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Issues of the Environment: City-owned property in Ann Arbor being prepped for clean-up and development

Derek Delacourt
Derek Delacourt
Derek Delacourt


  • On February 7, 2023 the city of Ann Arbor mulled over what to do next with a blighted property at 415 W. Washington St. in the western end of downtown. Portions of the eastern edge of the property sit within the floodway, while the remaining property is in the floodplain. The property used to be a gas station, and in the 1980s and 1990s underground storage tanks for diesel and gasoline were discovered to be leaking into the surrounding soils. Various remediation attempts including removing some of the contaminants, tanks, soil, and installing a groundwater remediation system have taken place since then. Later, several underground plumes of carcinogenic pollutants trichloroethene (TCE) and benzene were found to still be present.(Source: https://www.a2gov.org/departments/Housing/development/Pages/415-W-Washington-St.aspx)
  • During the meeting, Patti McCall, a geologist with Tetra Tech, presented the results of a monitoring study which revealed that the pollution on the city-owned land is currently advancing under Washington Street and encroaching upon the Ann Arbor YMCA, and it may threaten surrounding homes and churches soon at the pace it is spreading. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy contacted affected residences and St. Paul Lutheran Church and installed more monitoring wells and sub-slab and indoor air monitoring last year, which continue to be monitored. Sub-slab vapor testing of the church basement showed TCE are above acceptable limits, but indoor air tests did not detect TCE.
  • Over a decade of discussion has left the site in limbo, but the study will likely accelerate the city’s redevelopment and brownfield clean-up timelines. 
  • The city of Ann Arbor website lists some considerations in redeveloping the plot: 

  • Migration of contaminants created urgency in choosing the path for redevelopment. A conceptual plan shows the potential for a 157-unit housing development. According to MLive, the city is looking to have a private developer fund the construction and brownfield remediation. That would include making sure the property meets floodplain-specific details. Officials do think a market-rate housing development with some affordable housing is economically feasible. Among other requirements, the city’s proposed regulations also state each of the housing units built on the 415 W. Washington site could have no more than three bedrooms.
  • A grassroots group of Ann Arbor residents would prefer to see the existing structures repurposed, the “Chimney Swift towers” preserved, and the site revitalized as community resource instead of new development. They believe more suitable sites for affordable housing are located nearby and outside of the floodplain, decry the removal of the site from the city’s historic district designation (homes in the historic district require additional expenses to maintain character during renovations), and they point out that the proximity to the railroad tracks and floodplain location mean the property is unlikely to get any federal or state grants toward affordable housing, costing taxpayers.


David Fair: For more than 15 years now, discussions have taken place on how best to develop a city-owned property at 415 West Washington Street in Ann Arbor. One of the biggest barriers to development has been some underground pollution. I'm David Fair, and welcome to 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. The site used to house a gas station--and in the 1980s and nineties, some diesel and gasoline storage tanks--were leaking into the soil. Now, these are carcinogenic pollutants and pose some potential threat to residents and property owners in the area. Now, there's a lot to unpack here, so we've called for some help in getting a grasp of where we are and where we're headed. Derek Delacourt is the City of Ann Arbor's Community Services Area Administrator. And thank you for making time today. Derek. I appreciate it.

Derek Delacourt: I'm glad to be here.

David Fair: So, are we seeing contamination spread in the most recent testing of the soil?

Derek Delacourt: That's a good question. The 415 site, that is owned by the city, there is some contamination on site, and there is, per our testing, some minor migration contaminants off-site historically.

David Fair: So, are we looking at specific contamination isolated to this site? As I understand it, contamination from some other nearby properties that are out of the purview of the city are also causing some issues that seem to create a great deal of confusion.

Derek Delacourt: Yes, we do. We have two issues. One, we have the city on site at 415 that does have some historic contamination that we are working to redevelop and remediate to a residential standard. That project is under the purview of the city. There is some minor migration off-site. We've done some testing adjacent and, although there is some migration, we don't have any immediate concerned about it impacting adjacent properties. In addition to that, we have migration from some other adjacent formerly industrial sites through and under adjacent properties to our site. That contamination and migration and remediation is under the purview of the State of Michigan through EGLE. And we are working with them, but they are responsible for the due care and process associated with that contamination.

David Fair: It seems like it is more than a possibility that these contaminants are going to reach one another--become mixed in together. How then can anyone proceed, either the state or the city, if each is independently responsible for one part of it?

Derek Delacourt: Well, that's a great question. And, actually, that is exactly what's happening on 415. You have some contaminants that are historically a part of the site. And then, you have some contamination that is migrating to the site. For us, for the remediation of that site, our tentative remediation plan is to remove source material from the 415 site itself, which would eliminate most of the on-site contamination and potential for off-site migration. The second part of that is part of our remediation plan is to put up, for lack of a better term, barriers that, as contamination moves on to our site, those barriers filter that contamination as part of our due care and remove the contaminants from the soil and any moving water. We also put those same type of filters-- they're called PVR's, permeable barriers--on the opposite sides of the site. So, as water or other things move through the site, it filters those contaminants again. So, that prevents them. It filters them as they come onto the site and then any groundwater, anything that leaves the site. This type of remediation has proved effective on other sites in the city. We think it'll do a good job on this site. And that is the responsibility--there is a due care responsibility associated with that--in perpetuity that is approved and monitored by the state of Michigan.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment, and we're talking about the contaminated property at 415 West Washington Street in Ann Arbor with Derek Delacourt. He is Community Services area administrator for the city. And you mentioned this kind of process has been successful in other areas of the city. And I'm just curious as to whether or not success is defined by getting it to zero detect or by legal standard, either state or federal.

Derek Delacourt: The standards utilized and that we utilize are determined by the state of Michigan. And it is, for lack of a better terms, it's an a-la-carte standard designed to be protective of residential development on the site.

David Fair: Well, I'm glad you brought up development because let's consider what comes next. There is a conceptual plan to have the property has a 157-unit development that could potentially include some affordable housing. Now, under current recommendation, it would be limited to three bedroom units that would help avoid the perception and potential of it being student housing for the U of M almost exclusively. Is that the plan you expect City Council to approve?

Derek Delacourt: They have reviewed it at first reading. What is in front of them right now is the establishment of the zoning to what's called the plan U-development. It's basically an individualized zoning district. That is a two-step process that needs to have a first reading and a second reading at City Council. It did pass first reading unanimously at City Council, and there will be a second reading coming up soon.

David Fair: What, if any, percentage would be affordable housing as the plan stands today?

Derek Delacourt: At a minimum, it's 15% of the units.

David Fair: And what comprises affordable in Ann Arbor these days?

Derek Delacourt: Well, what we define affordable is--for ordinances--for this purpose, 60% AMI or less. It's area median income is what AMI stands for. It is a formula that determines what the rents will be or what can be paid per unit, depending on if it's a one, two, three or four-person family. And it evolves based on the inputs into that formula.

David Fair: You know that there are a lot of folks who love that there are a couple of towers on this property that house, chimney swift birds. They populate the habitat there. Would a developer that is working with the city to bring that kind of housing to fruition be asked to preserve that?

Derek Delacourt: Yes, we are. Right now, as part of that planning development, that's one of the advantages of using this tool is that council can put some specific requirements in. As of right now, the plan U-development requires the preservation of that chimney for that habitat, unless it can be proved that it is not feasible for structural or other reasons. It's very difficult to preserve that type of structure and build around it and ensure that the habitat remains desirable by this. We are going to make every attempt to do that, but we do leave room that if it is impossible for some reason that it may not be able to be accomplished. We won't know until the city seeks a development partner and we look at the construction process in more detail.

David Fair: And is the city going to request the creation or preservation of any greenspace or parkland?

Derek Delacourt: Yeah. As part of it, I think 60% of the site is going to be preserved is open space. Another one of the requirements of the PUD is that a certain portion of it be developed as a segment of the city's Treeline Trail Project, which is really a nonprofit group called the Treeline Conservancy that has been working for years in the city to build an urban greenspace trail within the city. And our intent is to build the appropriate section of that as part of this project.

David Fair: Our conversation with Ann Arbor Community Services Area Administrator Derek Delacourt continues on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. You may not have the figures right in front of you. But, roughly, what is the 415 West Washington property costing the city on an annual basis to monitor and remediate as you have?

Derek Delacourt: Currently, we don't have a dollar figure for it. The maintenance and monitoring of that takes place as part of our daily operations. We don't really have a separate dollar figure or line item.

David Fair: Again, it is the city's expressed desire to have a developer take on the responsibility of finishing the remediation. A developer's priority, of course, is profit. So, when you find one that wants to take on the property, it has to agree to the remediation. Will the city be willing to work with the developer and share the costs, or are you asking the developer to take on all of the cost?

Derek Delacourt: That's a good question. We will be asking the developer to take on all of the upfront costs of the remediation. The state of Michigan has a brownfield redevelopment law that allows the city to capture the increased assessed value of the property to repay a private entity for that cost over time. So, our hope is that, once we have that plan in place, that the increased assessed value of the site, all taxing jurisdictions will continue to collect any baseline taxes. In this instance, it's none because it's a city on site. But that increased value can be captured for a certain number of years to pay back the upfront cost of the remediation and is generally considered kind of the best practice on how to manage these costs, so that they're not rolled into the cost of the development and passed on to the end user, which just increases the cost of the units.

David Fair: So, I know that most of us live our lives day-to-day, but in the position you're in, you have to have five-year strategic plans in place. Is there a proposed or defined timeline for the project?

Derek Delacourt: No, not defined. It is as difficult and complicated as a redevelopment project is as you're probably going to run into based on all the different factors and desired outcomes. We are hoping that once we have the PUD approved that we will be able to submit in our QNRs to have a developer in place within six months. Once we have them in place, we'll have a much better understanding of timeline. The city doesn't have the money to build the building. We need a private development partner the way this project is proposed to pursue this. Once we have that person in place, depending on what that negotiation look like, will dictate the time of construction.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for the time today, Derek, and I will look forward to our next conversation as the project moves forward.

Derek Delacourt: I appreciate it, David. Anytime, we're glad to talk.

David Fair: That is Derek Delacourt, community services area administrator for the City of Ann Arbor. And if you'd like more information on our conversation and links to all the appropriate information about the 415 West Washington property, just visit our website to WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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