ANN ARBOR, MI — A major riverfront redevelopment in Ann Arbor that’s been nearly a decade in the making is getting a sizable boost in public funding to move forward.
The state budget bill signed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in July includes a $20 million appropriation for the Broadway Park West project planned for an old industrial property off Broadway Street along the Huron River north of downtown.
Detroit-based Roxbury Group has had plans for years to redevelop the 14-acre DTE Energy site with four six-story buildings with 96 condos, a nine-story hotel with 148 rooms, a riverfront restaurant, commercial spaces, public green space, walking trails, an event pavilion and more.
With funding in place now, initial site work could start this fall/winter, depending on final permitting and weather, or by next spring, said Roxbury principal David Di Rita.
“This is a huge benefit for the community and will put this project into forward momentum,” he said.
The Ann Arbor City Council approved Roxbury’s site plan for the $100-million private development in 2020 and Roxbury has been working ever since to line up funding.
The $20 million from the state was quietly included in vague language added to a budget bill two months ago without many realizing it and at least one lawmaker, state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, is now calling the situation “shady as hell.”
The Detroit News highlighted the appropriation in an investigative report this week, describing it as among roughly $1 billion in earmarks hashed out largely behind closed doors by state leaders with taxpayer money directed to about 150 projects across the state benefitting private developers and others. The money is coming from surplus income and sales tax revenues.
The nearly 1,000-page state bill described the allocation as going to a nonprofit “that is a nature conservancy” in a city with a population greater than 600,000 “for restoration of river front land in a county with a population between 300,000 and 400,000.” The unnamed city is Detroit and the county is Washtenaw.
The nonprofit is the Lower Town Riverfront Conservancy, an entity Di Rita said Ann Arbor asked Roxbury to establish for the development, maintenance and programming of the public space component of the Broadway Park West project.
The $20 million will be on top of $17.3 million in tax incentives previously approved for the project under a brownfield plan that allows the developer to capture new taxes from the development for 12 years as reimbursement for upfront costs to address pollution from a coal-gasification plant that once operated on the site and to make public infrastructure improvements.
Additional funding beyond the tax incentives was always going to be needed for the public space and public improvements, Di Rita said. The $20 million now included in the state budget starting Oct. 1 allows phase one of the development to move forward, which includes all public infrastructure, base park improvements, riverfront trails and bridges, he said.
The funds are to be targeted to the public space, which will be owned in trust by the nonprofit conservancy and managed by a board of directors, a majority of whom are expected to be independent of any organization associated with the private development and drawn from the community.
The public improvements include a new pedestrian bridge over the Huron River, new public rights of way and sidewalks, widening and signalization of the Broadway Street bridge, emergency vehicle access over public land, flood mitigation, water and sewer infrastructure and other work.
Ann Arbor last year sought $7 million in state funding from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to acquire roughly 2.3 acres of the riverfront property and make site improvements, but the city’s grant application was unsuccessful.
Returning the riverfront property, which has sat contaminated, vacant and fenced-off from public access for several decades, to productive use and for the benefit of the community will have a transformational impact, according to the conservancy.
In addition to the $37.3 million in public funding between the community enhancement grant and future tax capture, the conservancy secured a $2 million grant from the DTE Foundation this year and a $500,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy last year. It’s continuing to reach out to other potential donors.
“The Lower Town Riverfront Conservancy is extremely grateful for the strong support it has received both from the state of Michigan and our private donors toward the development of this long-awaited public space and trail project for the Ann Arbor community,” the conservancy said in a statement.
“Thanks to this support, we are hopeful that we will be able to commence work later this year. When completed, this work will transform over seven acres of blighted and historically contaminated industrial land into a world-class public space, including 1,200 feet of waterfront trails and habitat restoration, a pedestrian bridge to the Argo Cascades, year-round event pavilion and lawns, and ice ribbon.”
Kayakers coming out of the Cascades will be able to pull up out of the water and stop at a riverfront restaurant tentatively shown in plans as the Broadway Park Bistro.
The development also is projected to create over 300 jobs paying above minimum wage in hospitality, retail and operations.
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