Dr. Zeenat Kotval-Karamchandani (ZK) is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University. Her areas of research and teaching include sustainable development and transportation.
Alexander Swindle is a policy fellow at IPPSR graduating in May 2017. A lightly-edited transcript of their interview follows.
AS: At the IPPSR forum, you turned our attention to the residents of the Delray neighborhood. With approximately 850 of its 2,500 residents being impacted by the Gordie Howe Bridge’s footprint, what are the most important development considerations?
ZK: It is important to be sensitive to the low economic status of Delray’s residents. The 850 residents being “bought out” will need to find new homes elsewhere. However, their homes are valued so low that it may be difficult for them to find new housing. How much money will those being displaced get? If they get paid solely the value of their homes, it will be difficult for them to find new housing. Not much comparable housing exists for them to buy. We must consider how much relocation assistance they will get and what entities will assist the displaced residents.
AS: What role should communities play in the planning process of major infrastructure projects?
ZK: In general, major infrastructure projects are going to happen. This bridge is going to happen. Without the Gordie Howe Bridge, the Delray community would continue on in its current state. This bridge gives the community a chance to help residents improve the quality of their lives. There are going to be a great deal of service and retail jobs generated by this project’s construction. Communities must learn how they can respond to take advantage of those new jobs. Agreements can be made with developers to hire a certain percentage of employees from the surrounding area. Developing concrete long-term agreements, free of loopholes, will improve a community’s access to the benefits of a project. Infrastructure projects like this bridge give communities a unique chance.
AS: How do you think Delray residents can gain access to the economic benefits of the Gordie Howe Bridge?
ZK: They will gain access through jobs. When a business decides where to locate, they consider how the surrounding population meets their employment needs. In Delray, the bridge and businesses are coming regardless. The residents need to be trained, skilled and ready to meet that demand. Everything will be a ripple effect. I am extremely optimistic but it will take time to adjust.
AS: What economic impact do you predict the Gordie Howe Bridge will have on other surrounding neighborhoods, particularly those with lower concentrations of investment?
ZK: The only thing concentrated in Delray is the actual footprint of the bridge. Having two international bridges in one city will impact the entire Detroit region. We need to learn how to capture the economic benefits from this ripple effect to benefit the city’s neighborhoods. Jobs will absolutely come to the city – whether or not those jobs will be taken by the residents of the city has yet to be seen. There are plenty of people living in the city; not all jobs need to be taken from outside. The community and local government must assess what skills residents will need to meet the demands of developers and incoming businesses.
AS: Do you feel environmental concerns are given as much priority as other aspects of development?
ZK: For bridges, or any other project of this magnitude, a federal environmental impact assessment is required. It has to be done. A bridge definitely has a high environmental impact, especially due to traffic air pollution. Standing traffic has an especially potent pollution impact. Having a second bridge in Detroit will increase free flowing traffic and reduce congestion. Other environmental concerns, like the planting of trees, are being addressed. While the Canadian side has plenty of preserved land, the Detroit side is urban. The planting of trees here is important but only scratches the surface. We would need acres of land to combat the environmental impact. At the IPPSR forum we heard about the environmental considerations, requests, and hopes. Once the developer of the bridge is chosen, we will learn more about what we can do to combat environmental concerns.
AS: Moving forward, what can be done to continue the commitment of improving the area surrounding the bridge?
ZK: Moving forward, the next important focus is the developer. Once the developer is chosen, the community will have the chance to engage, scrutinize, and form agreements. If it is not in the contract, it does not have to be done. In this public private partnership, we have heard the public’s commitment to the community. Now we need to know what the private side will do. Right now it is all about the developer.