Redeveloping Brownfields

In the Detroit region, where manufacturing and industry are key components of the economy, the Detroit/Wayne County Roundtable on Sustainable Development marks a major step toward basing the future well-being of southeast Michigan on the concept of sustainable development. The roundtable has identified barriers to brownfield site redevelopment and is recommending solutions to overcome those barriers. Over the past two years, broad collaboration among city, county, and state officials; private-sector stakeholders; environmental groups; and the public has already resulted in several major redevelopment projects that might not have been possible without the focus and collaboration that the roundtable facilitated.

In 1994 the immediate goal for Wayne County and the City of Detroit was simple: to convene a regional summit on sustainable development that would examine international, national, state, and regional efforts to integrate environmental and economic growth concerns. The summit clarified that city and county leaders have a long-range task even more formidable than first imagined, a task that requires broad involvement of the public to develop workable, coordinated approaches to the environmental and economic issues confronting older urban areas.

The summit led to the formation of the City of Detroit/Wayne County Roundtable on Sustainable Development, a partnership between two governments that historically did not always work in tandem.

Working Together

The roundtable adopted a series of operating principles (see list in box) and designated a ten-member board of directors, co-chaired by the designees of the mayor and the Wayne County executive. Forty representatives from Detroit and Wayne County neighborhood organizations, environmental groups, lending institutions, businesses, governments, charitable and religious groups, and others make up the roundtable membership.

The first full meeting of the roundtable in October 1995 helped define the historical barriers to redevelopment: lack of education, information, and training; regulatory constraints; economic development; and concerns for health, safety, and the environment. Roundtable members refined these issues into recommendations for further study by three working groups, which would examine ways to market brownfield sites, identify institutional and legal barriers to redevelopment, and provide stakeholders with information.

Before the roundtable was ever formed, stakeholders recognized that impediments to brownfield redevelopment existed. As the roundtable made progress, however, participants began to understand the issues from their colleagues' perspectives and to gain greater respect for each other's views. Although these interactions sometimes led to frustration, cooperation prevailed. The roundtable process has given all members a forum in which to facilitate consensus building and agree on solutions to problems that stakeholders have in common.

Making Progress

Roundtable members continue to collaborate on many activities. For example, the Clean-Up Committee is reviewing the effectiveness of the new Michigan Environmental Act (part 201) and is looking at additional opportunities for streamlining the regulatory process. One of the co-chairs is a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality staff member with first-hand knowledge of the state program, thereby assuring that committee recommendations are responsive to the issues faced by many people grappling with redevelopment.

The Incentives and Disincentives Committee continues to work on the tax reversion and condemnation process, which has been linked to long delays in assembling property for redevelopment projects. While condemnation has been used successfully in major projects, it has not typically been used in smaller projects due largely to issues of cost and time. The goal is to identify short- and long-term ways to reduce the cost and time required while protecting the rights of property owners.

Other committees include a streamlining government committee, which is reviewing existing and proposed efforts to assist potential developers interested in redevelopment in older urban areas; a marketing committee, which is developing a comprehensive strategy for Southwest Detroit; and a stakeholders committee, which is working to define a meaningful way for citizens to participate in the decision making that affects their neighborhoods.

So far, considerable progress has been made. The city and county have launched numerous major redevelopment projects as a result of the partnership, including a stadium complex, an airport expansion, and a casino. At the same time, major industries have stepped up to the plate with new automotive manufacturing facilities and corporate operations in downtown Detroit.

The present task is to help assure that smaller development fills in behind these major projects in a way that protects the environment and is sustainable over the long run. This balance of small and large development holds the key to measured and continued economic growth for Detroit and Wayne County as the region moves into the 21st century.

Six Operating Principles for a City/County Roundtable

Diversify membership: Assure that the roundtable membership is inclusive, representing community groups, business organizations, economic and environmental interests, universities, and regulatory agencies.

Promote the concept of sustainability: Recognize that in the long run, the economy and the environment are interdependent and that today's needs must be met without sacrificing those of the future.

Build consensus: Establish the roundtable process on the precept that sharing information, selecting common goals and objectives, and jointly supporting projects build the trust that is essential in creating new coalitions.

Support existing efforts: Enhance rather than duplicate the efforts of existing public and private organizations working on economic development and environmental quality.

Combine resources: Use the roundtable's diverse stakeholders to collectively identify and tap resources to fund activities or projects that are beyond the scope or means of any single public or private organization.

Set up regional cooperation and communication: Exchange information on successes and failures with other communities in the region.

For further information, contact:

Sarah Lile
Director, City of Detroit Department of Environmental Affairs

Jim Murray
Director, Wayne County Department of the Environment