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ENVIRONMENTAL HURDLE

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by Jeff Sykes

City reaches brownfields agreement with state for South Elm project

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

City planners in Greensboro are close to completing a brownfields agreement with state regulators that would clear a major hurdle for the Union Square at South Elm redevelopment project.

The brownfields agreement covers 15 parcels acquired by the Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro that make up 6.8 acres being marketed for a transformative mixed-use project by the South Elm Development Group.

Project boosters, including SEDG, Union Square Campus Inc, and the Downtown Greenway also announced a community meeting set for Sept. 30 on the campus of Bennett College.

SEDG partner Bob Chapman was on hand for last week’s redevelopment commission meeting to hear details of the brownfields agreement. City staff explained that the state authorized brownfields program allows potential developers of a once polluted piece of land to make future use of the site.

Since the South Elm Street Redevelopment Plan was adopted by city council in 2007, the redevelopment commission has assembled the 15 parcels that make up the project footprint.

The city has worked with the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources since that time to identify and remove sources of contamination. Crews have removed storage tanks that once held gas, diesel and other liquids, both above and below ground, from several of the parcels. More than 3,000 tons of contaminated soil has been removed from the site since 2009.

For the past 18 months the city has worked with DENR officials to develop the agreement document, which, when executed, will be attached to the deed of each piece of land and govern what future development may take place.

Dyan Arkin, senior planner with the city of Greensboro, said staff had been hurrying to keep the brownfields agreement in front of the Union Square Campus Inc. project’s evolution. Arkin said that the USCI has since slowed their timetable, allowing staff “a tiny bit of a breather.”

The brownfields agreement is available for public comment for 30 days, a period which ends on Sept. 28. If no public opposition to the plan surfaces, it would be executed with DENR and then attached to the deed of each parcel.

City staffer Elizabeth Link, who worked on the agreement, explained that the document spells out exactly what type of development can take place on the property. Developers are allowed to construct uses that equate to the amount of cleanup done on the site. The agreement also seeks to prevent additional contamination and minimize public exposure to remaining pollutants. Vapor from polluted groundwater is a primary concern at this site.

The document outlines the history of each parcel, noting that the area first developed in the late 1800s for single family homes and commercial uses. Businesses in the project area have included a bakery, fuel distribution and gas stations, auto body and repair shops, a print shop, and a large coal yard.

The project area is divided into two blocks, with Block 1 being west of South Elm Street. Block 2 is east of South Elm.

The only project currently being developed is the Union Square Campus, located in Block 2. The former McDonald Property, the site was once a gas station and then a fish market. A second section of the parcel was once an auto repair shop and then the Jones Brothers Bakery, built in the central part of the site in 1920. The site once contained several underground tanks, believed to have held fuel oil to operate the bakery and run delivery trucks.

In 2002, soil samples turned up diesel, gas, oil and other petroleum compounds in excess of DENR’s groundwater standards. In 2008, investigators determined that part of the contamination was occurring offsite. The city purchased the site in 2008 and removed two 5,000- gallon storage tanks and a 280-gallon heating oil tank. Three hydraulic fluid cylinders, and hydraulic lifts used in the automobile service station were also removed.

The city removed 1,800 tons of contaminated soil from this parcel alone.

Staff member Link explained that the brownfields agreement would allow for development other than a daycare or single family homes. The agreement allows educational, commercial, high density residential or hotel usage.

“Part of this is so that anybody that buys the land knows that this is a brownfields site and knows what the contaminants are and what the usage restrictions are,” Link said. If a future property owner wanted to put a daycare or single family homes on the site, the brownfields agreement would have to be renegotiated and a much higher level of cleanup would be required.

A second part of the agreement deals with the environmental management plan required during future construction.

“It will deal with how things will be dealt with on site during construction,” Link said. “If dirt has to be removed, or dirt dug up for foundations, or if groundwater is encountered, or if they find a tank they did not know about, it spells out how those will be dealt with on site.”

Link said that the city recently tested the USCI site and found that levels of remaining contamination were very low.

“They were for the most part not at a level that would be threatening or require mitigation,” Link said.

USCI is currently negotiating with the city to transfer this parcel of land to them for free. Such a move would lower the development costs for the nonprofit, which plans to build a unified campus.

Community organizations have pledged about $6 million toward the estimated $40 million cost of the Union Square Campus. The project, which envisions a unified campus among Cone Health, NC A&T State University, UNCG and GTCC, will include a healthcare training facility, in addition to office and classroom space. State lawmakers recently included $2 million allocated to the UNC Board of Governors to go specifically to the project.

Part of the brownfields agreement also requires an annual compliance statement. Staff discussed how this would work once the land is transferred.

“There is the possibility that the city will be the owner of one of the parking decks, in which case we would be involved in the owner’s association,” Link said. “We could take the lead in making sure that everybody is in compliance with these reporting requirements.”

The city is also looking to have the reporting requirements outlined in the future sales development agreement.

Chapman, of SEDG, said during the meeting that developers were excited when the most recent testing samples came back positive.

“The really good news is that the testing that took place on the corner of South Elm and Lee streets, where the Union Square Campus will be, came out much better than we anticipated,” Chapman said. “It is saving them a couple of dollars per square foot for not having to put in vapor barriers or having to do active mitigation.”

Arkin said that the city planned to retest the reminder of the redevelopment site.

“We anticipate it will come back positive since this is the area we thought would be the worst,” Arkin said. “That will be a really nice selling point for future developers. It gives them one more level of comfort and one less level of restriction that they are going to have to follow.” !

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