A large crowd of concerned citizens showed up for a special Ypsilanti City Council meeting during which residents were invited to weigh in on the proposed International Village project for the city's troubled Water Street property as it pertains to the issue of affordable housing.
More than 100 residents packed into the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place, in Depot Town on Monday night. The meeting was changed from its originally scheduled location at City Hall, 1 S. Huron St., due to the number of residents who were expected to attend.
The special meeting was scheduled after the city's Human Relations Commission on Aug. 28 passed a recommendation for City Council to hold a public meeting on the International Village proposal and affordable housing. City Council narrowly passed the resolution on Sept. 5. Affordability advocacy group Defend Affordable Ypsi launched a concerted effort to encourage residents to attend both the Sept. 5 and Sept. 18 meetings.
A Troy-based development company named International Village Advisory, LLC, headed by Chinese-American developer Amy Xue Foster, has proposed a mixed-use residential and commercial development with an emphasis on housing Chinese international students on Water Street. The developers plan to spend at least $250 million on the project and to attract foreign investors who can obtain a visa through the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program if they contribute at least $500,000 toward the project.
At the beginning of the meeting on Monday night, three members of the Human Rights Commission gave a presentation on why it was imperative to hold a public input meeting on the International Village project before City Council makes a decision. Commissioner Amber Fellows, a key organizer for Defend Affordable Ypsi, rattled off numerous statistics painting a picture of the city's housing-insecure residents.
"Until the city and county choose to center low-income renters and longtime residents who are vulnerable to displacement, then officials cannot say that they are concerned about affordability in any meaningful sense," Fellows said. "We are Ypsilanti. We can do better than this, much better."
Public input lasted two hours and featured 44 three-minute arguments from residents, some of whom spoke twice. A handful of residents voiced support for the International Village project, but the majority spoke against it.
Most residents who didn't support the project pleaded with council to hold off on making a decision. They argued that the International Village is a controversial project and the public hasn't been given the opportunity to share input on a decision that will affect the whole city.
"We need to be talking and brainstorming about how we can get all of our needs met when we're up against such a beast," Jeff Yoder said. "This means that the most vulnerable in our communities need to be absolutely at the center of all economic discussions. They're the ones who are the true measure of our economy's health."
A few well-traveled residents argued that Chinese developers have caused serious problems in other countries, like Namibia and Jamaica, where land is being bought up by rich foreigners. Several other residents argued that the city plans to cater to wealthy Chinese elites at the same time when longtime Latino residents are actively being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"I have to say the idea of there being an International Village doesn't seem like the worst thing ever at first blush, but the idea that we in Ypsilanti would be complicit in the selling of citizenship to the highest bidder when some of our poorest neighbors are being deported is pretty appalling," Liz MacGregor said.
Many of the residents who expressed support for the International Village project argued that it doesn't follow the pattern of gentrification because no one currently lives on the Water Street property, so no one will be displaced.
"Years ago, in another lifetime in New York City, I was a tenant organizer and I fought gentrification," said Eastern Michigan University history professor Mark Higbee. "Now, when you gentrify, that means pushing people out. If it's an empty 30-acre lot that the city of Ypsilanti – stupidly, in my opinion – spent millions of dollars on and we won't have paid off until 10 years from now, then it's not really gentrification if somebody builds new housing there because no one else has been moved out."
Some residents added that they're suspicious of city officials' plans on Thursday to travel to China to build international relationships and to promote Ypsi abroad. The trip will be funded by the Wayne State Chinese Students and Scholars Association.
City Council members declined to make comments at the meeting on Monday night. They're expected to speak and vote on a purchase agreement for the International Village project at another meeting tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.
Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
Photos by Brianna Kelly.