Dearborn looks to public on high-profile site development

The high-profile property at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Brady Street is getting some high-profile treatment.

The parcel surrounding the Dearborn Historical Museum is viewed by some as the eastern gateway to west downtown Dearborn. Vacant for years, the city is once again considering developing the land--although no deal is imminent.

In fact, an RFP hasn’t even been drawn up yet. Instead, the city is taking its time and picking the brains of consultants as well as numerous community stakeholders.

The next group tasked with answering the question of how the parcel should be developed is the public itself.

Corner of Michigan and S. Brady.A Tuesday, April 30, open house is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. at the Dingell Transit Center. There the public will be offered presentations on different concepts for development. The public will then be given the chance to offer their opinions on the project, of which the city plans to take into account when proceeding with any plans for development.

We spoke with Thomas Paison, Assistant Department Head for Dearborn’s Economic and Community Development Department. He told Metromode about the history of the site, past attempts at development, and why transparency is critical in to development this time around.

Q: What is being considered for development?

A:
The site is right at the eastern entry of west downtown Dearborn, right after Andiamo, at the first intersection. We call it a gateway site. It’s significant for us as we continue to rejuvenate downtown.

Originally when the property was dedicated in the 1950s, we leased out parts of the property to businesses and the revenue collected helped fund the museum. And then Andiamo came and bought their part of the property. That money went to the museum’s funds, which was used to demolish an old motel on the site. Before the motel there was an old gas station. We found out gas had leaked into the ground so the Andiamo money was used to demolish the motel and clean up the ground.

We finished that work in 2009 but by then the recession had hit. So we’ve been sitting on that property and waiting for the economy to improve.

Q: What’s gone into the planning stages so far?

A:
When we became a certified Redevelopment Ready Community, the state offered us technical assistance to help get the site ready for development. We had planners and members of the development industry help us with the study to see what would be a viable development for the site, what sort of RFP would attract a good project. We wanted to take a fresh look.

Consultants came in and met with the different groups of stakeholders, meeting with groups from the museum, historic commission, city officials, the DDA.

Q: What can people expect from the open house?

A: At the open house, we’ll present the different concepts that we came up with, the different area studies, what we can do with this part of the site and what we can do with that part of the site. There’s enough information to present to move forward in the RFP process to try and find a development partner.

Q: Why an open house in the first place?

Development of the site has basically been under discussion since well over a decade ago. The last time we looked at the site we didn’t get a lot of public input. It was more of a top-down approach than a bottom-up approach. This time we’re trying to get a broader set of input. That’s basically the extent of it. There were a lot of unhappy people last time. Some people thought there was some sort of insider dealing going on. There’s no real evidence of that but when you don’t have a transparent process, that’s what happens.

We’ve gotten a lot better at including the public input in our planning process, in opening up the discussion and getting a broader perspective. In the end, it’s the city council’s decision. But they’re on board that it should be clear to everyone why a decision is being made. I wasn’t there for it last time but that’s the perception I get.

Q: What goes in to developing these concepts?

A:
All of the versions I’ve seen include the museum operations remaining on site, because that’s part of the deal. But some ideas have the museum offices staying put, and others have them moving to a new building on site. The museum needs storage and archive space, office space, and meeting space.

One of the trickiest parts is there’s not any nearby public parking lots. So we have to integrate parking on a sufficient scale. One of the additional complexities are grade issues. And we’re constrained by the Rouge River Gateway Trail running behind the property. It’s all kind of a weird shape and we’re trying to find ways to piece it all together.

And then it does have to be something that the developer makes a profit on. The city is not in the development business. It’s not something we use people’s tax dollars on.

Q: And what about the concepts themselves?

A:
We have three or four variants of concepts, of how the mixed-use buildings will be arranged among open spaces and parking.

We’ll try and have three or so ideas to present and then open it up to questions. It’s a sort of, "Here’s what we have so far. What do you think?" And then we’ll probably end up with a hybrid of our concepts and the input we receive from the public. We’ll refine it from three concepts to one and then get it to the RFP process where we’ll be looking for a development partner that is ready, willing, and able.

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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