Waterfront fight: Downriver residents fear zone change for Moroun's McLouth Steel venture

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Trenton — The long saga of the former McLouth Steel site is once again intensifying, as a group of residents is poised to oppose a proposal they say would return the city's waterfront to disruptive and environmentally damaging industrial use.

A community group will stage a protest at city hall Sunday afternoon against a proposed overhaul of the city's zoning ordinance that would reclassify the former McLouth property — now owned by a subsidiary of the Moroun family's Crown Enterprises Inc. real-estate firm — as a "waterfront industrial district" designed for large-scale or specialized industrial operations. The 3 p.m. protest will take place ahead of a 7 p.m. Monday city council meeting.

"The message is simple. No to industrial waterfront," said Amy Sinclair Chappelle, 46, a city resident who has been distributing fliers and wearing a "Save Trenton" T-shirt.

The zoning changes prompted a sudden and massive mobilization in Trenton and the island community of Grosse Ile, where residents fear a transportation hub of trucks, ships and trains would hurt home values and their quality of life.

The former McLouth Steel Trenton plant on Friday, July 31, 2020.

In response to the pushback, some city officials say the proposed zoning change would affect numerous other properties in the city — not just the McLouth property — and is being undertaken as part of a four-year-long effort to update the city's zoning ordinance. And, Crown still would need to get approval for any redevelopment plans — plans Crown’s president, Michael Samhat, says the company does not yet have.

But opponents say the new designation would "change the character and use of our waterfront for generations to come," according to a flier circulating in the community. They say reclassifying part of the waterfront from mixed-use to waterfront industrial would lead to higher traffic, "constant noise," strain on infrastructure and an even greater eyesore.

And some say they do not trust the Moroun family's Crown, long a target of criticism for acquiring waterfront and Detroit tracts, neglecting then and allowing sites to sit undeveloped for long periods. The most prominent example: the historic Michigan Central Depot, which Crown sold to Ford Motor Co. two years ago after 30 years of ownership.

In an emailed statement responding to the community opposition, Samhat said Crown subsidiary "MSC has been focused on the work of taking down the buildings on site, and cleanup, per our agreement with the EPA and the state of Michigan; contrary to rumors in the community, neither MSC nor Crown has any redevelopment currently planned for the site nor will the City Councils’ approval of the new ordinance result in the approval of any redevelopment on the McLouth site."

He added: "When MSC is ready to redevelop the site it will, per the new zoning ordinance, need to go through a site plan approval process; nothing in the new ordinance circumvents the McLouth property from needing to follow the site plan approval process.

"Since the County released its RFQ and entered into a Purchase and Development Agreement with MSC, MSC has stated that it believes the features of this site support its use as an intermodal facility; Crown Enterprises is a development company that has not had a history of developing heavy industrial projects as their focus and expertise is in logistics."

Trenton resident Amy Chappelle delivers fliers door-to-door in Trenton announcing a peaceful protest against the former McLouth Steel Trenton Plant, Friday, July 31, 2020. "I want the residents and homeowners to know what's going on. My message is "no industrial waterfront."

Industrial past

McLouth Steel, founded in Detroit in 1934, bought a mile-long stretch of riverside property in Trenton in 1948. The Trenton facility closed in 1995 after McLouth filed for bankruptcy.

In the ensuing quarter-century, redevelopment plans for the site were proposed but never came to fruition. A proposal in 2006 for a residential and commercial development — which later failed — is how part of the site came to be zoned mixed-use, according to city administrator Scott Church.

The state, county and city all passed on opportunities to buy the property after Wayne County foreclosed on it in 2017 for $3.7 million.

In 2018, Ambassador Bridge mogul Manuel "Matty" Moroun's Crown Enterprises purchased the site for $4 million from the Wayne County Land Bank (Moroun died in July). The county commission signed off on a plan for Crown to tear down 45 buildings on the site within two years of the purchase and to invest $20 million within six years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state environmental officials and U.S. Department of Justice approved a legal agreement involving the purchase, assessment and cleanup of the site.

In 2019, the McLouth site was designated an environmental Superfund site, making it eligible for federal cleanup funds to aid remediation of contaminated land, an effort that is ongoing and will be for several years. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who has for years been active in efforts to get the site cleaned up, told The Detroit News on Friday in response to the controversy over the proposed zone change: "I stay in regular touch with EPA and the state on what's happening with the site. What's happening now is a process that was started four years ago, is continuing, and what's really going to happen on that site is several years away, at minimum."

"My focus right now," she added, "is getting the site cleaned up, protecting the water and the ground, and the communities living near it."

The former McLouth Steel Trenton plant on Friday, July 31, 2020.

Opposition grows

In 2016, the city began what Church, the city administrator, describes as a "comprehensive update" of the zoning ordinance: "The McLouth Steel property is one of several properties that is affected by the zoning update," he said, noting DTE Energy Co.'s Trenton Channel Power Plant is another.

Under the current proposal, which the city's planning commission approved in a 5-4 vote July 22, the McLouth site's zoning would change in some sections from mixed-use and in others from I-3, a more-restrictive, heavy-industrial designation.

The city has received an influx of comments from residents who are concerned about the change — some are valid concerns, Church said, while others are based on misinformation.

 "We've been receiving a lot of emails, phone calls and communications, and I believe I speak for the mayor and the council that the concerns are being heard loud and clear," he said.

"The zoning update began long before the property was even foreclosed upon by the Wayne County treasurer. So it's a misrepresentation when people say this was initiated by Crown Enterprises or as a result of the McLouth Steel" sale.

While Crown did not request this change, it did previously apply to have the zoning of the mixed-use portion of the site changed back to I-3 industrial, Church said, but the city opted not to act on that request while it was updating its zoning ordinances. If the ordinance is approved, the heavy-industrial zoning designation will no longer exist.

"If, however, the zoning ordinance is not updated, (the owner has) indicated they would like the city to act on the I-3 rezoning application," Church said.

He also clarified that, contrary to statements he has heard from some in the community, Crown would have to submit a site plan before redeveloping the property.

The recommendation from the planning commission must next go to the city council. It is not on the agenda for Monday's meeting. The News reached out via email to all six council members for comment. 

Councilman Scott Cabauatan said he is undecided about the proposal: "I would still like to see a ... report from the planning commission as well as city administration on some details, and as I become more educated on the topic, then at that point I can provide a position."

Councilwoman Wendy Pate said she is opposed to the proposal as it's currently written: "A waterfront community should have something better than an industrial development on its waterfront. ... I'm asking that we look at viable opportunities to make the waterfront a vibrant place where there is community benefit."

Ryan Stewart, 30, a Trenton resident who is challenging Wayne County Commissioner Joseph Palamara in Tuesday's Democratic primary election, is among the community members organizing in opposition to the proposal.

Instead of industrial, Stewart said he would like to see the riverfront redeveloped to accommodate public access: "Mixed-use development would be ideal, rather than re-industrialization."

An industrial development on the site would be "bad for our quality of life," said Stewart, a citizen representative in a community advisory group for the EPA. "It is bad for health outcomes. It will essentially make our city into an industrialized region that reduces property value, diminishes quality of life and increases everything people in this area already dislike, (such as) train and semi-truck traffic."

Palamara did not immediately respond to an email or phone call seeking comment, but in a recent column in the News-Herald, he noted that cleanup costs have already totaled more than $20 million and pushed back on what he described as "misinformation" about the zone change proposal. He also said turning the site into a public park "was never a realistic option that was put forth by anybody."

"When the final decisions are made by Trenton officials on how to best zone their city, balance their tax base and approve site plans for specific parcels, I have no doubt that the compass will be focused on what is in 'the best interests of the city of Trenton and its residents' as a whole," he wrote.

Chappelle, the Trenton resident, would also like to see some type of mixed-use development: "Anything that's not going to harm the environment and the property in the area.

"It's hard for me to imagine how anyone who has a passion for this community would want to approve an industrial waterfront. So I just want to understand why, why the people who are for it, are for it, and then let’s talk it through or see a plan or come up with other solutions."


Twitter: @JGrzelewski