Somewhere, John Dingell is smiling. The veteran congressman, who died in February, told the Observer in 2011 that “nothing in politics gives me greater pleasure” than cleaning up polluted rivers. He’d spearheaded the creation of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge on the Detroit River–then challenged a group of community and business leaders to do something like it on the Huron River.
DTE Energy CEO Gerry Anderson knew just the place. When DTE bought the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. in 2001, it also acquired one of the city’s most polluted properties: 841 Broadway. Once the site of the city’s artificial-gas manufacturing plant, it was contaminated with, among other things, carcinogenic coal tar–which was why, almost eighty years after the plant closed, fourteen prime acres between the Broadway Bridge, the railroad tracks, and the river stood vacant.
Anderson lives in Ann Arbor. “I can walk through a woods in my back yard to the Dow Field entrance of the UM Arboretum,” he emails. “As it turns out, Dow Field is named for one of my predecessors–Alex Dow, former President of Detroit Edison (the land was donated in his honor after his death).” On Broadway, Anderson saw “an opportunity for DTE to play a role in shaping what I hope will be a similarly iconic space that future generations will enjoy in the way that I enjoy Dow Field.”
That moment may finally be at hand. This month, the city planning commission is scheduled to review a concept plan and zoning request to redevelop 841 Broadway. From there, the proposal will go to city council.
Plans call for more than 100 condos and a parking deck near the railroad tracks and a hotel and retail space near Broadway. Yet most of the site would remain open, including a public amphitheater, paddle-craft launch, and picnic area.
Making all this happen–and finding the $100 million or so needed to pay for it–will fall to Detroit’s Roxbury Group.
“When we’re showing people our vision for the project,” Roxbury co-founder David Di Rita says, “we always start with a picture of what this site looked like before the turn of the century. The street grid of Ann Arbor used to extend right across it. … As the industrial use started to form on that side of the tracks, it kind of pushed the city out.”
Di Rita knows Ann Arbor well–he has both a BBA (1986) and a law degree (1989) from the U-M. But he’s speaking by phone from the David Whitney Building in Detroit. He says it exemplifies the way Roxbury can turn a downtrodden and abandoned property into something magnificent (and pricey).
When they acquired the David Whitney Building in 2011, he says, “it was an abandoned, heavily contaminated former medical office building.” Now it’s home to a 100-plus-room Aloft Hotel, 100 or so residential apartments, 11,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space, and first-floor retail. The $92 million project, Di Rita says, “is probably one of the most visited buildings in downtown Detroit.”
In an email, Di Rita explains that he “got into development first as a practicing lawyer,” representing companies like Johnson Controls and Visteon Corporation on projects. He launched Roxbury in 2005 with Stacy Fox–who also has undergrad and law degrees from the U-M
In 2013, they partnered with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to develop the Outdoor Adventure Center on the Detroit riverfront. “That was a building that was in the middle of a very industrial part of the city,” Di Rita says. They turned the old Globe Trading Company building–“a former shipbuilding and warehousing facility and also very contaminated”–into a “wonderful hands-on museum for kids and adults and a fantastic educational facility. ”
The common denominator in their projects, Di Rita says, is “seeing what the site’s current constraints are and figuring out how to overcome those constraints to unlock the potential.”
The biggest constraint on the Broadway site is pollution. “The main thing that has held this property up from redevelopment is that it is so contaminated,” says Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council.
DTE “spent millions,” Di Rita says, “long before we were ever involved, on a DEQ-approved remediation plan that essentially created a barrier that would preclude any off-site migration” of the contaminants that remain.
“There are some materials in what we envision as the open public space,” Di Rita says. “They will be removed from the site to a specification that the DEQ established, which leaves the site with at least two feet of clean soil across the entire area where the public can interact with the land.”
As a “brownfield,” the site is eligible for tax increment financing (TIF), which let developers recoup cleanup and infrastructure costs through reduced property taxes. But when DTE bought MichCon, it also inherited responsibility for the pollution, and so isn’t eligible for a TIF. Another company would have to acquire the site and be responsible for the final cleanup.
Roxbury got involved after DTE issued a request for proposals. Di Rita says they have a purchase agreement and a development agreement that “envisions us acquiring the property at the tail end of all approvals … We would only acquire the site if the state of Michigan approved our plan to clean it up, and the city of Ann Arbor approves our plan to develop it.”
Roxbury is requesting zoning as a “planned unit development,” which requires that the project provide a public benefit. For Di Rita, the benefit couldn’t be clearer: “This is an opportunity for the first time really to give Ann Arbor and the community a kind of ongoing access to the riverfront in the heart of the city.”
Two developers with property nearby agree. “It’s a huge plus for the city, and long overdue,” says Kerrytown owner Joe O’Neal. Bill Martin, whose office is across the railroad track from the site, calls Di Rita and Fox “very conscientious, good people.” (Fox was Detroit’s deputy emergency manager, and Martin served with her on the board that oversaw its finances after the 2013 bankruptcy.)
SmithGroup is designing the overall site plan and the public spaces. Hamilton Anderson architects, Di Rita says, have “a great background in mixed-use projects,” particularly those combining residential and hotels. And the New York-based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces “specializes in helping create and manage public spaces like the one we’re envisioning.
“This is not, by the way, envisioned as just a patch of grass we hand over to the city, and say, ‘Now this is your problem–you mow it, you pay to keep it clean; you pay to police it,'” Di Rita adds. “We are envisioning this as a public space that is managed by a nonprofit conservancy.”
That addresses one concern raised by mayor Christopher Taylor. “Over 11 percent of land in Ann Arbor is already Ann Arbor parks,” Taylor says, “and we have substantial challenges in maintaining and improving the parks we have. So I’m not looking to just sign up for another substantial cost to the city. “
That said, the mayor, too, is enthusiastic. “This project offers the opportunity to bring the community back onto the site, to connect Kerrytown and Lower Town and really knit the town back together.”
It helps that 841 Broadway has no immediate neighbors–and that Roxbury’s plan would use it relatively lightly. In fact, Di Rita says, other developers have asked him, “Why are you not building more buildings?”
He says he tells them, “‘If you want to come and say that in front of the planning commission or city council, you’re welcome to.’
“The reality is, we’re preserving over half of the site as essentially open public space, and while it’s a big development in terms of dollars, it’s not an overwhelming physical presence.”
Di Rita says the project will cost about $100 million. The hotel, residential, and retail will be financed with investor equity and debt.” For the public space, they’ll be looking for “grants and foundation sponsorships and the like.”
And then there’s the brownfield TIF. Roxbury is requesting $25 million to be repaid from its future taxes–$9 million for environmental remediation and most of the rest for infrastructure. What they’ll get remains to be determined. Nathan Voght, the county’s brownfield redevelopment coordinator, stresses that developers often get less than they ask for.
The planning commission will consider Roxbury’s zoning request and area plan on April 2. If the commission approves, planner Matt Kowalski says, they’ll go before city council about a month later–“and their decision is binding. They will either approve or deny the zoning and area plan.”
If council approves, Roxbury will submit a more detailed site plan, which will also pass before planning commission and council.
“Traffic is a huge concern,” Kowalski says. “There is one way in and one way out. And it’s a large project.”
Ward Four councilmember Jack Eaton agrees. “When our consultant did a traffic study just for traffic for an improved train station parking lot there, they recommended that we add a lane of traffic to the Broadway Bridge, going in each direction –at enormous cost. The developers’ traffic study indicates otherwise. So I would really be interested in reconciling what our train station consultant and this developer did to come to their differing conclusions on traffic.”
“Traffic is on a lot of people’s minds,” says Di Rita. “I think the final analysis suggested that this project really wasn’t materially adding to that problem, but there were some sensible things we could do to mitigate any negative impacts, so we’re looking at some things, like a turn lane and a light.”
Eaton also has concerns about the brownfield. “It would be interesting to know what cleanup they intend to do and how aggressively they will clean it up.”
“The good news is the state of Michigan has already approved our plan to clean it up,” Di Rita responds. “The Department of Environmental Quality issued its final approval of what’s called our response activity plan, which is the remaining cleanup of the site.”
Eaton also notes that the site is “just immediately after the Argo Dam, and some river advocates would like to remove all the dams in our river and return the river to its natural state. But if we permit all this development, it would basically require that we maintain that Argo Dam henceforth, because if the river were to go where it wants to, it would go right through the middle of this proposed development.
“It’s not that I would vote against [the development] on this basis, but it’s a concern that if we approve this development, then that forever ties us to having the dam there. I really want to clarify what our long-term vision is for the river.”
Rubin, too, has concerns. “If we’re just talking about the development in general, I am thrilled that this site is getting redeveloped,” she says. “This is something that has been a priority for the Huron River Watershed Council and for our RiverUp campaign; we have been wanting to see this property developed for a long time.”
But “it is a contaminated property, and it is in a floodway,” Rubin stresses. “It’s a very complicated site for redevelopment … You want to balance that you’re providing an economic model that allows you to develop the property, but you also want to make sure you have good access to the river, that you would be adding to improved water quality, you would want a buffer along the river, you want to capture the stormwater on the site, you want to have recreational amenities on the property. You’re probably not going to please everybody.”
If Roxbury gets the needed approvals, Kowalski thinks a new riverfront neighborhood could be coming out of the ground in about a year.
“I’m a developer, so I’m naturally an optimist,” Di Rita says. He hopes to “start the environmental cleanup this year.”
At public meetings, he says, even when “someone comes in and says ‘I want to understand how this is going to work,’ it almost always starts with, ‘I want to start by saying we really think this is a great plan for the site.’
“We feel honored by that. I think it is a function of the fact that we’ve been very open to criticism and questions that might arise, and we’ve been trying to incorporate comments” into the plans.
So he hasn’t seen any opposition to the project? “I would say no,” Di Rita says.
Then he laughs. “This is Ann Arbor,” he says. “It’s spirited input, and we welcome that.”