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City of Monroe Goes Back to the Future With New Urbanism Redevelopment Called Mason Run

By James M. Harless, PhD, CHMM

Location: Monroe, Southeast Michigan
Population: 22,076

New Urbanism:
| new ur·ban·ism | noun

1. also known as Traditional Neighborhood Design, New Urbanism is a growing movement that recognizes walkable, human-scaled neighborhoods as the building blocks of sustainable communities and regions. They typically embody some of the spirit of older neighborhoods, and feature a range of housing types, narrower streets and sidewalks that encourage the interaction of neighbors, front porches, corner stores, and plenty of mature trees to make the place feel rooted, as though it has been there for a while. This style of development is ecologically friendly, and reduces pressures from suburban residential sprawl.


Mason Run, a sustainable residential redevelopment, is one of the largest New Urbanism projects constructed on an urban brownfield site in the nation. The development is having and will continue to have, profound economic and social impacts on the city of Monroe. The project team, including the city, Crosswinds Communities, Soil and Materials Engineers, Inc., and others developed innovative brownfield financing strategies, creative environmental response programs, and cost-effective site preparation strategies to transform a 45-acre abandoned paper mill site owned by the city into a charming, vibrant community. The project has spanned nearly a decade and has been conducted in six phases.


The city and project team faced several hurdles to make the project possible. Challenges included finding more than $7 million to finance environmental response actions needed to prepare the site for redevelopment, addressing the presence of cinder/ash fill blanketing the site, remediating contaminated soil, removing buried plant basements, tackling numerous constructability issues, and facilitating coordination with public and private stakeholders. City Manager George Brown reflected on the changes the project has made to the city of Monroe, “Just the removal of obsolete and blighted industrial facilities, along with the remediation activities that helped make the site suitable for reuse, has had a huge positive impact on our community.” 

Sustainable Redevelopment

Primary environmental concerns were management of the cinder/ash fill and material, and the buried basements. Coal residuals and soil in other areas of the site also were contaminated with hazardous substances, and some commingled residual petroleum from historic underground fuel tanks.

The city and project team worked diligently to make Mason Run an exemplary sustainable brownfield redevelopment. It is characterized by a density of approximately seven homes per acre, front porches and sidewalks to promote community, detached garages on alleys, traditional architecture reflective of the Monroe community, a mixture of home sizes and costs to foster family diversity, and community parks. In the New Urbanism tradition, more than 10 percent of the land in the development has been set aside for landscaped parkland and green space for residents and the Monroe community.

The site had historically been used for manufacturing paperboard packaging materials, a process that required large amounts of water, sewer, and electrical capacity. In fact, the existing infrastructure, including streets, sewers, water mains, and utilities were wholly adequate to support the development, saving Monroe millions of dollars in infrastructure costs.

The design process for Mason Run began with identification of the types of traditional architecture and neighborhood designs that created the fabric of the city. Community involvement began with a series of public charrettes to collect input about all aspects of the content, layout, design, etc. The predominant architectural styles found in Monroe and selected for the development include Colonial Revival, Victorian, and Craftsman.

Since many municipal development codes and ordinances have not been developed with traditional design and development in mind, a pattern book was created to establish site design and development requirements. In this way, as Mason Run has been built over time in phases, it maintains a wonderful consistency and rich architectural variety.

Innovative Solutions

The city and project team worked hand-in-hand to resolve a myriad of challenges.

  • Zoning
    Although existing master plans and zoning laws can make it difficult to develop neighborhoods where a loaf of bread and a library are just a walk away, city departments worked together to successfully overcome that obstacle. Mason Run is a Planned Unit Development whose design and construction criteria are defined in its pattern book.

  • Creative Use of Existing Materials
    Formidable physical and financial barriers to redevelopment included the presence of two feet of cinder/ash wastes covering approximately 42 acres of the site, and 350,000 square feet of buried industrial basements, pits, footings and foundations. The initial cost estimate for preparing the site was approximately $9-$10 million. The traditional approach of removing and disposing the waste in a landfill and replacing it with clean fill was too costly and was not considered a sustainable solution. Instead, the team designed an alternate solution to swap the cinder/ash fill for clean soil from beneath roads and parks in the development. This sustainable approach reduced environmental and human health risks, reduced resource use, and saved more than $2.5 million in response costs, making the project economically viable!

  • Creative Brownfield Financing
    To mitigate environmental and site preparation costs, the team developed a creative funding program using multiple, leveraged brownfield financing. The team successfully acquired and managed approximately $7.4 million in brownfield financing through federal, state, and local grants and loans. The complex financing package was structured to correspond to the five remediation/construction phases of the project. Loans will be repaid through tax increment financing; when the loans and interest from the project are repaid by the borrowers, the city will have $2.4 million to support other brownfield projects.

  • Constructability Issues
    During construction, the team addressed numerous constructability challenges, including the removal of fill, subsurface concrete structures, former wastewater treatment facilities, pipes, utilities, contaminated soil, and other debris. Careful planning was required to replace the excavated basements with clean fill where future homes would be built and with cinder/ash fill where roads and parks would lie. Additionally, demolition and remediation specifications required maximum reclamation/recycling of materials removed from the site to maximize the sustainability of site preparation activities. More than 50,000 tons of concrete, steel, and other materials have been recycled.

Economic Benefits

350,000 square feet of excavated basements were replaced with clean fill where future homes would be built, and with cinder/ash fill where roads and parks would lie.

The former Consolidated Packaging Corporation property was owned by the city of Monroe and generated no tax revenues. To date, approximately 120 homes have been constructed adding needed housing stock to the community and significantly increasing the annual tax revenues to the city. The increased population in the area is also supporting service/retail development in the city. Like any residential development in the current economic climate, Mason Run is having trouble attracting home buyers. It’s anticipated that once this economic slump passes, construction will rise, and the development will continue to produce significant social and economic rewards.

Redevelopment of this site is having a positive effect on property values in the adjacent established neighborhoods. Mason Run’s network of tree-lined streets connects to adjacent neighborhoods, creating a seamless addition to the city fabric. “The fact that a traditional neighborhood was developed on this site, which attracted additional homeowners who have displayed pride in their homes and neighborhood, has made a real contribution to our city’s vitality,” said City Manager Brown.

Mason Run stands as a shining example of what can be accomplished through brownfield redevelopment. It’s a successful New Urbanism development that performs a difficult balancing act by maintaining the integrity of a walkable, human-scale neighborhood, while offering modern residential “product” and amenities. Its design is a creative solution to rebuilding a brownfield site into a charming, vibrant community.

Mason Run team members accepting the CREW-Detroit Award (l-r) Mayor C.D. “Al” Cappuccilli, James Harless (SME), City Manager George Brown, Ehrlich Crain (Crosswinds Communities), Mike Gifford (USEPA Region V), and Nicole Andriani (Crosswinds Communities).

Mason Run Development in City of Monroe Gets Regional and National Attention; Brownfield Renewal Award

This project demonstrates that owners of industrial, commercial, and brownfield properties can economically redevelop those properties rather than abandoning them. Mason Run has received multiple awards for redevelopment excellence, including the 2009 Brownfield Renewal Award in the Social Category from Brownfield Renewal magazine, a 2008 Economic Development Excellence Award from the International Economic Development Council, an Environmental Excellence Award from the Michigan Association of Environmental Professionals, and an IMPACT Award in the Redevelopment Category from


James M. Harless, PhD, CHMM, is vice president/principal of Soil and Materials Engineers, Inc. You may contact him at 734-454-9900 or



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