South End’s troubled environmental past still haunts development

South End’s troubled environmental past still haunts development
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Before South End became one of Charlotte’s hottest neighborhoods, it was an industrial wasteland.

For decades, factories, distributors, auto shops, gas stations and dry cleaners — many long-abandoned — dominated the landscape down South Tryon and South Boulevard. All that activity generated tons of chemicals that seeped into the soil and groundwater just south of Charlotte’s center city.

To make South End the flourishing area it is today, developers have pumped millions of dollars into rehabilitation and cleanup.

At least 30 property owners have reached agreements with the state that paved the way for redevelopment — including popular spots like Atherton Mill and the 1616 Center next to Price’s Chicken Coop.

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Roughly another dozen South End properties are somewhere in the long and winding process that allows contaminated properties to be refurbished.

The Agenda reviewed files for nearly two dozen properties in South End that had been identified as potentially contaminated.

They provide an astonishing look at just how much work has gone into reversing South End’s industrial past to make way for new development. They provide insight into why projects get delayed.

And they illustrate a tremendous success story for the North Carolina program that helps developers reclaim damaged properties.

“We’ve got a lot of successful projects in that area, definitely,” said Tracy Wahl, a supervisor with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

From “blighted” to burgeoning

That South End has an industrial legacy won’t come as a surprise to even the greenest newcomer to Charlotte; warehouses and auto shops still dominate large stretches of South Boulevard.

What’s now known as South End was a primary site in the Charlotte-area gold rush of the early 1800s, and was home to the first industrial park in the 1890s. Charlotte Pipe & Foundry opened in 1901 and numerous other manufacturing companies followed.

But as manufacturing stumbled across the South, so to did it in South End. By the 1980s and 90s, the area was widely considered “blighted,” according to design firm Shook Kelley, and full of dilapidated buildings and overgrown lots. Shook Kelley was one of the primary drivers behind the South End brand, alongside entrepreneur Gaines Brown and real estate developer Tony Pressley. They helped recruit small companies attracted by cheap rent.

The LYNX Blue Line light rail spurred more interest and investment, and South End is now one of the hottest areas of the city for apartment developers and restaurateurs.

In many ways, this history helped South End become what it is today. Old warehouses have become natural homes for start-up breweries that lend the neighborhood much of its identity. And there’s been plenty of cheap and vacant land for the apartment developments that have sprouted up block by block.

But this past has also provided one an impediment to development.

The redevelopment of the 1990s likely would not have happened without a significant environmental law from the state legislature — North Carolina’s brownfields program.

The brownfields program was created in 1997 and protects developers who have acquired land that was contaminated by past owners or tenants. Basically, the state agrees not to sue the developer if the company takes specific steps to make the land suitable for redevelopment.

The process generally takes 18 months to work through, and full site cleanup is extremely expensive. But going through it is nearly always required as a condition of getting financing for new development.

The first property in the state to go through it was in South End: the former Nebel Knitting Annex, which became the Design Center of the Carolinas.

Redevelopers were able to work through contaminated groundwater linked to the former hosiery manufacturing operations to create a workspace for more than 100 companies.

A laundry list of chemicals

The Design Center projected touched off a long list of rehabs, redevelopments and cleanups.

In the process, state regulators and environmental consultants have ginned up tens of thousands of pages of reports and created an inventory of the multitude of chemicals residing in the soil and water.

Developer Pollack Shores is using the program to manage the arsenic and lead cleanup that will allow for a $70 million investment in new apartments on West Tremont Avenue. The property is the former home of the Charlotte Oil and Fertilizer Company and the Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company.

Rendering of the Pollack Shores apartments planned for West Tremont Avenue.

A property across Hawkins Street from Sycamore Brewing has used the program to renovate an abandoned warehouse into office condos now home to the MODE branding agency. The building’s former life was as DynaTech, a chrome
electroplating business that flushed the ground with chromium and chlorinated solvents.

The property now home to the Camden Gallery apartments went through an extensive cleanup to turn it from vacant land to a $55 million community. Through its history, it had been occupied by a private garage, industrial sewing machine company, automotive repair shop, painting contractor, air conditioning equipment distributor, office furniture refurbisher, and a plantation shutter shop. Somewhere down the line, the soil and groundwater became contaminated by petroleum, cadmium and hydrocarbons.

camden-gallery-south-end-view

The Seneca Place Shopping Center at 5033 South Boulevard is another example.

The property applied to the brownfields program as more than half of its square footage languished without tenants. But the owners couldn’t get financing to spruce the place up because of environmental concerns.

Their application to the program listed numerous contaminants.

  • A 1950s-era gas station leached petroleum from an underground storage tank into the soil.
  • A dry cleaner poorly handled its solvents, spreading tetrachloroethylene into the groundwater.
  • A refinery was linked to the presence of benzene, xylenes, trichloroethene (TCE), dichloroethylene, dichloro propane, chlorophenol, phenol, and methylphenol in the soil.

The list continues all up and down South End and beyond.

This isn’t in Charlotte’s past. Far from it.

As development continues down the South Boulevard and South Tryon Street corridor, more projects are becoming part of the brownfields program.

Lidl, the German grocery, is currently in the midst of that process for its proposed South End store. The state is still working on assessments as part of the program. It’s unclear whether difficulties with cleanup have contributed to progress being paused on the store.

From all accounts, the brownfields program has been a success in South End. The environment gets cleaned up. The taxpayer investment is minimal.

And Charlotte gets fewer blighted properties and more shiny new buildings.

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