Detroit — The City Council for a second time rejected a request from the owners of the Crowne Plaza Hotel to build a second tower.
Opposing council members did not express any issue with the proposed structure itself, but rather room conditions in the existing building, employee pay and the hotel owner’s failure to sign a neutrality agreement acknowledging the workers’ rights to form a union.
Meanwhile, hotel representatives say they’re frustrated but plan to keep fighting to build the 28-story, 500-bed tower at the corner of Washington and Jefferson in the downtown.
“I support employment. I support good customer service…” said Council President Brenda Jones prior to the 2-6 vote. “But what I do not support is problems within a hotel where I receive calls from out-of-state visitors that are here who feel that the hotel is a convention hotel, and that they experience a lot of problems … the rooms inside the hotel. Not with the employment, not with the customer service."
Jones, President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield and members Janee Ayers, Roy McCalister Jr., Raquel Castaneda-Lopez and Scott Benson voted no. Council members James Tate and Andre Spivey voted in favor of the request. Gabe Leland was absent.
The council also rejected the project in June with a 2-7 vote.
The delay has caused frustration for the hotel's owners, Operadora de Servicio Para Hoteles de Lujo, said John Sabbagh, general manager for the hotel. Conversations began with the city planner in early 2017, and the project was formally presented to the city in December.
"The longer we're delayed, the more our project threatened," Sabbagh said. "Financing has already been obtained. Lenders will only hold out for so long. Our expectation is that we would have been close to breaking ground already. Due to all this going in circles, it is definitely jeopardizing or project."
Sabbagh noted the hotel owners have not asked for any tax incentives for the $164 million project that is expected to bring 250 permanent jobs.
Among issues the council has raised is how the hotel treated a failed vote to unionize in 2015.
Sheffield said if employees aren’t in favor of the union, there’s nothing that can be done, but she supports an environment of no intimidation from the employer if employees want to form a union.
Nia Winston, president of Local 24 UniteHere!, said Tuesday they are seeking a neutrality agreement with the employer. Winston spoke out against the project.
“We’ve sent such agreement,” she said. “We’ve asked for conversations to discuss it. Yet the employer has maintained its position that there was a vote three and a half years ago, and that all the employees that were there then, they are there now, and their position has remained the same.”
Winston noted there are some newer employees.
“Just like I’ve decided, and many others have decided in a unionized Detroit, that the workers should decide with no intimidation,” she said. “A neutrality agreement will ask the employer to stay neutral. Not speak for or against, and let the workers to decide.”
During the meeting Tuesday, about two dozen employees wearing gray shirts joined Sabbagh in their support for the project. The Crowne Plaza Hotel employs about 140 people, including managers.
In 2015, 80 workers rejected forming a union while 15 were in favor, Sabbagh said. He said the hotel’s ownership group is not opposed to unions, and the hotel does have one, Local 324, International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents eight maintenance workers. The hotel just signed a renegotiated contract for three years.
“They chose to be represented, and we support them 100 percent,” he said. “We support our current staff now.”
Another issue raised Tuesday was the average worker pay at the hotel. Sabbagh said that pay varies based on position with the average being $14 an hour. The City Council has expressed its support for a $15-an-hour minimum for city workers.
Ayers said the issue for her is not about unionizing workers. Ayers is a former hospitality worker who has been a bartender, waited and bussed tables and washed dishes.
"What I want is to make sure that the standard that has been created here is one that whether or not you have a union card, you get to participate in having an environment that nurtures those beliefs that there should be a standard," she said.
"That there should be a median income that should be able to at least meet and then surpassed."
Staff writer Christine Ferretti contributed.