Chapel Hill could soon replace its police department headquarters with a new government building.
But a controversial plan to also build affordable housing on the site, which contains buried coal ash, could be delayed.
Town Manager Maurice Jones told the Town Council on Tuesday that soaring construction costs, inflation and rising interest rates “pose a significant challenge to the proposed residential project” for the 10-acre site.
Town staff is now considering “a phased approach,” he said in an email, that would advance the town’s coal ash remediation project and construction of a new municipal services center housing police, fire and parks offices.
The town has been looking for a site for a new building for over a decade, because the current police station at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. is outdated and in disrepair. Roughly $34 million in future bond money has been allocated for the project.
Jones noted that affordable housing or some commercial development could be planned for the site at a later time.
The change in plans also will give town staff more time to look at potential affordable housing development on other town-owned land on Plant Road, near Community Center Park, he said.
“As you know, replacing the current police station with the new Municipal Services Center is a top priority for our organization,” Jones said in the email. “We believe this phased process will allow us to address health and safety concerns on the site and provide quality working space for our staff in a timely manner.”
The discussion will return to the council this fall.
Coal ash studies, talks continue
Although the town needs affordable housing, the idea of building apartments on top of coal ash has galvanized residents to join Council member Adam Searing in opposing the idea.
The town discovered the coal ash in 2013 while assessing the police station and other public properties for future use. The coal ash, presumably from UNC’s coal-fired power plant on Cameron Avenue, was used to fill construction dirt pits in the 1960s.
The town didn’t now about the ash when it bought the property in the 1980s and built the police station, officials have said.
Two options for addressing the concerns have been suggested, both requiring the town to work with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality through its Brownfields Program. The program would let the town build apartments and commercial buildings on the site, but a market study suggested last year that commercial development is not viable.
The council’s first step is deciding how to remediate the land.
▪ One option would replace a large portion of the coal ash with clean soil. That would be capped with buildings and pavement, and a retaining wall built into the hill would keep the soil in place. The cost: $3 million to $5 million.
▪ The other option would remove and replace all of the contaminated soil, increasing the cost to $16 million or more. Roughly 5,000 dump truck loads of dirt would be buried in a licensed landfill in another county.
Searing, residents and advocacy groups want a full cleanup, citing human health risks from heavy metals that have been detected. They oppose any residential construction.
Ken Reiter, president of Carrboro-based developer Belmost Sayre, said earlier this year that the town could relocate police to a temporary site and demolish the current building by 2024. The municipal center, if approved, would take two years to build, he said.
However, the project is not a done deal, town and state DEQ officials have said. Jones said town staff worked over the summer with DEQ and with Hart & Hickman, the town’s environmental consultants. They are continuing to monitor the site and do more testing at the state’s request, he said.
The results could be ready in a couple of months, Jones said.
A draft Brownfields agreement, once written, would be posted at least 30 days for public comment, and the council would hold many more meetings before any economic development agreement or construction plan is approved.
For more information about the 828 MLK project and the coal ash issue, go to tinyurl.com/4m5c6yc4.
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