Ann Arbor master plan revisions committee meeting (March 8, 2012): At the request of planning commissioner Kirk Westphal, a committee charged with reviewing changes to the city’s master plan is looking at a recommendation related to land near the Huron River.
The Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan, known as HRIMP, was completed in 2009. But in large part because of controversy related to Argo Dam – centered on whether or not the dam should be removed – none of the 30 other recommendations were implemented.
Only one of the HRIMP recommendations relates to land use, and is therefore in the purview of the planning commission. That recommendation calls for limited commercial development – such as a restaurant or other publicly-used entity – in the Broadway bridge/Argo area.
Much of the discussion at the March 8 committee meeting centered on the property now owned by MichCon, a subsidiary of DTE Energy, located north of Broadway Street, between the Huron River and the railroad tracks that run past the Amtrak station. A state-supervised cleanup effort is underway at that site, but its future use – including the possibility that it could be acquired by the city and turned into a park – is unclear.
Remediation of the MichCon site was also a topic at the March 12, 2012 Ann Arbor city council work session, where the property’s potential future use was discussed. That presentation also included an update on a whitewater river feature that DTE Energy is paying for. The whitewater section to be built in the Huron River was originally part of the same project as the city’s Argo Dam bypass reconstruction. The bypass, which has been recently named the Argo Cascades, is nearly complete.
This article includes a summary of the council working session related to the MichCon cleanup, as well as a report on the master plan revisions committee meeting. Based on discussions at that committee meeting, it seems likely that a proposal will be forwarded to the full planning commission to add the HRIMP recommendation to the city’s master plan. Any changes to the master plan would also require city council approval.
Background: HRIMP Report
The Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) committee was established by the city’s environmental commission in March of 2006 to develop a plan for protecting and maintaining the portion of the Huron River that flows through the city of Ann Arbor. Beginning in early 2009, a series of public forums were held as the committee entered the final stages of its work. [See Chronicle coverage: "Not So Gently Down the Stream"]
The Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan produced by the committee contains 30 recommendations labeled “consensus recommendations,” with two others on which there was no consensus. [link to .pdf of full HRIMP report] The two non-consensus resolutions contradicted each other, with one calling for the removal of Argo Dam and the other calling for its preservation. Much of the public engagement focused exclusively on the dam-in/dam-out question.
Part of the context for that question was a problem with toe drains, identified by the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, in the earthen embankment adjacent to the concrete and steel dam, which separates the headrace from the river. In May of 2009 the city’s environmental commission voted in support of dam removal, while the city’s park advisory commission voted for its preservation. [Chronicle coverage: "City Council To Weigh Mixed Advice on Dam"]
The dispute with the state related to Argo Dam was ultimately resolved when the city council approved a $1,168,170 project at its Nov. 15, 2010 meeting to build a bypass that replaced the headrace and eliminated the portage previously required by canoeists and kayakers. Final work is being done on that bypass – including installation of a new pedestrian bridge – and it’s expected to be open later this spring.
There was no action on the “consensus” recommendations, however. A resolution to accept the HRIMP committee’s plan was first considered at the council’s Nov. 16, 2009 meeting, but postponed until Dec. 7. At the council’s Sunday caucus prior to that Dec. 7 meeting, the focus of discussion was on the difference between “approving” the plan and “accepting” it, with the option of “receiving” it also thrown into the mix. [Chronicle coverage: "Huron River Plan, Percent for Art Program also Discussed"]
After considerable deliberation and public commentary at the council’s Dec. 7, 2009 meeting, the council voted to remand the 30 consensus recommendations to the park advisory commission and the environmental commission, asking those groups to develop options for implementation. No further action has been taken.
Master Plan Revisions Committee & HRIMP
The planning commission’s master plan revisions (MPR) committee is charged with reviewing possible changes to the city’s master plan, which are in turn considered by the full commission and eventually require approval by city council. The current MPR committee members are Eleanore Adenekan, Erica Briggs, Diane Giannola, Evan Pratt and Wendy Woods.
Planning commissioner Kirk Westphal had expressed a desire to revisit the recommendations of the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) that related to planning issues, so planning staff scheduled that topic for the March 8 MPR meeting. In addition to Westphal, three other commissioners attended: Adenekan, Giannola and Pratt.
Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, began the meeting by very briefly reviewing the development of the HRIMP, noting that the city council didn’t adopt or even accept it. “Basically, they said thank you for your work,” she said. Most of the discussion in the community and by the council centered on the most controversial aspect, she said – whether to remove the Argo Dam. [The council never voted on that issue either. But by not taking action, councilmembers made the de facto decision to leave the dam in place for at least the foreseeable future.]
Aside from the dam, the other HRIMP recommendations are equally if not more important, Rampson said.
Westphal, who serves as the planning commission liaison to the environmental commission, said it seemed to be a natural fit with planning to have a discussion about the HRIMP’s land use recommendation. He noted that it’s a dynamic situation, given MichCon’s cleanup efforts along the river, but it’s an opportunity to open up discussion on those HRIMP recommendations that didn’t get much traction. The HRIMP committee spent a lot of time and thought on the project, he said, “and it seemed like something we should pick up.” Personally, he said, he’d love to see more people at the river.
MichCon Property Remediation
Much of the MPR committee discussion focused on the MichCon property that’s located north of Broadway Street, between the Huron River and the railroad tracks that run past the Amtrak station. MichCon is a subsidiary of DTE Energy – DTE also owns property on the opposite side of the river, south of Broadway, where it plans to build a new electricity substation. [An item related to the substation was discussed at the Feb. 28, 2012 meeting of the city's park advisory commission. A site plan for the project will be on the planning commission's April 3 agenda.]
Diane Giannola asked about the status of a cleanup project at the MichCon site. Planning staff said they didn’t know details.
However, at a March 12, 2012 working session, the Ann Arbor city council was briefed about the future of the former coal gasification site. The cleanup and remediation operation is being handled by MichCon, and overseen by the state of Michigan’s Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).
Craig Hupy, the city’s interim public services area administrator, introduced the presentation, telling councilmembers that its purpose was to give them a heads up before the mandatory public meetings start happening. MichCon would also be returning to the city council to get access to the sanitary sewers during the cleanup. MichCon will also need to coordinate with the city’s park operations staff, Hupy said.
The timeline for the project would see construction wrapping up in October of 2012:
- November 2011: pre-design studies report – submitted to MDEQ
- February 2012: response activities plan – submitted to MDEQ
- February 2012: construction permit application – submitted to MDEQ
- March 12, 2012: Ann Arbor city council work session – presentation
- March 20, 2012: parks advisory commission – presentation
- March 2012–July 2012: pre-construction activities and engineering
- April 11, 2012: MDEQ public meeting/public hearing
- June 2012: receive MDEQ plan approval and permit
- July 2012: contractor bid and selection
- August–October 2012: (2.5 months) construction
Presenting on behalf of MichCon was Shayne Wiesemann, a senior environmental engineer with DTE Energy.
MichCon Property Remediation: Background
Wiesemann told the council that MichCon had been working diligently with Michigan’s Dept. of Environmental Quality, as well as the Huron River Watershed Council and Ann Arbor city staff.
Wiesemann thanked the city staff for their help over the last few years – they’d had weekly meetings or phone calls. He named city staffers Colin Smith (manager of parks and recreation), Sumedh Bahl (community services area administrator), Matt Naud (environmental coordinator), Craig Hupy (head of systems planning and interim public services area administrator) and Cresson Slotten (manager in systems planning).
Wiesemann ticked through a quick overview of the history of the site. It was developed as a coal gasification plant in 1900 by the Ann Arbor Gas Company, and the gas produced there was used by Ann Arbor residents for the next 50 years – for cooking, heating and lighting. As natural gas began to be supplied to the city in 1939 (which is a relatively cleaner fuel), use of manufactured gas diminished. By the late 1950s the gas manufacturing facility was decommissioned.
By then MichCon had become the owner of the facility, and in the early 1960s the MichCon service center was constructed. The property was used to dispatch crews to customers for another 50 years. MichCon merged with DTE Energy in 2001, becoming a subsidiary of the energy utility. In 2009, MichCon’s Broadway service center was deconstructed.
MichCon Property Remediation: Site Investigation
Wiesemann explained that residuals from the gas manufacturing process remained at the site. When the service center was demolished, MichCon investigated the site, he said. That site investigation is now completed.
He described how MichCon had excavated 1,680 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the western parcel and another 4,340 cubic yards from the eastern parcel. MichCon had installed a groundwater treatment system, and established routine groundwater monitoring and reporting. In total, Wiesemann told the council, MichCon has spent $2.6 million on the site investigation cleanup so far.
The investigation, Wiesemann continued, had provided a rich set of data with thousands of test results. The extent and nature of the environmental impacts at the site are now known, he said, and there’s no immediate risk to human health or the environment. There are still some structures on the site that are slated for removal, which have contamination. He showed the council a PowerPoint slide that indicated areas in yellow where structures and soil would be removed. One elongated area adjacent to the river is an area of impacted shallow soil and sediment – which will be excavated and replaced.
MichCon Property Remediation: Implementation
The success of the remediation plan, for which MichCon is now seeking approval from MDEQ, Wiesemann said, would lie in its implementation. He then sought to assure the council that impacts to Ann Arbor residents would be minimized. He told the council that MichCon has a lot of experience doing these kinds of remedial excavations – having completed dozens of them over the decades.
MichCon will use site controls like a security fence so that trespassers or children won’t wander onto the site. Surface water protection will be critical, he said, and a variety of tools will be used, including coffer dams, soft booms, and hard boom. Monitoring of the river water during the excavation would take place both upstream and downstream, he said. Odor-suppressing mist and foam would also be used, he said.
Wiesemann allowed that the impact of up to 20 trucks a day entering and leaving the site could be significant. Wheel washing would ensure that the trucks were not tracking sediment out of the site. MichCon would also plan to optimize the scheduling of truck traffic. In coordinating with the city, he said, MichCon had been advised, for example, that the Beakes and North Main area is not the best place to try to bring trucks through.
Wiesemann also pointed out the short-term economic gain due to the remediation activity and the long-term benefit of the environmental remediation. In addition to that, he reminded the council that MichCon will install and pay for the whitewater feature in the Huron River that was originally a part of the same project as the city’s planned Argo Dam bypass construction. The bypass, which has been named the Argo Cascades, is nearly complete.
MichCon Property Remediation: Whitewater Feature
Some councilmembers expressed concern about the impact of the excavation work on recreational users of the river. Wiesemann explained that the work would start on the upstream side and proceed downstream. By the time the work gets to the entry point from the Argo Cascades into the river, he said, it will be after Labor Day. After Labor Day, the Argo livery only offers weekend trips, which will coordinate well with MichCon’s weekday excavation activity. He allowed that it would not prevent someone from using their own canoe, instead of renting from the city’s livery. The fact that MichCon’s work will take place during the summer months, when the river will be relatively low, will also aid construction, he said.
In connection with construction of the whitewater feature, councilmember Sabra Briere (Ward 1) questioned the placement of the feature that was indicated in the slide Wiesemann had shown, saying the rocks were not in the same place the council had previously been told they would be. It appeared that canoeists and kayakers who wanted to paddle through the planned whitewater amenity would need to navigate down the Cascades bypass, then paddle upstream through the whitewater and then reverse course, she said.
Wiesemann confirmed that was the planned implementation was as Briere described it. He indicated that this approach had been vetted with the city’s park and recreation staff. Colin Smith, city parks and recreation manager, confirmed that understanding, telling the council that Cheryl Saam, manager of the canoe livery, had been consulted as well. The idea was to make sure that the swifter water was well away from the entry of the Cascades into the river – to ensure that novice paddlers did not encounter the whitewater. It would also mitigate against any congestion between user groups. [That is, experienced users looking to spend the day paddling up and down through the whitewater feature would not interfere with novice paddlers who would be descending the Cascades and continuing on a leisurely float down the Huron.]
MichCon Property Remediation: Future of the Site
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) wanted to know what the future of the parcel was after the remediation was complete. Wiesemann indicated it was not clear. MichCon recognized that there was a lot of potential on the site for redevelopment. Talks had just started to take place with interested stakeholders in the community. But at this point, he said, it would be premature to speculate on the end use. But he allowed that the MichCon leadership does see the parcel as “a catalyst for economic growth and public enjoyment within the community.”
Mayor John Hieftje weighed in with his hope that DTE Energy would collaborate with the Wolfpack, to add the parcel to the city’s park system. [The Wolfpack is a conservancy group associated with the National Wildlife Federation, co-founded by local attorney and former Clinton advisor Paul Dimond and retired Ford executive Ray Pittman. (.pdf file of Wolfpack members)] Hieftje described how he could imagine tiered seating installed on the river bank opposite the whitewater feature so that people could come out and watch the kayakers navigate the rapids.
Hieftje confirmed with Wiesemann that even factoring in significant delays, the whitewater feature would be available for recreational users in the spring of 2013.
HRIMP and Land Use: Master Plan Revision?
At the March 8 master plan revisions committee meeting, Wendy Rampson – the city’s planning manager – noted that the Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan puts a priority on acquiring land along the Huron River. It indicates the goal of acquiring the entire MichCon parcel, Rampson said, but she’s not sure that’s realistic. The city’s Central Area Future Land Use map – part of the city’s master plan – shows the western portion of the site as parkland, and the eastern half for commercial/office use. Currently, the site is zoned M1 (industrial). Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff pointed out that much of the property lies within the floodway, which would limit development.
Rampson noted that there is only one HRIMP recommendation related to land use – the section on commercial development in the Broadway bridge/Argo area. From the HRIMP report:
Encourage limited development of a restaurant and/or other public-use facilities where the public congregates and can enjoy the river in the Broadway Bridge/Argo area, especially if it generates revenue for river planning and implementation.
Rampson asked whether the committee wanted to start working on a master plan amendment to incorporate this recommendation, or to propose something that makes the expectations for this recommendation clearer.
Evan Pratt, who had served on the HRIMP committee, said discussion on this topic among HRIMP committee members had centered mostly on the idea of having a restaurant in that area. He cited the example of Zingerman’s coffee and baked goods being sold at the cafe in Gallup Park – that’s an example of a business and park co-existing, he said. The idea was that it would be desirable if someone wanted to have a business that was related to the river area and that didn’t undermine the city’s canoe livery – like a bicycle rental business. So the zoning for that area shouldn’t allow large operations, but something more in keeping with drawing people to the river, Pratt explained.
Diane Giannola asked whether something like miniature golf would be appropriate. Is the idea to create an entertainment area, like a boardwalk?
Pratt replied that they don’t want anything like a San Antonio River Walk, but rather something for people to do that will open up the Huron River. Kirk Westphal added that a lot of ideas were discussed, including a paddle-up microbrewery, but a restaurant seemed to be the most common suggestion.
Rampson noted that while many people talk about a restaurant located right along the river, the topography would make that challenging. If the MichCon parcel becomes available, a building along the west end near the river isn’t possible, because the property is in the floodway. It would be possible to develop something on the east end of that property, she said, “but that doesn’t have the lovely views.”
Giannola noted that a raised structure could be built on the west portion of the property, but Rampson said that’s not what most people seem to envision – the preference is to be next to the river, not looking down on it. Westphal said there’s still a view of the river on the east end of the property, closer to the bridge. It’s not a wide-open vista, he said, but it’s nice.
Westphal wondered whether it would be possible to have a restaurant near the Argo livery, on land next to Argo Pond. Rampson said the HRIMP report wasn’t explicit about recommending anything in that area. Pratt weighed in that the spirit of the HRIMP committee discussions had focused on the Broadway area.
One issue with a restaurant near the Argo livery is that it’s located in a quiet residential area, Rampson noted. The lodge for the Society of Les Voyageurs is located there too. The question is whether introducing this type of new land use into that area is appropriate, she said.
Rampson pointed out that for years, there have been efforts to revitalize the Lowertown area, east of the Broadway bridge. Perhaps a project on land near the bridge and the river could serve as a catalyst for development in Lowertown, she said. Rampson quipped that there’s a question about whether any land will be left after the University of Michigan finishes its projects in that area. [UM has been acquiring property along Wall Street, where its Kellogg Eye Center is located. The area is near the university's large medical complex.]
Rampson asked commissioners how deep they wanted to explore these options. A mini-study would be one approach, she said, or staff could work with commissioners to develop a set of recommendations. She asked whether they were interested in looking at just the site near the Broadway bridge, or if they wanted to focus on a broader area.
Giannola expressed support for looking at the entire Broadway/Lowertown area, not just one site.
City planner Jeff Kahan noted that there are several master plan-related efforts in the works right now – including studies of the Washtenaw Avenue and South State corridors – and the staff needs to strategize about how to use its limited resources. People might wonder what’s triggering an effort related to the HRIMP recommendations now, he said.
Rampson replied that there’s interest in the MichCon property, and in what DTE’s plans are for the property after they finish remediation work there. They could either put it on the market or ask the city to make an offer, she said. So you could argue that it’s timely to look at future land use for that area.
Kahan wondered whether it would “muck up the works” to go through a master plan and possible rezoning process that ends up doubling the value of that MichCon property, especially since it’s not yet clear what the company plans to do. He also noted that transit-related plans are unfolding quickly, and there’s uncertainty about that too. [The Fuller Road Station, a proposed parking garage and transit center located in that general area, has been paused – see Chronicle coverage: "UM, Ann Arbor Halt Fuller Road Project"]
Finally, Kahan said, if a drain is dug underneath the railroad, the floodplain lines could change yet again – that’s another factor that could have an impact on the area. [Earlier in the meeting, Rampson had mentioned that the city is issuing a request for proposals (RFP) to possibly build a drain underneath the railroad to relieve flooding. The project might include a pedestrian underpass.]
Pratt noted that the city has three plans, each recommending three different types of land use for the Broadway bridges and Argo Dam area: (1) the HRIMP, which recommends commercial development; (2) the property’s current zoning, for industrial use; and (3) the master plan’s future land use map, which shows a combination of parkland and commercial/office use. Each of those land uses reflect different levels of intensity, he observed.
Rampson said she doesn’t think anyone is talking about rezoning at this point. The master plan could simply be amended to indicate a preference for the type of use on that property. Then if the property changes hands and is sold to a private developer, there would be guidance if the developer proposed a project there that required rezoning – which would be likely, she said. It would be less of a problem if the property is acquired by the city, she said, and becomes zoned as public land.
The MichCon property has a high recreational value, Kahan said. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle for creating a pathway system of parkland along the river, and the city has acquisition funds available for parkland. It would be good to have a conversation with Ginny Trocchio about that, he said. [Trocchio is the Conservation Fund staff member who manages the city's greenbelt and park acquisitions program, under contract with the city.]
Kahan said it goes back to his earlier point – should the city take action that might have an impact on the property’s value, by potentially increasing an appraisal of the land?
For now, Rampson said, the simplest approach would be to insert the language of the HRIMP recommendation into the city’s master plan. That way, there would be guidance regarding future use of the property in that area.
The committee discussed where the language might be inserted – in the master plan’s Lowertown section, or the central area section. [link to .pdf of the master plan's chapter on land use] Kahan wondered whether the HRIMP should be added as a supporting document to the master plan, as part of this change. Rampson advised against that, noting that it might open the Argo Dam question. “I’m not sure you really want to go there,” she told commissioners.
Pratt said he recognized that revisiting HRIMP could be opening a can of worms. But at the least, he said, getting HRIMP’s land use language into the master plan, as it relates to commercial development near the Broadway bridge and Argo, will help safeguard the future of that area.
The committee’s discussion will be taken up by the full planning commission at an upcoming, to-be-determined meeting.
Present: Planning commissioners Eleanore Adenekan, Diane Giannola, Evan Pratt and Kirk Westphal. Also city planners Wendy Rampson and Jeff Kahan.
Dave Askins contributed to the reporting of this article. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the city planning commission and the Ann Arbor city council. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.