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Sheila Cockrel on Corktown’s transformation: ‘This is capitalism, baby’

Sheila Cockrel has a unique vantage point to the debate about neighborhoods now gripping Detroit.

The daughter of activist parents, she grew up in Corktown, fought for the needy and served on City Council from 1994 to 2009.

Returning to the neighborhood after living in northwest Detroit, Cockrel was chair of the Neighborhood Advisory Council. That group last year hammered out an agreement with Ford Motor Co. to make investments in the city in return for $240 million in tax breaks to accommodate its planned renovation of the long-derelict Michigan Central Depot train station in Corktown.

RELATED: Down for so long, can Detroit remember how to include neighbors in growth?

Ford, which plans to move 5,000 jobs to the neighborhood by 2022, is giving Detroit projects $10 million, an investment that could grow to $22 million if the city leverages it with other grants or philanthropic funding.

Bridge Magazine recently spoke with Cockrel about the process and changes to the neighborhood. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bridge: What’s the mood these days in Corktown?

Cockrel: Change is coming. Before we even get to the train station, we have all these housing units (from new development) that are coming online and going to double our population, along with the parking issues that already exist are going to be exacerbated. How do new people fit in with longtime people?  

Whether you are in Palmer Woods, Corktown, Boston Edison or other neighborhoods, there are people who are now literally wanting to buy your real estate. People get to choose yes or no.

Can I get mad at someone who has been here 30 years and feels like their ship is coming in because someone is coming to their door who will give you cash five times what you paid for your house? This is capitalism, baby.

Bridge: In Corktown, and a lot of other neighborhoods now, there’s a debate about whether neighborhood groups have a firm say in development or if it’s driven solely by City Hall. What’s your take?

Cockrel: There’s a big issue sometimes when people start saying, “I’m speaking for the neighborhood.” Did you wake up and put on your socks and someone said, “You are now speaking for all of us?”

Electing officials [to City Council] is supposed to be the structure that gives legitimacy, since these are people who were voted into office to be [neighborhood] representatives.

There’s supposed to be checks and balances. The basic dynamic of democracy is that all voices get heard and there is an opportunity for different perspectives to weigh in and whoever is position of being decision maker has to make the call. Over time, you determine if that decision generated the outcome that was expected.

One of the balances you strive for is the real necessity of building the city’s tax base because it’s very fragile. (17 percent of the city’s revenue comes from property taxes, compared to 70 percent or more in other communities.) That’s inherently volatile.

Bridge: You chaired the Neighborhood Advisory Council that negotiated with Ford and brought in $10 million in commitments in exchange for tax credits. How do you respond to criticism that too much went to city-controlled funds?

Cockrel: They’re putting [$5 million] in job training … that benefits everyone. We are one city. There’s no problem that faces the City of Detroit that has a district-based solution. What’s the social good if we do well at the expense of everywhere else?

I will challenge the notion that there is too much citywide (control), and frankly I’m a little shocked that that kind of narrow thinking would have much political sway because helping anyone who needs a job get a job in Detroit is a good for all of us.

Bridge: Are you surprised by second guessing?

Cockrel: That’s what always happens. People who think they should have been at the table but weren’t say “Oh, we could have done better. We could have gotten more.” Theoretically, is it possible? I suppose, yes. Do I really believe that? Hell no. Hell no.

Also, we set a new standard. There’s a reason [a community benefits agreement with] Chrysler [for $2.5 billion in improvements to plants on the East Side] is at $35 million. … I’m glad for them. I hope the next one is $40 million.

Bridge: Debate about best practices for growth obviously is a radically different discussion than Detroit has had in years. How is the city doing?

Cockrel: There’s a consciousness about balancing neighborhood concerns and [the need to grow the city’s tax base] with this [mayoral] administration. They’re using [neighborhood and affordable housing] funds to really materially impact the city. They aren’t paying lip service. It’s a real set of tools that arms the city in development to preserve things like affordable housing.

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