What Lies Ahead for Michigan Brownfields?

More aggressive liability and environmental laws are moving redevelopments forward.

For the last 20 years, we have seen the innovative and aggressive Michigan brownfield liability and environmental laws move redevelopments forward. While some of these projects have been big, all of them have been what I like to characterize as “low hanging fruit.”

This makes sense because, for all the incentives available, at the end of the day, if you rehab a building in a location where there is no business, that no one wants to occupy, the incentives available won’t make the difference. While not easy to redevelop, these sites have been redeveloped while other major environmental sites (either very large, very contaminated or in less desirable locations) continued to lay fallow.

The incentives have made marginal or risky deals less so and, as a result, it is logical that downtown and Midtown Detroit and locations in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Lansing have seen major brownfield redevelopment pushes. Smaller projects in outer ring suburbs with sound economies have also benefited from the state’s brownfield programs.The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality plans on a review of Michigan’s brownfield laws and incentives to try to streamline the program to make redevelopments even easier.

But now, we have some major projects that are by no means “low hanging fruit.” The Packard Plant, idle and abandoned, a subject for “ruin porn tourism” for more than 50 years is paid for and soon will be owned by a Peruvian developer with big plans. He calls it the “best opportunity in the world” and he sounds serious.

Work on the long-stalled Uniroyal site is reportedly moving forward. DTE recently sold its Marysville Michigan Plant to a St. Louis developer with experience in redeveloping brownfields.  There has been talk for years about Detroit looking at Turin, Italy as a model for post-industrial redevelopment and the MSNBC’s Morning Joe talk show recently came to Detroit to tout the revival of the city’s urban core and auto business.

I recently saw an online piece about the creative redevelopment of a Spanish cement plant, and now I wonder whether we will see this sort of investment and creativity in Detroit and southeast Michigan brownfields which are not the easiest of sites to redevelop. If so, it will be a very exciting time in Michigan.

Michigan clearly has the supply; now it is time to see if there is sufficient demand. All the incentives and pro-development laws in the world will not fill those buildings and developers generally make smart bets on buildings that people want to occupy and in locations where people want to be.

Right now, after a 60-year slump, perhaps it’s Michigan’s time again? Let’s hope so and work toward that goal in the new year.