MichCon site cleanup removes 'barrier between the downtown and the river'
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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.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
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.
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.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"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."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.