Detroit City Council stalls on protecting riverfront

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A measure to increase the accountability of riverfront commercial property owners and protect the Detroit River stalled this week. (Shutterstock)

Just three months after Detroit was recognized for its international Riverwalk, the City’s Public Health and Safety Committee refused to move forward on a proposed ordinance to protect the river through seawall safety.

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The Detroit River Protection Ordinance was discussed during a public hearing Monday. The Public Health and Safety Committee must approve the draft ordinance for it to be considered by the full council. Advocates of the ordinance pushed for support to prevent shoreline collapses, protect the water, and ensure accountability of commercial operators along the riverfront. However, councilmembers decided more outreach and information was needed as commercial stakeholders called-in to the virtual meeting in opposition of the proposal.

Opponents of the ordinance said they had not been included or were against the new proposed regulations altogether. Some called it an “overreaction to one bad actor.”

A representative from River Towers Senior Apartments on Jefferson Avenue called-in to the virtual meeting to denounce the proposal, saying the ordinance would place an “unnecessary financial burden” on commercial entities in an already highly regulated area.  


Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda Lopez, who represents District 6 and part of the riverfront, said she was “shocked and surprised” to hear riverfront operators say they have not been engaged. The councilwoman told her colleagues that the past year has been a collaborative process, as she’s worked with the City’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, residents and advocates to draft the ordinance.  

The councilwoman said the Detroit Regional Chamber was the only entity that contacted her office to request a meeting where they asked for further information.

“The people in opposition have not reached out to us,” she said.

Castaneda-Lopez introduced the River Protection ordinance last year as a response to residents’ concerns to the safety of city drinking water and the environmental impact on the river after a commercial dock collapsed, spilling contaminants into the water. Detroit’s water comes from the Detroit River. The proposed ordinance would require commercial property owners and storage facilities along the riverfront to register with the City, undergo biennial inspections and participate in geotechnical reports every five years. Should the proposal move forward, the new rules would take effect next January.

Under the current version of the ordinance, only commercial properties would be affected by the proposal, not residential.

Advocates of the ordinance say the proposed rules would prevent future incidents, protect the water, and hold “bad actors” accountable while alerting Detroit residents immediately should an incident take place.

“We’re responding rather than reacting,” said Jessica Parker, chief enforcement officer of BSEED.

Parker said her department is “excited” about the ordinance and the opportunity to build greater trust between Detroiters and City government and that there is no intent to add financial barriers to commercial properties. Should the ordinance pass City Council, outcomes from the new reports and inspections will be listed on BSEED’s website for public view. According to the city’s website, BSEED is working with the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to document and publicly list contaminated parcels along the river.

Nick Assendelft, EGLE’s public information officer, said department staff offered input to the City of Detroit on its proposed seawall ordinance, but its final wording or adoption is ultimately a local decision. 

“EGLE recognizes the risks that failing shoreline structures can pose to communities and water resources, so we are always available to work collaboratively with local or state officials on science-based actions that protect the environment and public health,” Assendelft wrote in an email to BridgeDetroit. 

Since the Revere dock collapse in 2019 BSEED has performed 152 inspections of private and City-owned riverfront properties, issuing 1,054 tickets. Those tickets covered issues like failure to abate unsafe conditions, unlawful storage of items, failure to maintain premises, and failure to submit engineering or geotechnical reports. Tickets to private property owners total over $500,000, so far.

Parker said over 70 commercial property owners have already agreed to work with the City on compliance and that 45 have already submitted seawall reports.

Justin Onwenu, a volunteer organizer with the Sierra Club, said residents want and need to know that the City is holding entities accountable and that the ordinance would create more trust between residents and City government.

 “The trust aspect is so important,” Onwenu said during a Monday press event prior to the Health and Safety hearing. “Communities need to know that testing is being done.”

The Sierra Club is part of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, which worked with Castaneda-Lopez on the ordinance.

During the Public Health and Safety meeting, Onwenu told participants “we already have an issue,” pointing to the 1,054 tickets distributed when commercial stakeholders said they were already facing adequate regulations from EGLE.  

Though she was hoping the City Council would take up the issue during Tuesday’s formal session, Castaneda-Lopez encouraged stakeholders to email her with questions and comments about the proposed ordinance.

“We’ve gotten a lot of verbal things but nothing in writing,” Castaneda-Lopez told her colleagues during the full council meeting Tuesday. 

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