Historic church in Eastern Market leads by example in green stormwater infrastructure

In the city of Detroit, when a developer builds a project that creates or replaces one half-acre or more of new hard surface — think: parking lot — the city dictates that the developer implements stormwater management practices into the project. That wasn’t always the case; the city passed the ordinance in 2018

Much of the city’s hard surfaces don’t have stormwater management practices in place, taxing an already overburdened drainage and sewage infrastructure. And it’s not necessarily easy, or cheap, to retrofit a pre-existing structure with green stormwater management infrastructure either. But a historic church in Eastern Market has successfully found a way to do just that.

Sacred Heart Church, a home to Detroit’s Black Catholic community, was founded in 1875. Now, in the 21st century, the church is a leader in green stormwater infrastructure, having undergone an eco-friendly overhaul of the nearly two-acre church property.

“This demonstrates what’s possible with larger sites,” says Valerie Strassberg, Detroit Urban Conservation Director at The Nature Conservancy, the organization responsible for orchestrating the project.

It’s a unique project. It wasn’t part of a new development, which would’ve been 50 percent cheaper because a lot of the things they did, they would’ve had to have done anyway. Retrofitting costs more money and it also takes longer.”

The Sacred Heart parking lot before the project began
For the project, Sacred Heart received major funding from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and additional funding from the DTE Energy Foundation. Eastern Market Partnership connected the church with The Nature Conservancy, which helped guide the project.

In the middle of a 1.31-acre parking lot, one can now find an oasis of native plants and trees and permeable surfaces.

“We peeled back the pavement and created a basin, planting water-loving native plants. We also outfitted half the roof of the church and activity buildings [with runoff infrastructure],” Strassberg says.

“We estimate that this project keeps 1.5 million gallons of stormwater out of the system in an average year.”

The Sacred Heart parking lot now
The water-loving native plants and permeable surfaces keep stormwater from flooding the pavement, which would then drain into the city’s sewer system. Solving the problem has significantly reduced the church’s monthly drainage charge on their water bills, Strassberg says.

The green infrastructure has the added bonus of beautifying the church campus. The Sacred Heart Church Garden Club was also formed to tend the land.

“This project shows that it’s not impossible, that it’s not cost-prohibitive. But it helps to work with people with experience to help get you through the process,” Strassberg says.

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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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