Detroit’s Oakman Boulevard Being Transformed into $8.6M Green Avenue, MEDC Selects North End and Grosse Pointe for Main Street Program

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has announced the city’s largest investment to date in green stormwater infrastructure to reduce neighborhood flooding and basement backups by transforming the medians on Oakman Boulevard between Joy Road and Tireman Avenue.
Oakman project rendering
The Oakman Boulevard project will install underground chambers beneath eight bioretention areas to slow water as it is released to the combined sewer system. // Rendering courtesy of the city of Detroit

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has announced the city’s largest investment to date in green stormwater infrastructure to reduce neighborhood flooding and basement backups by transforming the medians on Oakman Boulevard between Joy Road and Tireman Avenue.

While not near the river, a portion of Oakman through the city’s northwest Aviation neighborhood has experienced significant street flooding and basement backups, most notably during rainstorms in 2014 and 2016.

“We made a commitment to the residents of the Aviation neighborhood that the city would take measures to help protect their homes,” says Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “What DWSD is doing here will use nature instead of storm sewers to manage huge amounts of stormwater to help reduce street flooding and basement backups.”

Detroit’s Blaze Contracting is the primary contractor on the $8.6 million project. The contractor will be required to meet Duggan’s executive order that 51 percent of the hours worked during the project will be performed by Detroit residents. Failure by the contractor to meet this requirement will result in fines from the city’s Civil Rights and Inclusion Office.

The Oakman project is designed to manage 37.3 million gallons of stormwater annually. To residents and passerby, the bioretention practices the department will use on the medians will look like rain gardens and help beautify the neighborhood. The residents provided input during the design process and emphasized their desire for the medians to have passive features versus an active, park-like setting.

“We engaged the community in designing this project to ensure they would be comfortable with the natural features of the reimagined medians that will manage stormwater,” says Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer for the department.

“We have to protect the historic neighborhood by using innovation to reduce flooding. While this project will help the city of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department meet our National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit – in our continual reduction of untreated combined sewage discharges during wet weather – what’s important to the residents is they will see a dramatic decrease in flooding during future rain events.”

Green stormwater infrastructure is the most common method to improve stormwater management. It replicates natural systems to reduce runoff volume, filter pollutants, and cut down on flooding by slowing the movement of water into the city’s combined sewer system with strategically placed projects such as bioretention and bioswales.

The department has installed 16 green stormwater infrastructure projects in the past six years, which manage a total of 24.5 million gallons of stormwater annually. More information on these projects is available here. A map of more than 200 public and private green stormwater infrastructure projects can be seen on the Detroit Stormwater Hub here.

Bioretention features look similar to rain gardens on the surface but underneath are designed to slowly soak up water. The Oakman project includes installing bioretention features on the medians. The department will install underground boxed-shaped chambers beneath eight of the bioretention areas in the median to temporarily store stormwater and slowly release it to the combined sewer system.

In some locations, the department is rerouting catch basin connections to the combined sewer lines to new storm sewer pipes that will flow into the green stormwater infrastructure in the Oakman project.

The project also will include water system upgrades; the department will replace older water mains on both sides of Oakman between Joy and Manor and between Joy and Appoline that are prone to breaks. The contractor also will dig up the water service line curbstop in front of each house to identify whether the line leading to the house is lead, galvanized, or copper. Any existing lead or galvanized service lines will be replaced with copper pipe with owner or occupant permission.

Beginning in 2019, through its capital improvement program, the department began combining water and sewer upgrades to more efficiently use resources and reduce disruptions to neighborhoods. The work has also coordinated in advance with other city departments and government agencies for streetscaping and road resurfacing. For the Oakman project, the General Services Department’s forestry division has coordinated to remove or replace unhealthy trees.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department conducted community meetings starting in 2017 for the project. Following contractor selection and legislative approvals, the final pre-construction community meeting was held in February 2020 with the department and contractor. Community outreach will continue through updates via door hangers, emails, and individual contact.

In 2018, the department committed to investing $500 million in the city’s water and sewer systems over five years. It is able to make the investment by leveraging the $50 million annual lease payment for the regional water and sewer systems operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority and improved operational efficiencies.

This spring, $100 million in bond proceeds for department system improvements at less than 3 percent interest rate was secured. This is among the lowest 30-year borrowing rates achieved by the authority or department. This was the final step to secure the full $500 million for the program.

In related news, the historic North End neighborhood of Detroit and the city of Grosse Pointe have been selected by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to take part in the select level of the Michigan Main Street program. The two communities will receive five years of technical assistance from MEDC with a focus on revitalization strategies designed to attract new residents, business investments, economic growth, and job creation to their central business districts.

“Now more than ever, it is vital that our communities take a common-sense approach toward strengthening their core commercial districts and driving economic growth in the community as they work to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 virus,” says Michele Wildman, senior vice president of community development for the MEDC. “With the support of the Main Street program and the MEDC, we can work with our local partners to transform the downtowns and commercial districts in communities to secure the critical role they will play on Michigan’s path toward our future.”

The program aims to create communities distinguished by a sense of place; the rationale is based on studies that show investing in this is an integral part of developing vibrant downtowns and commercial districts, thereby making the state economically stronger and culturally diverse.

The city of Grosse Pointe and Grosse Pointe Downtown Development Authority have community support and buy-in for downtown revitalization. Many authority members, business owners, and city officials attended the Michigan Main Street Training Series.

Using best practices discussed during the training, the community has made strides to implement a communication plan and develop a strategy to build community support and a budget for the program. The community is prepared to learn and implement the main Street Four Point Approach of organization, promotion, design, and economic vitality.

The Vanguard Community Development Corp., which has served as advocate for and worked on behalf of the North End neighborhood since 1994, has gathered the support of many district stakeholders including partner organizations and business owners to use the Main Street Approach to continue the revitalization efforts they have already started in the district.

There are 23 other communities in the program: Blissfield, Boyne City, Charlevoix, Charlotte, Cheboygan, downtown Lansing, Eaton Rapids, Evart, Grand Haven, Grayling, Howell, Lapeer, Mexicantown Hubbard Communities neighborhood in Detroit, Milan, Niles, Old Town (Lansing), Otsego, Owosso, Saline, Sault Ste. Marie, Three Rivers, Wayland, and Wayne.

“Developing downtowns and commercial districts is essential in building a tax base, raising property values, and putting people to work,” Wildman says. “Programs like Michigan Main Street provide communities with the tools needed to create jobs, provide desirable places to live, and build a sense of place for Michigan residents.”

Over the past year, Michigan Main Street communities generated more than $19 million in private investment, 109 new business, and 100 façade improvements. Since its inception in 2003, Michigan Main Street has been a catalyst for job growth, private investment, and community engagement. Through 2019, 1,408 businesses have been launched with a total public investment of more than $99 million and total private investment of $306 million. In addition, 49,092 volunteer hours were recorded in 2019 while revitalizing downtowns across the state.

In May, in partnership with Reopen Main Street, Downtown Professionals Network, and Arnett Muldrow and Associates, Michigan Main Street and the MEDC launched a new Michigan Reopen Main Street website offering resources, strategies, and assets for downtowns and communities as they plan for their re-openings following the COVID-19 crisis. Available here, it is designed to help Main Street directors, downtown development authority and commercial district managers, small business owners, and local stakeholders in navigating reopening.

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