Old Minneapolis lumberyard needs $1 million-plus cleanup to be park

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2011 - 12:31 AM

Federal funds for the Minneapolis project must be spent by end of 2011.

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The view from the Plymouth Avenue Bridge of the old Scherer Brothers lumberyard, which is slated to become a park.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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A former lumberyard purchased for a future riverfront park contains lead, arsenic, mercury, petroleum and other hazardous compounds in its soil that will cost more than $1 million to clean up.

The 11.3-acre parcel, along the Mississippi River north of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge, is seen as a key piece of a long-range plan by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to dramatically reshape the mostly industrial corridor north of downtown into recreational green space.

Park officials said they had the land tested for pollutants ahead of time and knew it had problems when they bought it for $7.7 million in June 2010. Some of them could stem from uses on the site back to the 1880s. Park Board President John Erwin said the cleanup price tag comes as "no surprise."

Updated plans for the property, long occupied by Scherer Brothers Lumber Co., surfaced at a Park Board meeting earlier this month and are posted on the board's website. Sealed bids for the first phase of the cleanup were opened Thursday and are not public until they've been evaluated.

The Minneapolis Riverfront Development Initiative, working with community groups to develop riverfront plans, calls the property a vital "entry point to the trail and park system for kayaks, bikes, skiers and runners," and a "significant urban hub."

Legacy of pollution

It may not be the last time that pollutants are encountered in the push to redevelop much of the 5 1/2-mile stretch on both sides of the upper Mississippi between the Stone Arch bridge and the city's northern boundary.

"Because this was the industrial part of town along the river, this is where the pollution is," said Park Board Commissioner Liz Wielinski, who represents the area. "In order to reclaim this riverfront, we know we're going to have to do cleanup and it's just the cost of doing business."

Scherer Brothers owned the property since 1934. It's just north of Boom Island Park, on the northeast side of the Plymouth bridge. Different consulting firms took soil samples and analyzed them for various pollutants in 2009 and 2010 and found a number of "hot spots" that exceed state and federal standards.

The land contains six buildings, built between 1936 and 1985, that contain asbestos and lead paint. Soil contaminants came from underground petroleum tanks that leaked and at least one area where lumber was treated with hazardous compounds, said Cliff Swenson, the Park Board's director of design and project management. Other pollutants likely came from fill that was added over the decades and hazardous materials from coal storage, shingle firms and sawmills that occupied the land from as far back as the 1880s.

The job ahead

Most of the land is covered with asphalt or concrete, Swenson said, so contaminants in the top few feet of soil underneath are not suspected of polluting the river.

Cleanup costs involve demolishing buildings, removing the concrete and asphalt, excavating and disposing of contaminated soil and regrading the site.

Cleanup funds come from about $350,000 from a special environmental response fund from Hennepin County, and $1 million from federal economic stimulus funds.

Arlene Fried, co-founder of Minneapolis Park Watch, said her group of volunteer citizens raised concerns about cleanup costs before the Park Board bought the land. At the time, she said, the board approached the issue in a "sneaky" way and her group suspected a "sweetheart deal" would let the lumber company unload the polluted property at an advantageous price.

Those concerns subsided because "everyone felt it was such an important piece of property that everything else fell away," Fried said.

Erwin said an appraisal before the purchase confirmed that the negotiated price was reasonable and that getting the land and cleaning it up is a bargain for Minneapolis taxpayers.

"The acquisition costs and demolition and cleanup costs are not coming out of local property-tax dollars," he said. Virtually all of the purchase price is coming in installments from the state Legacy Fund, Erwin said, which taps a portion of state sales taxes dedicated to parks and trails.

End-of-year deadline

Gil Gabanski, who works for Hennepin County's contaminated lands unit, said the stimulus money must be spent by the end of the year, so the cleanup project is on a fast track. Removal of hazardous wastes from buildings and demolition will begin shortly after Labor Day, he said, with excavation and removal of contaminated soil to follow beginning about mid-October.

Some acreage that's farther from the river may become part of the envisioned regional park or could be sold eventually for residential, commercial or mixed-use development, according to long-range plans.

"That river, it's a gem," Wielinski said. "It's going to be a great place to have a lot of parks and make the river a focal point in the city again. I think that'll be fabulous."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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