DownRiver Waterfront Conservancy: a non-profit 501(c)(3)
The zoning and the redevelopment of the defunct McLouth steel site, now owned by MSC Land/Crown, is one the most talked about properties in the last decade downriver. When you talk with people about what has happened with the site in the past three or four years, you get as many opinions as there are people. The one thing that just about everyone agrees on, is that having buildings come down on the site, is the best thing to happen on the property in the past twenty years. However, when you ask what kind of redevelopment should go on the property, this is where consensus ends. Some people want parks with public access, and some want condos with offices, shops, restaurants. Some just want good paying jobs and an employer that contributes to the city’s declining tax base. We all have the best interest of our community at heart.
Let us talk about how we got to where we are today. The site was a working steel mill some twenty plus years ago bringing good jobs and a strong tax base to support city services and a well-regarded school system until the day it closed. The bad news is that it brought blight, pollution and contamination that typically accompanied along with heavy industrial uses of that era. The site was owned by several companies after the McLouth steel closing, and all tried to reuse the facility in various ways. There was even a plan for a mixed-use development which included offices, condos, and inland marina but unfortunately, developers were not able to get the project off the ground do to environmental and economic challanges. The owners of the property just prior to MSC attempted several business ventures and even tried to sell the property but were unsuccessful. This caused taxes to the City of Trenton and Wayne County not to be paid eventually resulting in the property being taken over for back taxes by Wayne County approximately three years ago.
Following the tax foreclosure, both the city of Trenton and the State of Michigan were offered to purchase the property for the back taxes owed and both declined to do so for several reasons including but not limited to the known and unknown pollution on the site. Wayne County put the property in its land bank and put out a request for proposals to purchase and redevelop the site. A handful of proposals were submitted and the plan from MSC/Crown was selected as the most viable option. To proceed with the sale, the County asked for and received a resolution signed by all council members, showing unanimous approval that put their stamp of approval on the agreement with MSC.
The agreement to sell the property included several key contractual provisions that established how the site was to be cleaned up, specific uses and non-permitted uses by MSC. The site was also approved by the federal government to designate it as a Super Fund sites and added to the National Priority List (NPL) so that future federal funds might be allocated to do additional clean-up following an extensive EPA study.
Most people do not realize this site is made up of more than one lot and that it has multiple zonings in two cities, Trenton, and Riverview. The Riverview property is zoned industrial. The Trenton site which has primarily two lots, one zoned I-3 heavy industrial, and the other mixed-use. The current mixed-use lot was rezoned from I-3 to accommodate the developer, mentioned above, who wanted to put offices, condos and a marina on the site more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, no one has come forward since that time to take advantage of that zoning change. Until the site is remediated, (the heavy pollution has been cleaned up), neutralized or encapsulated, opportunities for redevelopment will be restricted and limited in scope.
Prior to the time of foreclosure of the property by Wayne County, the city of Trenton Planning Commission had begun the process of a city-wide review of its Zoning Ordinance. This process is done routinely by cities primarily to keep their ordinances up to date with current law. One of the major changes to the proposed ordinance, was to rezone several properties that were being used for industrial purposes. This would encourage new, less intensive uses under a new zoning designation called Industrial Waterfront. Some of the most notable sites affected by this proposed change would be the MSC Land/Crown site, the DTE power plant site, and the Eastman chemical sites along the river.
In summary, prior to the completion of the zoning ordinance the Trenton City council signed a document supporting the sale and terms of the agreement to sell the property to MSC Land. Subsequently, property was sold by Wayne County to MSC Land/Crown knowing that MSC would be responsible for some cleanup on the site and that they planned to use it for industrial purposes. The planning commission recently recommended adoption of a revised Zoning Ordinance to Council that would change the zoning on the entire property in Trenton to I-W, (Industrial Waterfront).
So, where does the DownRiver Waterfront Conservancy stand on this issue? Well, probably the best way to articulate our goal is to share our mission statement.
“The DownRiver Waterfront Conservancy works to bring together business, community, and environmental interests to support sustainable economic development on our waterfront.”
If you asked, would DRWC support a project that creates new jobs, additional taxes and would cleanup a heavily contaminated site, the answer is yes. Would we prefer that it not be used for industrial purposes? Of course we would. Unfortunately, from where we sit, the die has largely been cast regarding the MSC site. It appears to us that some sort of industrial use of the property is inevitable. We feel that the proposed ordinance significantly regulates the types of permitted uses of the property and we support that. We also hope that the community could work collaboratively with MSC to make the use of this site good for all concerned. On a long-term basis, we would like to see access to other riverfront properties for all people with a blend of commercial uses that can help provide tax revenue and a clean environment for our children and grandchildren. This has been undertaken in other communities in Michigan and we can learn much from them as to how to go about getting local, state, federal and private support to achieve these goals.
As a sidebar, we would like to point out that we have two additional sites on our waterfront zoned I-3 (DTE and Eastman/Solutia) that are ripe for redevelopment. These sites appear to be good candidates of future development to something other than heavy industrial. We must start now toward that goal if we have any hope of a desirable outcome. Delay and inaction can only invite a similar outcome for these properties as has occurred with the old McLouth Steel property and Riverside Hospital site.
Our goal is to bring together diverse interest toward the common goal of creating a better economic, environmental, and sustainable future for all Downriver.
For more information, visit our website at downriverwc.com
The DownRiver Waterfront Conservancy
Paul Frost: Chairperson
The DownRiver Waterfront Conservancy is a non-profit organization formed by a group of concerned downriver residences, to help bring about sustainable economic redevelopment of our waterfront. Our goal is to create awareness and facilitate proactive conversation in order to create positive outcomes and desirable development on our waterfront.
What’s Next: Post McLouth Steel
A Call to action:
Planning needed now for DTE, Solutia site.
Just when you thought you could stop wondering or worrying about what might or might not happen at the old McLouth Steel waterfront industrial site, up pops two new industrial waterfront challenges. Eastman/ Solutia will close in about three months, and DTE Energy is scheduled to shut down operations in May of 2022. We will be adding approximately 200 or so acres of new vacant waterfront to our list of property in need of redevelopment. Not only do we have vacant businesses and buildings on these properties that will need to be remediated and/or torn down, we will also suffer the loss of good jobs and tax revenue as a result of these closures. Now that we are aware of these closures, how do we keep from making some of the same mistakes with the DTE and Eastman/Solutia sites that we made with the old McLouth Steel property?
To begin with, we need to keep ourselves from sticking our collective heads in the sand hoping that this pending Downriver Disaster will just go away by itself. We need to proactively do our homework so that we can best understand the unique business and environmental issues of both sites. Fully understanding how those businesses plan to deal with sight closures means engaging in meaningful dialogue with both parties. The process needs to involve many stakeholders. I am sure that both companies want the best possible solution for all parties concerned.
How should we get started and when should that process begin? The DownRiver Waterfront Conservancy (DRWC) feels time is of the essence! We need to start NOW to insure a beneficial outcome for the future.
What needs to be done first and foremost is to deal with the elephant in the room. What types of pollutants are we dealing with and how bad are the levels of contamination? All industrial sites have pollution issues, it is all a matter of degree. Once we understand the exposures, we can move forward with a cleanup plan. Without this critical information, we cannot make any meaningful plans for what comes next.
Good planning means we will need to enlist the services of professionals in the fields of urban planning, architecture, marketing, pollution assessment and law. Where do we get the funds to make that happen? Beyond the limited local funds available, we must engage our county, state, and federal governments for backing. This requires that our legislators get involved with both feet in these important issues. How can we tap into the flow of money and mojo happening just upriver from us in our own county? Am I the only one that feels like Downriver gets treated like the wicked stepchild of Wayne County? How did that happen and how do we change that perception?
There is a lot of work to be done and seemingly so little time. This process is bigger than any one community or interest group can handle alone. DRWC feels all stakeholders need to come together in a spirit of cooperation. If we work together, we can make good things happen.
If this sounds like a Call to Action, it is! What is it going to take for Down River to come together, stand up and be counted, to create sustainable economic development that addresses environmental concerns and includes public access on our waterfront?
DRWC can best reached through our website at downriverwc.com.
Paul Frost: Chairperson of the DownRiver Waterfront Conservancy