City Planning Director Russell Claus is not big on surprises, especially those on land slated for massive city projects. But as he looks to the Core to Shore area south of downtown, Claus is getting prepared.
The most immediate change for the area is contingent on the upcoming December MAPS vote that, along with other projects around the city, would put a 70-acre park and possibly a new convention center in an area that includes vacant land, manufacturing, auto salvage sites and aging buildings stuffed with asbestos. Upgrades will also be required to utilities, an OG&E substation east of Robinson Avenue will have to be moved, and that land cleaned up for new development.
“We have been looking at alternate sites for that particular location as well as doing some rerouting of our transmission lines in the downtown area,” said OG&E spokesman Brian Alford.
Claus knows the Core to Shore area, but is also certain it is not a lost cause.
“That area has been industrial for so long; we just anticipate there will be issues there,” he said. “But primarily when you’re dealing with contaminated sites, the technology is so good these days that you can remediate anything.”
The city’s first foray into what the buildings in the area might hold was the 2008 City Council-approved acquisition of the former U.S. Postal Service main branch building, 320 S.W. Fifth.
The building is set to be razed, but before a single wall is knocked down, the building will require remediation of asbestos.
For that project and other nearby buildings with asbestos, the federal brownfields program could come into play ” and the term is no euphemism.
An area dubbed a brownfield is literally a piece of land or a building that is likely polluted and unsuitable for development in its current state.
The city has previously tapped brownfields dollars downtown at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel, the Dowell Center and the Bricktown police substation, which were doled out in a competitive process by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for remediation of environmental hazards.
Claus said brownfields could be one method of funding some asbestos abatement as the city looks to acquire more buildings to make way for the park and convention center.
Until the MAPS vote, however, acquisition of additional buildings is not the top priority, and since those buildings are privately owned, the city will look at individual environmental issues when negotiations to purchase those properties begin.
Claus is talking when, and not if, MAPS will pass, and said at that point a more serious review will begin to look at each building and parcel in the path of the park and convention center.
“When MAPS passes, we’ll be accelerating the acquisition process and then will ramp up our efforts to evaluate the area for potential brownfield issues,” he said.
And even if the sites are found to contain numerous contamination factors, Claus does not expect that to be a barrier to development. Even if some of the sites need extensive remediation, he does not anticipate that any of the areas will be deemed unusable, especially for the purposes of a park or convention center.
If old oilfield equipment, abandoned well sites or refinery leftovers happen to turn up, that cleanup could be done by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board.
“We work with them very closely,” Claus said. “They’ve been another useful tool.”
Although the Core to Shore area has its share of industrial contamination, to date the OERB has not identified any potential cleanup projects.
“We’re not aware of anything as of this date,” said Steve Sowers, environmental director for OERB. “But that’s not to say that it does not exist.”
Sowers said the OERB will work with the city if issues arise.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has jurisdiction over oil and gas issues. If oil and gas contamination is found in the Core to Shore area, as in any area of the state, the commission looks for a responsible party, and if none is found, can call on the OERB to assess the cleanup.
The worst case scenario for the area would be if it is declared a Superfund site ” the name given to a site by the EPA for abandoned hazardous waste sites ” a prospect Roy Williams, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber president and CEO, sees as unlikely.
Williams admits the park site is likely not pristine, but based on previous land usage there, and downtown in general, there is no reason to believe that land cannot be cleaned up and put to a new use.
“There have been no production or manufacturing processes, chemical or toxic spills, natural disasters or other factors that would create a Superfund site in downtown,” he said. “Superfund sites come from drastic causes, none of which have occurred in downtown.”
If taxpayers choose to approve MAPS, will there be any surprises or sticker shock if remediation and cleanup figure to be more costly than initially estimated? The park is estimated to cost $130 million, while the convention center is budgeted at $280 million. The site for the park is set, but the exact location of the convention center has not been determined.
Claus said those estimates include any site cleanup and remediation costs.
“If they’re more than we estimated, then we’ll have to trim the budget in some other way,” he said.
City leaders see the MAPS projects as a way to help transform a long-neglected area of downtown that many see as key to the city’s future and the connection between downtown and the Oklahoma River, as well as an opportunity to clean up old mistakes on that land, even if that means a few surprises along the way.
“People weren’t quite as diligent about environmental stewardship in the past,” Claus said. “That’s why we can’t be sure of what’s out there.” “Kelley Chambers
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