This blighted Chelsea property will become a public park thanks to new public-private partnership

A community group and the city of Chelsea are moving forward on a plan that will turn a former manufacturing site in downtown Chelsea into a community asset.
A community group and the city of Chelsea are moving forward on a plan that will turn a blighted 2.5-acre site in downtown Chelsea into a community asset. The city and Main Street Park Alliance (MSPA) announced in May that they'd entered into a development agreement to create a community park on the blighted former Federal Screw Works site at 500 S. Main.

The agreement creates a public-private partnership. MSPA will oversee the park's development and transfer property ownership to the city for $1 upon completion of the public park. The signed agreement helped MSPA snag a $1 million grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to perform environmental remediation on the site. 

Chelsea Screw Works was founded in 1913. In 1928, it merged with Federal Screw Works, a company from St. Clair Shores. The plant largely served the local automotive and aviation industries, says Joe Ziolkowski, Chelsea developer and MSPA co-founder. The property has been vacant for nearly 20 years. Though various developers have tried to do something with the site, they haven't succeeded.

"We've had some great developers come through, get serious, and just realize how difficult it would be with the environmental obstacles and the deed restriction on the property that the Screw Works put on it before they sold it," Ziolkowski says.

He says that deed restriction forbids residential housing. And, because of the cost of remediating a brownfield site, a developer would probably only get a return on investment if they could put in a commercial two-story strip.
The location of a future community park on Main Street in Chelsea.
Ziolkowski says he and MSPA's other nine board members formed the organization after asking themselves, "Why are we waiting for a developer to come into the town and figure out what to do with [the property]?"

Board member Jess Spike says creating something attractive on the site was a priority for him.

"I didn't want to see this developed into another strip mall," Spike says. "This location, in a residential district, just lends itself to being a park. It's just a good fit for it."

Chelsea City Manager Martin Colburn says city leadership was happy to support MSPA. 

"They're a citizen group that got together not only because they wanted to eliminate blight but because they wanted to do something positive for the community,"  Colburn says. "The city is pleased and proud of its citizens for stepping up in this way."
Chelsea City Manager Martin Colburn.
Community members sometimes object to turning commercial properties into parks because it takes property off the tax rolls. But Ziolkowski says the Federal Screw Works site only produces about $4,000 a year for Chelsea. What's more, he says the blighted site is an "eyesore" that detracts from the value of that portion of Chelsea's Main Street.

"It's not doing anybody any good," Ziolkowski says.

Spike lives and works in Chelsea, so he says he genuinely means it when he tells prospective clients what a "vibrant little town" Chelsea is. 

"The bottom dollar is not my overall driving factor all the time," he says.

Creating a new park in Chelsea helps move the city closer to the vision in its master plan for recreation as well. During the city's most recent round of master plan review, a consultant told city officials that Chelsea should have about 56 acres of park land for a city of its size. 
The location of a future community park on Main Street in Chelsea.
"We have more like 36," Ziolkowski says. 

There was remarkable community consensus of support for the park, but the "immediate concern" from the community and potential donors regarded the property's status as a brownfield site, Ziolkowski says.

The MSPA hired an environmental consultant and environmental attorney, and the city paid for its own environmental assessments as well. 

As of September, MSPA and the city had submitted a "response activity plan" to EGLE detailing how they were going to remediate the site. The plan is likely to involve removing two feet of potentially contaminated soil with new clean soil.

Spike says MSPA plans to go "above and beyond" any EGLE recommendations for remediation.

"We don't want there to be any question from the community that this is a safe place to play," Spike says.
The location of a future community park on Main Street in Chelsea.
Ziolkowski says MSPA is seeking grant funding for some of the environmental remediation, which he estimates will cost a total of $2 million. Even when remediation is complete, the park isn't likely to open to the public any time soon. There will be public input opportunities and a design phase before construction can take place.

MSPA envisions a park with amenities that appeal across several generations, from elementary school pupils to residents of several retirement homes in Chelsea. But MSPA leaders are also prioritizing community input in their vision of the new park.

Preliminary community input via paper ballots suggested residents have strong opinions on how to use the space. Spike says the most requested amenity was a skate park, followed by a splash pad or a climbing wall.

"They're looking for dynamic amenities. They don't want just a simple green space," Spike says. "There's nothing wrong with a simple green space, but the board's overall vision is that we don't want a ho-hum park. We want something people will drive to."

Updates on park's progress and opportunities for public input can be found here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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