Tales from the Underground: Presentation and Q&A

At our RiverMatters panel discussion in April, Tales from the Underground, we had three invited guests talk about redeveloping contaminated soil in Minneapolis and across the state. If you missed the presentation or are interested in learning more, you can download the presentation below. Pictured: Natalie Brown of Minnesota Brownfields, D’Angelos Svenkeson of Thor Development, Mary Sands of Barr Engineering and MRP’s Kathleen Boe.

We also took questions from the audience, and a selection of those follows:

Q: How did Thor engage First Avenue in this partnership? What’s their role in the Upper Harbor Terminal project?

D’Angelos Svenkeson: First Avenue is a co-development partner, so United, First Avenue and Thor are all equal partners in the new entity that’s forming to redevelop the entire site. Their bread and butter is the music venue and also the destination space around it, but they’re an equal partner in the project.

The river and the Lowry Ave. bridge crossing, from 1937-2012.

Q: What happens to all the decontaminated soil that you take out of a site? Where does that go and how does that get taken care of?

Mary Sands: Usually it goes to a landfill. In some cases there might be some reuse that you can do on-site — you could put it in a berm that maybe is covered with some cleaner material — but the simple answer is more of the time it goes to a landfill.

Q: What’s the possibility and use of tax increment financing (TIF) in brownfield cleanup, or cleanup along the river?

Svenkeson: TIF is structured in three buckets. There’s one which allows for infrastructure improvements. Will soil corrections count as infrastructure improvements because of contamination is probably a political discussion for the municipality doing the financing.

Q: The riverfront is within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Are there specific limitations that that imposes in terms of building height?

Rory Stierler, National Park Service: We don’t have any federal oversight on what could happen for redevelopment. We work with the state through the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area program and there are restrictions regarding buildings, setback from the river, bluffs. The Upper Harbor is in an urban mixed district, which has a 65-foot height limit, but additional height can be granted through a use permit.

Svenkeson: As a development team we’ve been tracking who we have to get approval from or meet with for the project plan, and so far we’re at more than 25 bodies. Some of them are community organizations, some are districts who have authority, and all the way through the federal level.

Q: If we get a handle on the scope of the contamination along the northern part of the riverfront, both the magnitude and type, then it might allow for some strategies to evolve from that. Won’t knowing that help us go forward in a more systematic way?

Svenkeson: I agree. 40 acres is a pretty substantial part of the district. The initial studies are showing very little has happened on the site since farmland to city barge traffic. But we know that the surrounding area is so different that without the context of a district-wide look at it, we may be underestimating what’s actually happening.

Sands: We’ve seen the plans that you have for developing the Upper Harbor. As those get more solidified, what would typically happen is you’d have that initial investigation that you describe. But you really need to look at another investigation. Once you know a specific use, where your stormwater ponds are, where some of the other features are, your investigation would be focused to understand that you’ve characterized the soil where you’ll be excavating. I think we can all acknowledge that we can do a very thorough investigation and contamination still does crop up. The recognition that more investigation does need to be performed is a starting point. And there does need to be some sort of relief fund that helps when you get into an unknown situation. There are opportunities for developers to go back to some of those granting funds, but that doesn’t necessarily help the cash flow – you have to pay for those services and then wait for reimbursement in some cases.

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