UNCG moves slowly to clean up burned houses

by Eric Ginsburg

Before the leaves changed and the temperature dropped, before most people began thinking about their Halloween costumes and before midterms, the Greensboro Fire Department began burning down houses owned by UNCG to make way for the school’s expansion into the Glenwood neighborhood. The controlled burns, which were used as training for the department and saved UNCG demolition costs, started in late September, and UNCG initially planned to begin fencing off the area in mid-December. For over three months, the rubble from burned down properties clustered on a few blocks just south of Lee Street on Union, Silver, Gregory and Highland has remained. Six houses have been burned in total, with some turning into unofficial dumpsites for trash and yard waste, insulation blowing across the street and a few wooden staircases remaining in place. Neighborhood residents agree the rubble is unsightly and has remained too long, though they vary in their level of concern, but even UNCG Associate Vice Chancellor Mike Byers said he understands the frustration. “If I lived in the neighborhood it would feel like we weren’t moving quickly enough to be mindful of our work,” he said. The initial plan to fence off the entire area was set for mid-December, but Byers said they began on Jan. 5, soon after increased complaints from residents and a few television news stories. The fencing process will take weeks, he said, but would put the unsightliness out of plain view. Some residents are upset the process has already taken so long, and wondered about a health risk from all the burnings. Ben Holder, an outspoken resident who has made a name for himself advocating for the area, said the lack of cleanup contributes to depression, crime, invites people to dump their waste and could pose health risks. “It’s like a warzone. You know why it’s over here — because it can be,” Holder said. “Even if the whole neighborhood says it was okay, it’s not okay with me.” He said he would like to take the debris and rubble and dump it on Byers’ desk after he called and spoke with him on the phone. Holder questioned if residents were warned, what the clean up plan was, if asbestos abatement was completed and how much the school saved by letting the fire department burn the properties instead of paying to demolish them. The Greensboro Fire Department burned six properties owned by UNCG for training, though they were approved to burn down 12, at no cost to the university. It is unclear how much the demolitions would have otherwise cost. Captain Chuck Hall with the training division said the burns are the best training firefighters receive, and that the buildings are inspected for asbestos first and if any is found it is removed. “The paperwork that goes along with this is incredible,” Hall said. “It really encompasses every level of fire department training. If we aren’t allowed to train it is difficult for us to be prepared on the scene.” Pat Wylie, an industrial hygiene consultant with the health hazards control unit at the NC Dept. of Health & Human Services, said the proper paperwork was filed for the six burned properties, including asbestos abatement. When the fire department burns down a building for training, Hall said nearby residents are typically notified, but in this case it was the university’s responsibility to contact Glenwood residents. The school is also responsible for the cleanup. “I was a little shocked I didn’t have any forewarning about this, as a resident of the neighborhood and a student,” said UNCG senior Sara O’Brien, who has lived in the neighborhood off and on for five years. “It was a little disheartening that they weren’t letting anybody know it was happening. It’s not that much of a surprise because of the way Glenwood is treated by the city, and now the school, in general.” Carly Kester, who lives on the same street as one of the burned houses, said it made sense to use the houses for training for the fire department but that the school should have cleaned it up by now. “It’s pretty depressing and breeds a sentiment for low worth, which is kind of a card that this area has been dealt,” said Kester, who also wasn’t notified about the burns. “It reflects… or re-highlights to me the value they place on the community. It sends a pretty clear message about how they feel.” Byers said the school owns the area immediately surrounding the burned properties, meaning people haven’t been looking out their front door directly at a remaining foundation [and that the university can fence off the entire area] He said they contacted residents living immediately adjacent to the area and the neighborhood association, and while some association members expressed concern about the speed of the cleanup, Byers said the process has moved relatively quickly. “We’ve absolutely not been negligent in the three months after the first burn,” he said. “I feel like doing it in three months is moving fairly responsibly.” Glenwood resident Brian Higgins said he doesn’t think UNCG has handled the burns or cleanup maliciously and that the eyesore is temporary. “I don’t think anybody is glad it looks the way it does,” Higgins said. “There are five other homes that I know off the top of my head that have been burned, one as long as eight years ago, and so at least these were burned all the way to the ground. We have so many other issues that this does not merit a big deal.” Demolishing the properties would cost approximately $3-4 per square foot, according to Byers and an employee of DH Griffin demolition. Byers said the houses range from 700 to 1200 square feet, meaning the burns saved UNCG between $2,100 and $4,800 each, though it will still have to pay for demolition on the remaining foundation and debris.   With the help of Preservation Greensboro, which moved three houses, five houses have been moved out of the area while material from many others has been salvaged. Thanks to the moves, salvaging and burns, Byers said an estimated 400 tons of waste has been diverted from a landfill. The multiple block area immediately south of Lee Street is only the first phase of its expansion into the neighborhood and includes over 50 parcels of property UNCG owns. Upon completion, the area will host 800 beds for student housing and four other buildings.