in this new downtown, or are they going to be priced out of it,” Kabacinski said.

“It’s not about jobs. We have plenty of jobs right now. There’s plenty of jobs available,” Kabacinski said.

Councilman Jonathan Lafferty made a motion to table the discussion that was approved by a 7-2 vote, with Papandrea and Rogensues voting against it.  

“Mr. Mayor, most everyone here tonight spoke in favor of a downtown. I desire to see a city that’s going to flourish, and that future generations will enjoy,” Lafferty said. “But how are we supposed to approve this resolution without even a copy of the agreements to read?

“This is not the time to cut corners,” Lafferty said. “The mayor wants this to be successful, everyone on this council wants this to be successful, and I long for success for everyone involved, so if this is so important, just do it correctly.”

After the meeting, Fouts said most of the people who attended the meeting to express support for the project “walked away disappointed and disgusted” by the council’s lack of approval.

“They in effect rejected the experts so that they could purport to be experts themselves,” Fouts said. “They are clearly trying to delay the proposal until the developers and experts give up and leave. Lies and distortions are what they put forth tonight.”