Friday, September 30, 2011

The Revised City Charter and the Environment

This November is what people call an "off election year." No congressional or state races, just Board of Education and Prop C.

But Prop C is pretty important - it's the new Revised Charter for the City of Detroit, which lays out how the government is structured and what it is supposed to do.

Since the end of 2010, an elected body of 11 City Charter Revision Commissioners have been combing through the Detroit City Charter and cleaning it up, revising clunky old laws (such as requiring a special Mayoral election that cost the cash-strapped City millions when the regularly scheduled election was only months away) and establishing new ones to strengthen language around fighting corruption (by creating an Inspector General), creating geographic parity in City Council representation (through the creation of Council Districts).

There are a lot of good changes in the Charter, and you can dig into them at this wonderfully thorough website created by two really dedicated Charter junkies:

But I am going to talk about the parts that directly address the environment.

The 1997 Charter revision established a new Environmental Affairs department, with some really awesome language:

"The purpose of this chapter is to conserve and protect the natural resources of the City of Detroit in the interests of the health, safety and welfare of the people, to promote improved social and economic conditions in the city and to protect limited environmental resources for the future benefit of city inhabitants."

WOW. And the very first item under that section read:

1. Develop and implement a coordinated and comprehensive environmental policy for the City of Detroit

If only they would. In any case, last year the Dept. of Environmental Affairs (DEA) got rolled into the Building Safety and Engineering Department, creating the Building Safety Engineering and Environment Department (BSEED). The new Revised Charter reflects that change, and removed the DEA while shifting all of its functions (plus a few more) into the renamed BSEED.

The new departmental "Powers and Duties" in the charter are:

11. Provide consultation with City departments regarding the implementation of any policies or programs concerning alternative and renewable energy

12. Administer and enforce all laws, ordinances and regulations relating to the use of land (“zoning”); and

13. Except as otherwise provided by law or this Charter, grant, revoke, or approve transfers of all licenses and permits required by any law or ordinance for any business and collect fees for licenses and permits

Here's another interesting section kept from the 1997 Charter:

Sec. 6-504. Conservation.
The Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department shall develop programs for the protection and conservation of natural resources within the City of Detroit.

Granted, I have only been in Detroit since 2008, so maybe this kind of thing is going on. But I don't know if all of the Environmental staff in the department are aware of their charter mandate!

And look!

Sec. 6-505.  Environmental Legislation.
The Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department shall propose new ordinances, laws and 
regulations to the Mayor, City Council and other governmental entities as appropriate for improvement 
of the quality of the environment and promotion of the mission of the Department. 

But did these things happen? Well, the new Revised Charter has a rather uncharacteristically toothy section requiring BSEED to study and implement a long-term strategic plan for the establishment, use and support of green initiatives, technologies and businesses, utilizing public and private partners. This plan would cover both municipal projects and operations, as well as citizen-led initiatives, be reviewed yearly, and require City Council approval for implementation. And some very strong teeth are written into this section - the study must be initiated within 3 months of the Revised Charter being approved, the plan must be completed within 6 months of the study and submitted to City Council for approval, and City Council is to create ordinances to implement the approved plan.

Wow. Sounds pretty good to me. Because timelines are written in, this duty shouldn't be so easy to ignore.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Midtown Whole Foods Brownfields Public Hearing - summary

So Sept 2, I was at the brownfields public hearing. I will try to remember correctly here what was shared. 


Location: John R & Mack, behind Ellington Lofts, where Starbucks, Kinko's, etc. are. Currently a closed Chase Bank and active Chase ATM. Site owner is working with Chase to find alternate location for ATM. 

Store Hours: 8am to 9pm

Size: 21,000 sq ft of shopping space

Access: Midtown Loop Phase II will go right by it (Phase II = Canfield from Cass to John R; John R from Canfield to Mack). Developer mentioned that John R and Mack in that area will be "improved."

Parking: There are 950+ parking spots in the closest structure, and currently around 700-750 of the spots are occupied daily during business hours. Parking will be validated with a shopping receipt. 

Total cost: $12 million

Public subsidy requested: $900,000 in Michigan Business Tax Credit

Reason for hearings: The proposed site is part of an area zoned as "Planned Development" (PD), which slates the area for a very specific type of development (mixed use apartment building). For Whole Foods to be built there, they need a modification to the PD. 

Brownfield Public Hearing: held today (Sept. 1) to take public comments back to the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, after which the project will go to City Council for public hearing Thurs. October 6 @ 10am. Present at today's meeting were (among others) several residents and nearby businesses, including Citybird, Raw Cafe, DSO, Atlas Bistro, Russell Street Deli. Comments today were 100% supportive of the project. 

Timeline: Plan to open doors at end of 2012 or first quarter of 2013. 

Public outreach: Once architectural/signage designs are ready, plan to have a series of at least 4 neighborhood presentations. Whole Foods has been reaching out to local businesses already as potential vendors/suppliers like Raw Cafe (whose proprietoress, btw, is a former City Planning Commission staffer) and Hacienda Foods. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

LEAD …. what you need to know to stay protected!

WHEN did lead first come on the scene?

Lead is a heavy metal that has some very attractive qualities: it is super malleable, but highly resistant to corrosion. So it was heavily used in pipes, buildings, etc. to protect from rust. Mixed into paint, lead helped paint dry faster, stay fresh longer, and resist the damaging effects of moisture. It was a miracle substance, basically.

Unfortunately, lead also turned out to be toxic to humans, damaging the nervous system, stunting growth and delaying brain development.

WHERE is lead’s main presence today?

Before 1978 when lead was banned, it was used in paint, children’s toys and household furniture. Even though it is now banned, things manufactured before 1978 could still contain lead. Before 1988, lead was used in household pipes and plumbing fixtures, and the lead in pipes or pipe soldering can leach into water that flows through the pipes. In 1988, Congress changed the Safe Drinking Water Act to restrict the use of lead in said components of used in public, residential and non residential plumbing, but it is unfortunately still found in pipes today.
1.       Lead based paint is a hazard if it is peeling, chipping, chalking or cracking. Lead-based paint that appears undisturbed can also be a problem if is its on surfaces that children chew or get a lot of wear and tear (i.e window sills, doors and door frames, stairs, railings, banisters, porches, etc.)

2.       Dust can become contaminated with lead when lead-based paint is dry or scraped and sanded. Lead chips and dust can gather on surfaces and objects that people don’t touch or that children put into their mouths.

3.       Soil can become contaminated when exterior lead-based paint from houses or buildings flake or peel and get into the soil. Soil near roadways may also be contaminated from past use of leaded gasoline in cars. This soil can be detrimental for planting vegetable gardens.  

4.       Older plumbing fixtures (i.e faucets, lead pipes, pipes connected with lead solder) can contaminate drinking water. Lead can leach into water at any temperature, but the amount of lead can be much greater when the water is hot or warm; boiling water will not get rid of the lead.

5.       Imported, non-glossy, vinyl mini blinds can be a lead hazard especially to young children. Sunlight and heat break down the blinds and release lead-contaminated dust particles into the air.

6.       Lead glazed ceramic ware, pottery and leaded crystal can contaminate food and liquids stored in them.
HOW does lead gets into the body … and what can happen when it gets there?
1.       Lead mainly enters the body through the mouth or nose, anyone can be affected by lead, but because children ages 6 and younger are developing rapidly, and tend to put more things in their mouths, lead is especially dangerous to them.

2.       Exposure to lead, even at low-levels, can permanently affect children. Low level affects of lead include brain and kidney damage, learning disabilities, poor muscle coordination, behavior and speech problems, decreased muscle and bone growth and hearing damage.

3.       High lead levels can cause fertility problems (in men and women), digestive problems, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problem and muscle and joint pain.
WHAT CAN I DO?! …. inform, protect and promote!
Inform yourself … is there lead in YOUR home?
The ONLY way of confirming whether or not there is lead in your home is to have either a risk assessment or a lead inspection done. (PUT ETC LINK HERE) Testing your water can be done by calling the EPA Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791 or your local health department or water supplier.
*According to the U.S census, 73.9 percent of Detroit’s homes were built before 1955, and are therefore likely to contain lead in places like painted walls and pipes.
What you can do to protect your family from lead poisoning?
Promoting safe practices can prevent lead poisoning …
Test yourself & your children! There is power in knowledge, and the best thing to do for any family member, regardless of age,  is to have the level of lead in that person’s body checked out.

1.       Make sure your children eat 3, healthy meals, a day. Meals should be high in calcium and iron and fatty foods should be avoided!
2.       Encourage children to play in grassy areas instead of dirt and wash their hands before they eat or sleep.
3.       Make sure children do not have access to peeling paint and do not chew on painted surfaces.
4.       Keep your home clean, wash children’s toys and bottles often.
5.       Teach your children about the dangers of lead.
If there is lead in the home, how do I get it out?
There are two ways to remove the lead: abatement and interim controls.
Abatement –permanently controls or gets rid of lead hazards in your home. It is broken down into four structural l components; replacement, enclosure, encapsulation and paint removal.
Interim controls –provide a useful and cheaper alternative for homes that cannot be abated right away. Controls include, removing lead dust, repainting lead-based surfaces, repainting friction and impact surfaces and preventing access to soil hazards.  *the EPA requires that you use a certified abatement contractor.
***In 2009, City Council passed a resolution requiring all landlords to have their rental properties inspected for lead. Before, the presence of lead in a home was only caught if a child was already found to be lead poisoned. It caused a stir among landlords because lead inspections are rather expensive (up to $300-400). Check back later for an update on how that initiative is going.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Greenovation TV

This is a pretty awesome website - short videos (about 3 min) about all kinds of green renovation projects - they feature real projects and explore issues like "what eco-labels can you trust" and "are some solar panels toxic?" The site also has blog articles to go along with the videos.

I think the best part is that Michigan is frequently featured in their videos. :) A recent one talks about deconstruction in Detroit, and features fellow local green jobs trainer GreenWorks Solutions.

Check it out!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Using fishbones to clean up lead?

Wow. Many of you may know that lead poisoning is a big, big issue in Detroit. Lead is present in older homes (built before the 1972 ban on lead paint) and in soil (back from when gasoline was leaded, from historic lead smelters, demolished houses and other sources). Exposure to lead can impair neurological development in small children, making them more aggressive and less likely to perform well in school. We have some of the highest rates of elevated blood lead levels in the state.

There are different ways to deal with lead contamination - hauling away soil, special lead removal or abatement in homes. But it's expensive.

A recent article in the New York Times (July 2011) describes the method of mixing ground fish bones to neutralize the toxic lead (they combine to form a different compound that the body can't absorb).

It's pretty fascinating - almost half the cost of hauling soil. Read more about it here:
And responses to reader questions:

Friday, August 12, 2011

The difference between "green space" and "green infrastructure"

Found on the City of Lansing's website for DesignLansing, its Comprehensive Plan process. 

What’s in a Name?
“The term green infrastructure was selected to emphasize its difference from traditional conservation practices and the need to change several popular perceptions about green space planning and protection.  Where-as green space is often viewed as something that is nice to have, the term green infrastructure implies something that we must have.  Protecting and restoring our nation’s natural life support system is a necessity, not an amenity. 
  • Where-as green space is often thought of as isolated parks, recreation sites or natural areas, the term green infrastructure emphasizes interconnected systems of natural areas and other open spaces that are protected and managed for the ecological benefits they provide to people and the environment.
  • Where-as green space is often viewed as self-sustaining, the term green infrastructure implies something that must be actively maintained and at times restored.” 
Green Infrastructure:
Smart Conservation for the 21st Century
Mark A. Benedict, Ph.D.
Edward T. McMahon, J.D. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shining the Limelight on a Local Green Business

Intern Taylor Daugherty interviewed a local business about their efforts to go green.

Riley’s Tax Service is a local small business in Detroit located at 17700 Fenkell Avenue. The business offers a full range of affordable services including tax return preparation, tax planning, workshops, problems resolution assistance and business services to individuals, businesses and tax-exempt organizations. Two years ago, president and CEO of Riley’s Tax Service, T.J Riley –Humphrey , decided to make the company “green.”

The first step was becoming a paperless office – which would be appear to be quite a difficult task for a tax service business, but Humphries said all most clients needed was a nudge in the right direction.

“We started encouraging our clients to save their tax folders to disks or flash drives. If people wanted to use paper folders they still could, but for an extra fee,” Humphrey said.

The next step was waste management. Humphrey contacted Margaret Weber with Rosedale Recycles about how to properly manage the business’ waste. They set up different bins for different types of recycling: a shredding bin, ink cartridge bin, plastic bin, etc.

The business also switched to a “day lighting” method. The direction the building faces brings in enough sunlight to light the entire front part of the building. So until dusk, all the lights in front of the building stay off.

Riley’s was in a bit of a pickle when it came to heating costs. They had an outward facing, un-insulated wall, which obviously made things colder. BUT with the assistance of Green Garage Detroit and a local builder who specializes in energy-efficient building, they conducted an experiment with an insulated paint called “Insuladd” (click here to see how the experiment was conducted!) To lower heating usage however, Humphrey decided to keep the thermostat at a constant temperature of 67 degrees. Humphrey and her employees wore long johns and made last tax-season’s uniform a Riley’s Tax Service sweatshirt in order to stay warm and comfortable.

The outcome of Humphrey’s efforts? A mere 2 bags of trash for the entire tax season (January to April), a $1oo light bill for the 1500 sq ft. space and lower energy costs.

But Riley’s Tax Service isn’t planning on stopping there. Humphrey is now looking at ways of reducing electrical usage without interrupting the computers, and turning the green spot outside of the building, into a vegetable garden. She is working with gardening projects such as Green Garage Detroit, D- Town Gardener (Rouge Park area) and the Palmer Park restoration group.

Greening your business, regardless of how small or large, is not a difficult task! As T.J. Riley discovered, a lot of small steps can generate a great deal of change.