International Village 101

International Village is a $300+ million mixed-use development proposed for the remaining undeveloped 30+ acres of the City-owned Water Street property in Ypsilanti’s Ward 1. If sold, the City would be privatizing 30+ acres of public land to facilitate the sale of EB-5 visas to wealthy international investors.

Geared primarily as a home to international students, the proposed development is slated to include student housing, courtyards, possible office and retail buildings, a supermarket, dining, an AAATA transit hub, a hotel and conference center, apartments, and condos.

The proposed site for International Village (also known as the “Water Street Redevelopment Area”) sits on the Huron River and is currently home to wildlife and paths for biking and walking. In the past, dozens of industries and workplaces on the site employed many hundreds of Ypsilantians over several generations. Due to its history as an industrial and commercial site, the property has been marked as a contaminated brownfield, leading to the closure of the community-built sculpture garden and the larger Water Street Commons.

Despite the contamination, Water Street has been cherished in recent years as a site of congregation, wildlife, creativity, and outdoor recreation. While many proposed developments for the site have come and gone, the City of Ypsilanti continues to deal with the debt that it acquired in the purchase of the property. In 2016, the City refinanced the debt, bringing the combined principal and interest down from $20.6 million to $14.5 million. This August, Ypsi residents passed a millage to pay the debt, freeing up around million dollars a year in bond payments from the general fund.

This debt has led to a reduction of City services in a municipality known for already high tax rates. While the City plans to sell the property for only $1,000 an acre (somewhere over $30,000), the City hopes that the tax revenue generated by the completed development will help pay off the debt.

In many ways the proposed International Village seems like the solution to the City’s woes: it would generate economic growth, help the City retire the debt, expand the tax base, and add amenities. But there have been many concerns both about the possible negative impacts of the development and the process through which the City has proceeded on International Village (to say nothing about possible ethical violations in relation to the financing of City officials’ trip to China).

How you can help stop this:   Speak up at the next City Council meeting on November 14th during Audience Participation, which begins at 7pm sharp. Talk about your concerns with the International Village development, or any other matter.

Members of Defend Affordable Ypsi maintain an active presence at council meetings and work toward informing as many residents as possible about International Village, housing insecurity in Ypsilanti, affordable housing measures, and more.

In response to International Village, DEFEND AFFORDABLE YPSI is pushing the City to kill the deal and to implement processes to ensure greater community participation in decisions pertaining to development. We support the formation of processes between the City, residents, and developers to ensure that all proposed developments have adequate participation and buy-in from the community and greater transparency from City Hall so that scandals like the “China trip” be avoided.

One such initiative is the formation of a Community Benefits Ordinance (CBO). The ordinance, if enacted, would create a trigger to allow community participation in development processes within the City of Ypsilanti, as well as create processes to ensure that developments provide community benefits like employment, affordable housing, green space, or whatever the community decides is best.

DEFEND AFFORDABLE YPSI supports the implementation of creative and sustainable ways of remediating the property that take seriously the City’s debt and the hurdles needed to be overcome in order to make remediation happen. We support efforts to build and preserve affordability and increase public participation in local government. We advocate increased public engagement with and collaboration between Ypsilanti City commissions (including the Human Relations Commission, Planning Commission, Sustainability Commission, and others), which we believe serve an important role in mediating between residents and the City Council.

In moving forward, we need to ask ourselves a number of questions: What options are there to finance remediation that we haven’t yet considered? Can we remediate the property in a way that is compatible with maintaining the site either as public land or some kind of development that serves broad community interest? What, if any, portions of Water Street should we develop? What should our responsibilities be in protecting indigenous burial sites at Water Street? Should the City develop the property all at once or in a more piecemeal way? What types of development are most needed in Ypsilanti? What processes need to be implemented to develop in equitable and sustainable ways? How does the City’s master plan fit into all this?

What impacts would there be in moving more than 1.5 thousand new residents into Ward 1? What additional City services in terms of police, fire, infrastructure, and maintenance would be needed to be in place for the development? By what timetable relative to the completion of the massive multimillion-dollar development would the City have the revenue to pay for these services? How does International Village continue patterns of gentrification, particularly in Ward 1, which has seen an increase in the percentage of white residents, especially within the past decade and a half? How do these and other changes impact the voting and economic power of the black community in Ypsilanti? What are potential impacts on renters and communities in adjacent neighborhoods and across the City’s three wards and into the Township?

International Village is a highly controversial development and has failed to gain the broad public support needed to merit the sale of public land. Public lands belong in public hands. If we are to develop any portion of Water Street, we need to do so in a way that facilitates greater public participation. International Village exists primarily to facilitate the sale of EB-5 Visas to wealthy investors, and less to serve the needs of the community. With prices for 800-square-foot apartments going for $1120-$1720 monthly and 800-1600 square-foot condos going for $176,000-$352,000, it is clear that International Village is not for current Ypsilanti residents, the majority of whom will not be able to afford to live at the development.

Even the City’s economic director, Beth Ernat, notes that the International Village team is not even a full-blown developer. The head of the International Village LLC, Amy Xue Foster, has no discernible background in development. Searches reveal only a few real estate deals, an auction business, and a string of LLCs, including one sued and dissolved in 2012. Yet the City of Ypsilanti continues to move forward on the development, even as the Council voted unanimously on Oct 10 to investigate the source of funding for the so-called “China trip.”

While there have been difficulties developing the site in the past, we have the opportunity to use the experience of International Village as a catalyst for the public to engage proactively in bringing about any future development and remediation efforts at Water Street. While there are no quick fixes to the problems we face, we can put in place processes that ensure better long-term outcomes.

How can you get involved? Show up to City Council on Tuesday, November 14th and speak up during Audience Participation at 7pm. Talk about your concerns with the International Village development, or any other matter. Tell Council to kill International Village, to support the formation of a Community Benefits Ordinance, and to push for greater transparency so that fiascos like International Village can never happen again.