Why Brownfields are Sexy: Clean Water and Air, a Better Economy, a Stronger Detroit

If you care about piddly little issues like health, the economy, clean water, clean air, the future of our region, then you care about brownfields.

Brownfields are basically properties that need TLC to be redeveloped — in Michigan, the official definition includes the former industrial sites you'd expect, as well as blighted and functionally obsolete properties.

Sometimes they need a little love, like a small old building being rehabbed for residential use. Sometimes they are far more complex, requiring lots and lots of unconditional love and tens of millions of dollars of help, like the Uniroyal site on the Detroit River.

So your great uncle's pristine swath of forest out past 20 Mile Road awaiting McMansions – not likely a brownfield. The crumbling remains of an old car part facility — yes indeed. And the Book Cadillac hotel before the Westin and Ferchill Group gussied it up? Yep, that, too, is considered a brownfield.

This week at Cobo Center, "brownfield" is the buzzword as a national conference on them is taking place. And it's a hot ticket.

The Brownfields 2008 conference is important because the topic of redeveloping brownfields goes to the core of what what's being done to transform the region. And it's also huge for the metro Detroit area because we've got a chance to score big, with national, and even international investors on our turf.

Homefield advantage

Outfits like the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. — the city's public/private development promoters — are taking busloads of potential developers around to see what we've got to offer, making stops at successful redevelopment sites like the Rivard Plaza on the new RiverWalk along the Detroit River. They are even taking a hardhat tour of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel — a grand, multi-use, $180 million redevelopment success story.

In addition, Wayne County has reached out to all of its constituent municipalities to showcase what's available at the conference's Transaction Forum on Monday. "That's where the deals happen," says Jill Ferrari, executive project manager in the office of the CEO for Wayne County, and an expert on the area's brownfield redevelopment efforts.

Frankly, if you've got land to redevelop in Michigan, and if it's a brownfield, you're at this conference looking to find an offer.

At the forum in Cobo's Ambassador Ballroom, developers shopped cities, regions and potential sites from all over the country.  Ferrari says that having the conference, and especially the Transaction Forum, in Detroit is an amazing opportunity because investors are out for good deals and we've got homefield advantage. If a developer is interested in a site here, he or she can easily check it out in person. Plus much of the programming is related to the city and region.

Why brownfields matter

When you redevelop a brownfield, it's not just "win-win," says Vincent Nathan, director of environmental affairs for the City of Detroit and chair of Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority. "We can win-win-win-win-win," he says.

Nathan says that in the past five years, 100 brownfield  projects have been approved in the city, and each clean-up and re-use brings heaps of benefits to the city and the region.

One obvious major win is economic: developing a brownfield site means new business or residential development where there had been none.

Nathan also points out there's also a huge public health benefit and environmental benefit, as well.

He points to the former Uniroyal site (40 acres of former tire factory along the Detroit River pegged by an all-star team to become mixed use residential/retail) and other development plans along the riverfront slated for residential, retail and recreation uses. Cleaned up industrial sites make the city and its environment safer for all, Nathan says.

"This (the riverfront) is a 100-year-old industrial site. That contamination has been there for 100 years, literally," he says.  "The contamination is still there from the last 20 years. Now we are on a path to clean it up. That has to be a win or the citizens of Detroit, the city of Detroit, the Detroit River."

But it goes beyond just benefiting city residents. The entire watershed benefits when contaminants are removed, including Lakes St. Clair, Huron and Erie, and the surrounding rivers and streams.

"It's not just that we want people to live along the waterfront. It's improving the quality of life," Nathan says.

Bigger wins

Those obvious wins are big, but in a big way our brownfield sites are tied to attracting business and talent, both key goals to boosting Southeast Michigan's economy, say the region's leadership.

Smart land-use makes us more attractive. When we reuse brownfields, we create denser neighborhoods (i.e. places crammed with more people, things to do and places to live). Denser neighborhoods look and feel cooler. Cooler neighborhoods make Detroit more attractive to creative, talented workers. Entrepreneurs and business owners want to set up shop where the cool kids are. And so on, and so on.

"When I can run from Belle Isle to the Renaissance Center and back entirely along the RiverWalk — that's when we've reached where we need to be, when that whole riverfront is pieced together," says Ferrari.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the sheer amount of land available for redevelopment could actually serve the city. More than many places in the country, Detroit is in an attractive and unique position in that it can really plan a smart way to rebrand and reuse its brownfields.

"Government can do this by design. Redevelopment by design," says Ferrari. "Instead of just working to get these places redeveloped for people who meet the zoning regulations, people, like (State House Majority Leader) Steve Tobacman  are working to get bills passed to create corridors for specific industries."

Ferrari says plans going through Lansing right now would change incentives for brownfield redevelopment so that they don't just target a single property, but instead a whole neighborhood. The idea is to create incentives to rebuild not just one parcel, but an entire neighborhood. And the density it could bring is attractive to developers, too, says Ferrari, who before working for Wayne County was in development herself.

"What we really need to do is create districts," she says. "Just offering incentives to anyone who comes down helps, it's a better carrot when you have density plans. I think it's not about dreaming up new incentives. It's about analyzing what is going to bring the biggest bang to our economy. The economy is like a chain made up of different moving parts and everybody feeds off each other. What will create the most spokes of economic growth?"

The economic growth angle might seem tangential, but it's definitely tied to brownfields, because developing these areas and making it attractive to do so are keys to achieving our region's economic goals. And that's something city, county, state, and federal government can all build policies toward.

"We're trying to sell ourselves the best we can -- it comes down to 'Are the jobs here and is the quality of life here?" Ferrari says. "We as a government have an opportunity to have a hand in shaping that."

Brown to green

What are some good local examples of success stories?

Ferrari points to where the Model D global headquarters are — inside the FD Lofts in Eastern Market. It's a brownfield redevelopment (a former Detroit Fire Department repair shop) that's now a mixed-use, office and residential, building.

"It's a building full of creative business," she says, "I think that building and a couple others in Eastern Market will have a significant impact on the area — attracting high density housing, entertainment. It's going to happen organically," she says.

The Dequindre Cut is another example of brownfield redevelopment, only for recreation. Under construction right now, the $3 million greenway was once a former railroad tracks and will host cyclists and foot traffic from the East Riverfront to Eastern Market from Woodbridge to Gratiot.

And remember all that kumbaya stuff about greening brownfields helping the whole of the environment? Nathan adds that when you redevelop brownfields and create density in your city's core, there's the added environmental benefit of having people live close together rather than sprawled out past cow pastures.

"People have moved all the way out to 30 Mile Road -- that's 30 miles away from the city's core," Nathan says. "If those communities start gravitating back to the inner city, that reduces our traffic congestion, air pollution, miles traveled per person."

So at Cobo this week (and hopefully wherever the Tigers are playing, but that's another story), it's all about getting a few more in Detroit's win column. Batter up.

To find out more about incentives to redevelop brownfields, or to learn more about redevelopment opportunities in Detroit, contact the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey is managing editor of Model D.


• Northeast view of Downtown atop the Westin Book Cadillac; once known as the tallest hotel in the world.

• Progess on the Dequidre Cut

• Families out on the RiverWalk at Rivard Plaza

• Restoring the Westin Book Cadillac Grand Ballroom

• FD Lofts - courtesy photo

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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