Issues of the Environment: Working toward a safe and usable Water Street property in Ypsilanti
- Ypsilanti’s Water Street Redevelopment area is a 38-acre, City-owned site adjacent to Historic Downtown Ypsilanti, between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport (DTW). The site is bounded on the north by 1500 feet of Michigan Avenue frontage (US-12 Business Route), and on the south and west by 1/2 mile of Huron River frontage. The City of Ypsilanti is currently seeking a developer for the site or several developers for portions of the site. (Source: *directly quoted* https://cityofypsilanti.com/430/Water-Street-Redevelopment-Area)
- Two decades of development proposals, environmental studies, community activism, and false starts haven’t led to anything being built on the Water Street eyesore. Since the 1990s, environmental investigations have discovered state-regulated contaminants including Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs; petroleum products and chlorinated solvents), Semi-volatile organic compounds ((SVOCs), e.g., polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PNAs)), Heavy metals (e.g., arsenic, lead, etc.), and federally-regulated contamination: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Most recently, AKT Peerless, an environmental consultants working for the city, found more PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyl)pollution than anticipated from previous soil testing.
- According to a presentation made by AKT Peerless in June 2023, perhaps the greatest challenge to redeveloping Water Street has been that the site was utilized for any number of different industrial-purposed businesses over at least 150 years. That includes lumber yards and mills, bulk petroleum and coal storage, Detroit United Railway (DUR) storage yard, scrap metal junk yard, automotive manufacturing (e.g., Commerce Motor Truck Company/Dura Corporation), railroads and sidings, in-fill of former marsh area with non-native soil/debris, automobile service and repair, dry cleaners, printers, a foundry, restaurants, and grocers. Each of these uses left a different legacy and contamination footprint. As a result, soil testing can’t easily be extrapolated to the entire parcel, and certain sections might be highly toxic, while others could be easily remediated.
- PCB’s are federally banned and remediation of the contamination is highly regulated. According to the CDC, exposure to PCBs can cause skin rashes and acne, liver damage, and harm to the fetus during pregnancy, and they are also thought to cause neurological and developmental damage and be carcinogenic. (Source: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/polychlorinated-biphenyls/adverse_health.html)
- While the latest environmental information makes it clear that any new development proposals must include budgeting for removal of the PCB-laden soil, the city expects to have a site plan and roadmap for cleanup by the end of the year. Meanwhile, proposals for redevelopment are still being considered and this year two new proposals have been made to city council.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to take another look at the long process to get the Water Street property in Ypsilanti redeveloped. The 38-acre parcel of land for more than a century housed a number of businesses that have left a significant contamination footprint. Over the years, there have been stops and starts to getting the site cleaned up and ready for redevelopment. But there's more work to be done, not only on the cleanup itself, but in finding and choosing the developer willing to take on the task. Where does that stand today and what will the rest of the year bring? Well, here to help us find some answers is Ypsilanti City Council member Steve Wilcoxen. And I thank you for carving out some time for us today, Steve.
Steve Wilcoxen: Thanks, Dave. Thanks for bringing this up. I know a lot of people in that community are frustrated with this long-standing issue and are eager to see this resolved.
David Fair: Well, perhaps, we should consider a progress that, last month, ATK Peerless made its presentation to city council and then what it found in its assessment of contamination on the Water Street property. How significant is the contamination based on what you were told?
Steve Wilcoxen: It's much more contaminated with PCBs than we had thought. The previous testing was done kind of parcel by parcel as those were acquired and bought by the city. And then, they did a grid over the central section. There's two properties there. It gave three hotspots, but they found in the testing between 2020 and 2023 show that there's much more PCBs there than had been previously thought.
David Fair: So, we have an idea of parameters on the contamination detected of that 38-acre parcel that constitutes the Water Street property. Is there detectable contamination on all of it?
Steve Wilcoxen: No. Well, the history of all of those sites, there are very small parcels and they've been used for all sorts of things from automotive repair to small manufacturing. And so, they all have their own issues. And, you know, there's heavy metals and there's PNAs. But the focus of the recent study is the PCBs that were from the Detroit United Railway lot that was there and the commerce truck manufacturing.
David Fair: The Water Street property's location between the Huron River and downtown is simply prime land. How damaging has its contaminated and vacant nature been to the city's overall well-being over the years?
Steve Wilcoxen:You know, depending on how you're looking at the well-being. You know, lots of people work there. And we're in and under those conditions over many years. You know, in terms of the suits acquiring those properties and trying to move forward, it's been a thorn in the side for sure, you know, trying to get developers that are interested, that have the capacity to deal with the brownfield issue and navigate the funding has been problematic. This influx of money in the last year, $4.3 million to kind of alleviate this has been a wonderful opportunity.
David Fair: And that is state-allocated money.
Steve Wilcoxen: Correct. It's a wonderful opportunity for the city to, actually, you know, do more with this, so that going forward, you know, there's the current study and we need to expand on that study and then do some of the remediation. But, going forward, then some of that will be taken care of, so it's not such a heavy lift for attracting a developer that can do those kinds of remediation work.
David Fair: You are listening to Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and our conversation with Ypsilanti City Council member Steve Wilcoxen continues. Well, you mentioned getting a developer on board. How many potential developers have made presentations to City Council to this point?
Steve Wilcoxen: Well, since I've been on council, I've been on council for about four-and-a-half going on five years, and we had one that came and went. And we've had two that presented earlier this year. And then, when we got into relationship with Carlisle Wortman to kind of oversee their development and be a consultant to the city through this development. And this is where ATK Peerless came back in. So, the conversations with those two developers that made presentations earlier this year are on hold until we figure out what all of this is. And they are they're well aware of, you know, this is going to be beneficial to them in terms of less of a lift for them in doing their development.
David Fair: So, you have $4.3 million in state money. Any developer that chooses to take on this project is going to have to put money upfront for the cleanup of this contamination. Are there other brownfield redevelopment grant dollars available? Is the city going to further aid in the process, or are we going to have to look elsewhere for this money?
Steve Wilcoxen: We're going to have to look elsewhere. But with this influx of money, you know, we're spending $1.5 million to expand that testing. We get a true roadmap of what this looks. And, you know, there's been a lot of testing, but it hasn't been comprehensive. And then, we can use the rest of that money, sort of in mediation in which, you know, the other option. The answer is, yeah, we're going to have to seek other means to do this. And, you know, all the developers are aware of that. But, hopefully, we can take care of the more contaminated sites, so that is less of an issue.
David Fair: Well, while the study continues and getting a true handle on what it's all going to take, is there any fear that the two companies that made their presentations to council this year are going to go away, and you'll have to start anew in finding somebody that wants to take on the Water Street property?
Steve Wilcoxen: I think the two companies are well aware of what was possible with these sites. I think they will benefit from having this in-depth knowledge. There's always the chance that the development market in, you know, the climate after COVID, that they'll move on to other things and have other projects come up. But, you know, one has done a couple projects or done a project in the city and has moved their headquarters to the city. And so, they're trying to be part of the community. And the other one is also it's an outside input, but they are also have folks look at it in the community as well. So, you know, hopefully, their interest will stay deep, and we can continue this conversation.
David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment on Ypsilanti's contaminated Water Street property continues. And our guest today is city council member Steve Wilcoxen. As you mentioned, a roadmap for cleanup is expected by the end of the year. Now, that's a relatively short time frame. Is it truly feasible to get there?
Steve Wilcoxen: The testing schedule goes throughout this year. And, you know, there's always time where the data needs to be analyzed. So, they're taking the core samples this year. And then, by early 2024, they will have the data collected and those samples analyzed and have that roadmap. So, I don't think anybody's expecting the final report by the end of this year. But, by the spring of 2024, we'll have that, and we will come back to council to decide, you know, what we're going to remediate. So, over the next two years, we'll certainly, you know, have started on the remediation of the more contaminated spots.
David Fair: When there is a true understanding of the scope of the cleanup and what part is going to be the city's, what parts going to be the developer's and where the money is going to be found to fully take care of that, how long might that process take? Are we talking into 2025 or beyond?
Steve Wilcoxen: This is a large project, and there is a lot of players, and there's very few developers that can do this work with a handful of people. You know, there's investors, there's different engineering firms, things like that. And so, those always take a bit of time to coordinate and get put in place on both of the developers that have put proposals have done these kinds of things before. And so, they'll know what that project planning looks like. But this is going to take a while. So, if we're talking the end of '24, we're doing the remediation work, we will then, when we start the remediation, we can start the conversations with these developers to work on that proposal. And the one thing about this is that, with this new information, you know, a lot of the proposals that have come past the city in the past have all had a similar look to them with a gradient of businesses along Michigan Avenue and different types of housing going towards the river, the levels of contamination, we can have different uses with different levels of remediation. So, that could inform a change in how those developments have been visioned. So, rather than having, you know, residential housing on top of the most contaminated sites, you know, something that is less occupancy could be sited at those. And it may change the way that that looks compared to some of the proposals that have come before.
David Fair: There's a lot of work to be done. There is a lot of unknowns to be discovered as of yet, and then there is a process to get there. But, ultimately, in looking longer term, how vital to the well-being of Ypsilanti's economic future is the redevelopment of the Water Street property?
Steve Wilcoxen: This is a great...you know, the reason people have been so interested in moving in their original thought behind acquiring those properties was to have new businesses that would generate, you know, it increases the tax base for them.
David Fair: Sure.
Steve Wilcoxen: But there's this emotional issue, you know, that has hung over the city for the last 25, 30 years about this site. So, getting this developed will, in a way, push the city past that emotional hang-up and have some healing. This has been an albatross for years. And so, getting this remediated and getting development in there that's suitable for, you know, portions of our community will be a healing process.
David Fair: And I'd like to thank you for the time today and for the updates. And we'll continue to follow along and have plenty of opportunity for more conversations.
Steve Wilcoxen: Great. Thanks, David.
David Fair: That is Ypsilanti City Council member Steve Wilcoxen. And for more information on the Water Street property, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is a weekly conversation series produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
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