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Posted on Sun, May 6, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

MichCon site cleanup removes 'barrier between the downtown and the river'

By Ryan J. Stanton

A dramatic transformation is in store for the riverfront MichCon site in Ann Arbor if DTE Energy moves ahead with a major cleanup project later this summer.

It'd be the first step toward transforming the polluted industrial site into a usable green space along with new development, a vision city officials and others have championed for years.

A new city park along the Huron River? A riverfront restaurant? A place for entertainment and public gathering close to the new Argo Cascades? A new spot to launch a kayak?

Those are all ideas being tossed around as DTE's proposed remediation plans for the property go before the Ann Arbor Planning Commission on May 15.

The state is requiring DTE to complete soil and sediment remediation at the site of the former coal gasification plant at 841 Broadway St.

The Planning Commission must give approval because of proposed disturbances to natural features and because portions of the site are in the floodplain and floodway.

Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, is excited about the possibilities with the site, saying it could be a great example of a "river renaissance."

"I'm so glad that DTE is making efforts to clean up the site," she said. "It's been sitting there contaminated for decades and it's one of the most highly contaminated sites we have on the river. And especially in this economy, for DTE to step up and show the leadership to start the transfer of that property through the cleanup is admirable."

Rubin is referencing the expected transfer of at least a portion of the property into the city's hands so it can become part of the city's parks system.

"We want to have a park that runs from one end of the river to the other and this particular site has been on everyone's wish list," said City Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward.

A changing landscape

The MichCon site is nestled between the Argo Dam and the Broadway bridges near the Amtrak train station just north of downtown Ann Arbor.

The area where cleanup activities will be taking place represents 8.5 acres of the 15.95-acre parcel and is within the 100-year floodplain.


Wendy Rampson, the city's planning manager, hopes to see mixed-used development at the former MichCon site.

Ryan J. Stanton |

After this year's initial cleanup, state officials are expecting DTE to come forward with a proposal for final remediation of the remainder of the site within the next few years.

DTE's plan is to dredge contaminated sediments from the main channel of the Huron River between Argo Dam and the Broadway bridges and also remove contaminated soils along the river banks to achieve an unrestricted residential cleanup standard. That means, for instance, the area being cleaned up will be considered safe to use as a public park.

Clean soil and rip-rap backfill will be placed in the river and the shoreline will be restored with new trees and other vegetation, according to the proposed plan.

Among the changes immediately noticeable if the project moves ahead as expected in August will be the removal of 30 landmark trees along the Huron River, according to new plans DTE has submitted to the city's planning department for review.

Wendy Rampson, the city's planning manager, acknowledged the area will be noticeably less green afterward, but she considers it a short-term impact for long-term gains.

Most of the trees being removed are cottonwoods and silver maples, Rampson said.

DTE plans to plant 207 replacement trees, all native species 2 inches in diameter. The plans on file with the city show DTE proposes planting at least three varieties, choosing from species like red maple, white pine, yellow birch, black willow and black gum.

Per city ordinance, removal of landmark trees requires mitigation of half the diameter of the trees being removed. About 413 inches of mitigation is required, plans show.

DTE conducted a tree survey that identified 33 landmark trees in the project area. It's taking precautionary measures to protect three of the trees.

Kerry Gray, the city's urban forest and natural resource planning coordinator, reviewed DTE's plans. In an April 27 memo, she said she wants DTE to go above and beyond three species when it plants replacement trees. Given that more than 200 trees are going to be planted, she's suggesting DTE use at least seven different native tree species.

Shayne Wiesemann, senior environmental engineer for DTE, said city ordinance requires planting only three species, but DTE is taking Gray's suggestions to heart.

In addition to the replacement trees, native sedges, grasses and shrubs will be planted in the area, according to the latest plans. Other vegetation identified in the plans include serviceberries, gray and red osier dogwood, speckled alder and various species of viburnum.

The new trees and other vegetation are proposed to be planted toward the end of the restoration activities — either in October or next spring.

As part of a natural features protection plan, DTE is pursuing a joint permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers.

DTE officials had a district review meeting with DEQ officials in Jackson on Wednesday and are anticipating approval of the project by May 15.

Before the Planning Commission votes on the project on May 15, a public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. on the second floor of city hall, 301 E. Huron St.

DTE also has submitted a proposal to construct a new substation on the east side of 984 Broadway St. The commission will hold a public hearing on that at the same time.


The location of the MichCon site adjacent to the Huron River just north of downtown Ann Arbor. City officials consider it an important piece of property in the city's future.

Courtesy of DTE Energy

'There's been discussions of everything'

There's some agreement among city officials and environmentalists that there should be a mix of open space and development at the MichCon site once it's cleaned up.

"I think in general there's a community interest to have some of it be parkland and also to have some commercial," Rubin said. "There's been a lot of interest in getting a restaurant on the river and also getting that connection to downtown. There's been discussions of everything — ice rinks, skateparks, canoeing liveries — all of those kinds of things."

But all of that should come with a public discussion about how the city and the community want to move forward, Rubin said.


Ann Arbor City Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, welcomes DTE's cleanup of the former MichCon site.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Rampson said having an open green space that brings people from downtown toward the river and the Broadway bridges could help revive the city's Lower Town area.

"Many people are looking at this site as an important piece of the river system," she said. "It's also a link between one side of the river to the other, so to have some type of use that is able to draw people to this area and then connect over the bridge I think is really important."

Rampson said the city's Master Plan recommends a portion of the MichCon site for public use, and that's consistent with the city's Parks and Recreation Open Space Plan. The Master Plan contemplates using the remainder of the site for commercial or office use.

Rampson acknowledged most of the property — except for a portion closer to the Broadway bridges — is in the floodplain. It can be expensive to develop in the floodplain, she said, noting a building would have to be elevated by one foot and have flood-proofing.

Briere said if she had her way there would be a continuation of one part of the Border-to-Border Trail along the river through the site. She also said she'd like to see the site designed to hold and filter stormwater before it makes its way into the river.

"I don't want to build bigger stormwater sewers or pipes going under this area to dump the water faster into the river," she said, citing potential for pollutants from urban runoff.

DTE is asking the city's Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance from requirements to install new stormwater systems due to existing site contamination.

Rampson said she's confident the city's staff will support that with an understanding that stormwater detention requirements can be met as part of future development.

She said there's a concern that removing the old parking lot and concrete building foundations on site now will uncap contaminated soils and release more pollution.

In a deal worked out with the city, DTE is planning to pay for two whitewater pool features for kayakers along the river channel adjacent to the MichCon site.

Briere said she's aware there are people who want to see things like bandshells, stages and entertainment venues in the area.

"But I haven't seen that West Park, which has a bandshell, has ever been heavily used," she said. "So I'm not sure that kind of thing would benefit the city."

Rubin is involved in RiverUp!, a long-term initiative to improve recreational access and the health of the Huron River.

"As part of RiverUp, this could be one of the capstone projects that really illustrates and shows how the cities and the communities along the river embrace the waterfront and turn our faces to the river," she said. "And this is a great example of a heavily industrial site that was contaminated that has been sort of a barrier between the downtown and the river.

"So with the idea of eventually turning some of it into parkland and connecting it to downtown, and also improving the access, it's really exciting."


A look at the MichCon site plans as submitted by DTE Energy. (Download larger PDF version.)

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Sun, May 13, 2012 : 5:23 p.m.

plans,plans,plans,lets just see what actually gets done.


Mon, May 7, 2012 : 1:35 p.m.

I think a restaurant with a outdoor deck overlooking the river would be a real hoot. You get to drink some micro brews and eat good food while watching kayakers tumble over the rapids. Good stuff. BUT! Why do the "landmark" trees have to come out? Can't DTE find a way to rehab the shoreline without removing these lovely old trees?


Mon, May 7, 2012 : 1:25 p.m.

Okay. This is great! BUT.....the park and border to border trail already exists on the other side of the river....RIGHT? Let's get some taxable features on this toxic site so that we may pay for the art installation!

two canoes

Mon, May 7, 2012 : 11:53 a.m.

A waterfront restaurant sounds great to me. A2 needs a waterfront restaurant. canoe/kayak launch site? Would be good to have on this side of the river, but the water is a bit swift there. If there is a launch site, make it close to the water so I don't have to schlep my boat a long way to the water.

Attempted Voice of Reason

Mon, May 7, 2012 : 4:35 a.m.

Looks like a wonderful place for an expansion of the Amtrak station and plenty of other things. Let's figure on ample parking in a garage for current and projected train passengers, some restaurants with views, some shopping, and maybe even some offices and a hotel. It would be nice for visitors to be able to take the train to Ann Arbor then walk their luggage to the hotel elevator. There are other tall buildings in the area so this wouldn't be out of place. Then there's still room leftover to add a little parkland along the river--and all of Fuller Park gets to stay a park--ideally funded by private developers at no cost to the taxpayers. (Maybe a little cost just for the Amtrak parking if we want the rights to control parking fees.) As for the flooding by the station, it looks like it's caused by the tracks acting as a dam, and a few relief pipes could fix that. We should do that anyway to protect the houses, Casey's, and the Gandy Dancer around there, so that's not an extra cost to keeping the station there.


Mon, May 7, 2012 : 1:34 p.m.

Are you for real with these comments? You want expansion of the train station, more parking, retail stores, a hotel, restaurants, and then "maybe" a park? Flooding is caused by the tracks acting as a dam? what?

Alan Jackson

Mon, May 7, 2012 : 1:51 a.m.

While it would be nice to turn this highly contaminated site into a park I think the city needs to tread extremely carefully with taking over a superfund site as joint and severaliability can potentially make the city liable for future clean up costs. Also the city would have to manage the site to properly control its hazards. Wyandotte has done this and I assume that it is possible for Ann Arbor to do the same. The site use would also need to consider the area a flood plain see:


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 11:17 p.m.

Do NOT make this into another City park! The City can't take proper care of the parks that already exist. Put this land on the tax rolls with some type of commercial development.


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 9:40 p.m.

I am SO happy to see this happening! I have lived on or paddled this river since my childhood and to have it all become accessible is just wonderful. I am currently involved with the RiverUp! Project and am so proud to work with Laura Rubin and Elizabeth Riggs on even a small part of this project. Thank you DTE and City of Ann Arbor. Andra Bostian Ferguson


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 8:30 p.m.

How come all you people that have ideas on what should be built didn't buy this property and pay the taxes and pay for the cleanup??? Who care what you want in there. Let the person that bought it decide as long as he's in the guidelines!!


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 5:45 p.m.

They really messed up the old Hobo Jungle - now where will we live?

Kai Petainen

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 5:32 p.m.

this is fantastic stuff, and for all the grief i've given the HRWC, it's good to see that they are involved in this. good stuff!


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 5:19 p.m.

This is cheerful news for a gorgeous Sunday morning. Thanks! And, to the knee-jerk negativist comments, thank you for the entertainment!


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

I can't wait to see this stretch of river cleaned up and opened up to the public! Unfortunately, some so-called "artist" will probably drop a big pile of scrap metal on the site and call it art! Where I come from, piles of scrap metal are called garbage. Only Ann Arbor calls that crap art.


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

Sabra Briere says that "she'd like to see the site designed to hold and filter stormwater before it makes its way into the river," and so does commenter yohan. Here's another vote for that — we're talking about a major cleanup right where Allen Creek dumps into the river, so let's do it right. This is a point in the river where the difference between water quality above, and water quality below, is dramatic. A settling pond, or marshy outlet, would help a lot. When I mentioned this possibility to City Council's Steve Kunselman, though, he said that the site is not big enough for that. Myself, I don't know enough about the hydrology to be able to say, one way or the other. It is my understanding that the HRWC favors a settling pond, though. What if, in order to properly deal with the Allen Creek pollution, it would be necessary to dedicate the entire site to a retention/settling pond? Is Ann Arbor Green enough to do that?

Dog Guy

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 2:20 p.m.

The Ann Arbor nomenklatura presumes ownership of this DTE property as easily as it presumes ownership of my home. Will this ruling caste survive the inevitable loss of its supreme leader?

Larry Baird

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 2:06 p.m.

Given the proximity to the existing Amtrak station, the city should create a - TOD zoning ovelay district (transit oriented development) for parts of this property along with N. Main St and Lower Town. This type of zoning district could help revitalize these commercial areas and perhaps speed up the clean up of the Michcon site. Whereas moving the train station to Fuller Rd., would not offer much opportunity for TOD since that site is completely surrounded by public lands.

Larry Baird

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

spell check correction - "overlay district"

Jim Osborn

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 1:07 p.m.

It is proposed that pollution that has been sealed up and undisturbed for our entire lifetimes be disturbed, which will pollute the river downstream and the lakes. When canoeing, instead of leaving Argo, and going past many nice tall trees, we will now go past a construction zone and when this is finished, a treeless prairie. Eventually; new trees may grow, but it will take years. Meanwhile it will ugly, not ort of through the woods as it is now. This is to remove a parking lot that is desperately needed and all ready existing in the exact location for the Amtrak station. The present Amtrak lot is always over-filled and is a deterrent to taking the train to Chicago; and elsewhere. Taxing Ann Arbor taxpayers to build another park and then destroy an existing park ½ a mile to the east is folly. I rather have this parking lot it where it is presently located and needed, than to replace an existing park ½ mile to the east.

Stan Hyne

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 12:53 p.m.

We should give DTE a vote of thanks for cleaning up a site that they inherited from MichCon during a merger. When another company offers cheaper gas or electricity, it might be prudent to think about all the thing DTE does for the community, including recycling refrigerators, generating power from wind etc.

Stan Hyne

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 12:56 p.m.

And making the site available to the city.


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 12:39 p.m.

DTE will do the right thing, but I know the city was looking way down the road with the Broadway Village Development. What is the nature of the contamination at the MichCon site? Is there a place to read about the contamination and what is planned to be removed? These old gas plants are known to have generated carcinogens that stay around a really long time. What happened with Broadway Village? Is that the place where the city paid for the contamination remediation through tax breaks and the development never happened? That is one ugly mistake. I do not know the details and I am hoping will add some information please. I hope the talk about mixed use development doesn't mean the same thing as Broadway Village where we spent a decade of dreaming and currently have a field of weeds.

Sabra C Briere

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 12:53 p.m.

The City did not pay for remediation of the contamination at Broadway Village. TIF capture for brownfields (which include both contaminated and derelict properties) only works if there's an increase in the taxable value of the property -- which never happened at Broadway Village. You can read about the DTE plans for the site cleanup here (long string):

Ryan J. Stanton

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 12:52 p.m.

You can read more about the contamination here:


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 12:25 p.m.

I'd like to see part of the area used as a settling / filtration pond for Allen Creek. This would act to clean up some of the pollution put in the Huron River by The Old West Side and Water Hill neighborhoods.


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 12:09 p.m.

I've seen Frog Island mentioned before, is there one in Ann Arbor ? The only one I know of is in Ypsi


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 10:55 a.m.

From the article: "I think in general there's a community interest to have some of it be parkland and also to have some commercial," Rubin said. Why a park? Why not have some of this land revert to a natural area? Planting native species is a good idea, but the mention of a "park" speaks to grass which means regular maintenance like watering and mowing, both of which are expensive, labor intensive chores. The monoculture of lawn degrades the health of the underlying soil which encourages runoff and erosion. Who is considering a riparian buffer zone along the river so that wildlife has a new home and the banks can be anchored with deep roots? Why install rip rap? Rip rap is one step off concrete breakwalls and that is a long way from healthy river banks. Who is championing commercial construction in a floodplain? We have an opportunity to allow part of the river to return to the flow that evolved over time. Consider the creeks that now race through pipes and the people who want them to bring them back to the surface. Consider the recent flooding in Ann Arbor, especially in the West Park neighborhood. There are consequences when people try to re-route moving water. Why not learn from our own past mistakes?


Mon, May 7, 2012 : 4:46 p.m.

The center of an urban area is not the place for a natural green space with a meandering river. The urban center should be dense, walkable and attractive to limit car trips and suburban sprawl, which are the real environmental bad guys. Make it a park, put in a restaurant - perhaps seasonal - have events there.

Richard Wickboldt

Sun, May 6, 2012 : 12:36 p.m.

I agree with Happy Senior. If we Ann Arborites want to truly be champions of the environment and live true to all the rhetoric. This site should just be planted with trees and allowed to live in a true natural way with but a path or two for walking. Keep out bikes and dogs. The trees will help the climate warming greenhouse gas CO2 by sequestering it. The area would give natures natural filtering of the water entering the river. Of course we would also need to keep NAP. they would just keep the ground cover and leaves off the ground and allow erosion and less filteration.


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 11:40 a.m.

I agree with some of your points but believe you are taking the term "park" too stringently and I think a natural area with walking paths would be nice. I also think this area, if done well, would help revive this part of downtown.


Sun, May 6, 2012 : 10:55 a.m.

A restaurant with a view would be lovely. A Frog island setting would also be nice. Thank you for sticking with all native plantings.