Friday, February 10, 2017

City backpedals on South Charlotte Street “Brownfield”as affordable housing site

Suddenly adds two new locations as possibilities.  Changes follow AU story.
By Roger McCredie

After months of touting South Charlotte Street as the ideal place to spend $15 million in bond money for development of affordable housing – and getting public approval to do it – the city has announced it is now eyeing property at two other locations.

Following a Feb. 7 planning workshop, Asheville city council members and administrators said they will conduct development feasibility studies at locations on Biltmore Avenue and Riverside Drive, as well as at the Department of Public Works property on South Charlotte Street.

The change of plans occurred following a recent Asheville Unreported article in which a former public works employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, detailed the nature and extent of ground contamination at the South Charlotte Street site. (See “Bond’s Proposed Affordable Housing Site is ‘Toxic Swamp’,” January 28.)

The city now says it’s going to examine the old Matthews Ford property at 391 Biltmore Avenue and the old Asheville Ice House property at 91 Riverside Drive, in addition to the public works land.  And it wants to use proceeds from the recently-approved affordable housing bond to pay for the feasibility studies.

The city owns the Icehouse property, but the Biltmore Avenue property is owned by Duke Power Co.  The city has an option to purchase that site from Duke Power for a stated price of $5.3 million

Changing horses in midstream?

Development of the “South Charlotte Street Corridor,” as the city calls it, was, until the workshop, the only project the city had ever mentioned in its plans for the housing bond money.  (For that matter, no projects at all were identified when the city made the actual bond application.)  But it was the idea of repurposing the public works property for affordable housing that the city sold to Asheville voters in order to get its housing bond passed.    

The city’s vision for South Charlotte Street consists  – or up till now has consisted – of using incentives to entice a private developer to construct approximately 400 low income housing apartments on the public works site, once the existing building is razed and the site remediated.

Under that plan, $10 million of the housing bond’s value would go directly into the city’s housing trust fund; then, virtaully all of the remaining $15 million would be used to raze the existing public works building complex – the “Taj Garage,” which was just built in 1994 – and construct a brand new facility further down South Charlotte Street.

So, given the city’s determined pursuit of that idea, followers of the bond issue are now expressing surprise at the sudden inclusion of the two additional properties in the affordable housing mix, and say they are wondering exactly how the costs of three feasibility studies, as well as a possible land purchase, would impact those spending plans.

Especially since those costs would be in addition to the $500,000 that has been mentioned as the cost of cleaning up the site, which, it now appears, contains generations’ worth of solid waste infill as well as pesticide and leaded gasoline absorption.  The site is also bisected underground by an enormous, century-old culvert that, according to Asheville Unreported’s source, has never been upgraded or repaired and is “extremely fragile.”

“A known brownfield:” What does the city know, and how long has it known it?

After the Asheville Unreported toxic waste story appeared Mountain Xpress reporter Virginia Daffron said that Asheville Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball “has pointed out in public meetings that this site is a brownfield and would require remediation prior to public use.”

And a city of Asheville staff report says, in passing, “. "This specific initiative [South Charlotte Street] would also eliminate a known Brownfield’s [sic] site, therefore, eliminating a potential environmental concern."

But the general public, it seems, thinks the term “brownfield” is synonymous with “vacant lot” or at most designates a fallow area that will need some tidying up and preparation before being usable.  In fact, “brownfield” means something much more complicated to developers.  In the words of the State of North Carolina, “A ‘brownfields site’ is an abandoned, idled or underused property where the threat of environmental contamination has hindered its redevelopment.”

Moreover, the state has a program in place for the rehabilitation of such sites:

The North Carolina Brownfields Program, which is administered by the Division of Waste Management, is the state's effort to break this barrier to the redevelopment of these sites. The Brownfields Property Reuse Act of 1997 [NCGS 130A310.30 et seq.] sets forth the authority for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to work with prospective developers to put these brownfields sites back into reuse. The prospective developer, as defined under the statute, is any person who desires to buy or sell a brownfields property for the purpose of redeveloping it and who did not cause or contribute to the contamination at the property. (Source:  North Carolina Department of Waste Management; emphasis added)

In other words, the state would consider the city fully liable for the cleanup of any brownfield it intended to develop on its own, but would cut some slack to a third-party developer. In fact, the DWM goes on to say:

At the heart of the program is the brownfields agreement -- in effect, a covenant not-to-sue offered to a prospective developer of a brownfields property. Under a brownfields agreement, a prospective developer agrees to perform those actions deemed by the department to be essential to make the property suitable for the proposed reuse.

In return, the department agrees to limit the liability of the prospective developer to those actions described in the agreement. This allows the prospective developer to go to a lending institution with a defined, instead of an open-ended, liability for environmental cleanup. 

And finally:

The Act provides the department with the discretion to enter into brownfields agreements. Furthermore, it specifically states that there must be a 'public benefit commensurate with the liability protection provided' under the brownfields agreement.

“Public benefit” would of course include the construction of affordable housing.

Some have opined that by examining additional properties, the city is trying to hedge its position now that public awareness of the condition of the South Charlotte Street site has increased. Others say the city may have realized, post-referendum, that it was painting itself into a corner with the South Charlotte plan and felt the need to leave itself an out.

No affordable housing anytime soon

Brownfields, the DWM goes on to say, are notoriously expensive and time consuming to clean up, hence the break for developers.  And it is not yet known whether any contamination is present at the Biltmore Avenue and Riverside Drive street sites.

And at Tuesday’s workshop, Planning Director Cathy Ball indicated that studies and assessments of the various sites under consideration could take as much as a year.  Projected costs for them were not forthcoming.

From all this, analysts say, one thing is apparent: bond or no bond, there is no clear pathway at present towards relief of Asheville’s affordable housing crisis, in terms of either homes or rental units.


City's Affordable Housing Options - Pick Your Poison: Toxic Swamp vs. Floodway

In addition to the toxic swamp site the City first picked for its affordable housing location, the other site known as the former Ice House (91 Riverside Drive) is within the floodway.  The City would have to ask FEMA to lift the deed restrictions which currently are only for "open space and flood sensitive construction that supports park operations and/or riverfront recreation."  These deed restrictions are in place because the City purchased the land with FEMA money for $380,000 and because it is in a floodway, parks and recreation are the only allowed use.  Permanent housing for residents is considered hazardous.

The City's original intent was to keep this space as a park as written up in the 2014 Riverfront Redevelopment Plan, page 11.
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