A walkable business district along West Jefferson Avenue, a riverfront residential mixed-use district, and kayaks paddling down the Detroit River.
That’s the vision being Ecorse and River Rouge leaders have for their cities. And they recently took a massive first step towards establishing a joint framework to make it a reality.
The neighboring cities recently released the West Jefferson Corridor Plan, a comprehensive 150-page document that lays out a strategy to revitalize both communities with a focus on their common main thoroughfare, West Jefferson.
"The goal is to get us on the path to sustainability," says Marsh, Ecorse's city administrator. "And how you do that is through community and economic development. It's the bloodline for any city."
Marsh says the plan aims to take advantage of the economic momentum in neighboring Detroit, creating an attractive corridor along Jefferson stretching from the Motor City to Wyandotte.
"We're only 15 minutes away from Detroit, so it makes us attractive," Marsh says. "We believe we have an opportunity to benefit from that. This is why now."
Housing and water-based recreation are two assets along the West Jefferson Corridor.
The new plan came out of a unique partnership not only between the two cities but also with the Michigan Department of Treasury. Both cities underwent financial emergencies in the wake of the Great Recession, working closely with the state in the process. But as the cities closed that chapter of their history, Treasury staff wanted to continue helping them recover.
"It's no secret that Ecorse and River Rouge are the very pictures of industrialized, suburban communities, with steel and industry as their backbone for almost 100 years," says Larry Steckelberg, administrator of the Treasury's Community Services Division. "As they're transitioning away from that, what would the future look like?"
Steckelberg suggested the cities create a joint plan for the future and offered a $40,000 grant to make it happen. Marsh says there was already a "very strong" relationship between Ecorse and River Rouge, and River Rouge community development director Karl Laub agrees.
"We look at it as, if something happens in Ecorse, it eventually benefits everybody around here," Laub says. "It goes both ways."
That positive relationship most recently manifested in the cities' successful joint application for state grants to fund a streetscape and protected bike lanes along West Jefferson. Those improvements will begin next summer.
"I think the success of working together on that bikeway was the precursor to saying, 'Okay, we need to expand this effort,'" says Paul Lippens, director of urban design and mobility at McKenna, which serves as both cities' planning firm. "We need to come up with a strategic action plan for taking the money and the investment we're making on this bikeway and expanding it to the redevelopment of this entire corridor."
Marsh says a joint vision was important because the two communities didn't want to take a "half and half" approach to Jefferson.
"You're going to see a pleasant, consistent continuity along the major corridor, which is important," he says.
The plan outlines six key goals: improving the design and appearance of the W. Jefferson corridor; fostering collaboration and promoting the corridor; enhancing greenways, public spaces, and sustainability; promoting business and economic development; protecting existing and expanding new housing options; and improving infrastructure and transportation.
This 24-acre riverfront parcel owned by U.S. Steel represents a potentially transformative development opportunity that can connect to Ecorse's John D. Dingell Park.
"The overriding goal of this project was to promote greater recognition of the corridor as a valuable place, and to position both cities as central players in future growth and investment along the corridor," says Sally Hodges, planning consultant at McKenna.
The plan identifies several key "opportunity sites" along the Jefferson corridor that offer the potential for transformative development. Those include downtown River Rouge, a site just south of Ecorse's City Hall, and two plots currently owned by U.S. Steel that are envisioned for future mixed-use development. One is at the U.S. Steel entrance just south of the River Rouge-Ecorse border, and the other is a 24-acre riverfront parcel that could connect to existing green space at Ecorse's John D. Dingell Park.
The plan also recommends one particularly dramatic change: new mixed-use, higher density residential development combined with riverfront recreational and entertainment uses. This site might include landmark features like a waterfront Ferris wheel on a new Dingell Park Pier at the riverfront U.S. Steel site. Marsh says activating the cities' "totally underutilized waterfront," and connecting it to the Jefferson corridor, is key to the cities' strategy.
"People love water, and we have a bunch of it," he says. "Detroit has changed the conversation regarding their water. We too should take advantage of that now, more than we have in the past."
Major changes like the north Dingell Park riverfront transformation may still be several years in the making, but Ecorse and River Rouge are already taking steps to implement the plan. Right now, Marsh and Laub agree that blight elimination is a top priority – and a key element of the plan's goal to improve the corridor's appearance. Marsh says River Rouge and Ecorse code enforcement officers will be working together and issuing blight tickets up and down the Jefferson corridor.
"Blight is a major impediment to growth like it was in Detroit," he says. "What we can tear down, we're going to tear down. I believe we're going to begin to repopulate our community with new housing where there were old, dilapidated properties."
Ecorse is also in the process of re-establishing its Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which will then begin holding quarterly joint meetings with River Rouge's DDA. The two bodies will collaborate in charting the practical implementation of the plan.
View of the Detroit River from Dingell Park in Ecorse.Implementing all elements of the plan will be a multi-year process, leveraging state and philanthropic grant dollars as well as possible tax increment financing. But Marsh feels confident in its success. He references Detroit's recent transformation, despite how improbable it may have seemed to many naysayers a decade ago.
"Patience and victory go hand in hand," Marsh says. "With relentless, positive action, we will see it happen."
Interested parties should inquire with Richard Marsh at 313-386-2520.