Enmarket Arena parking lot delays linked to toxic waste

Once finished, parking still a ‘temporary solution’
Published: Apr. 7, 2022 at 4:38 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The lack of parking and ongoing road construction around the new Enmarket Arena for the past two months has been a painful reminder of the city’s slow progress with a public parking lot.

“Driving here, the traffic. I don’t think the streets here are made for an event like this,” said Kendall Witmore, who attended the John Mulaney comedy show in Savannah last week. “Parking was kind of a nightmare.”

For others, the route to the new arena has been confusing, especially at night.

“I think we were waiting just for 20 or 30 minutes just to turn around so we could find our spot. It was crazy. It was a lot,” said Jasmine Dorset, outside the arena after the show ended.

The Enmarket Arena opened mostly on schedule more than two months ago, but construction of a 2,000-space surface parking lot has lagged because of what experts keep finding beneath the surface: hazardous industrial chemicals known as PCBs.

The 22-acre site, once part of a scrap metal yard where cars were crushed, has required extensive environmental testing and remediation. The testing process has taken the most time because it involved drilling core samples, said Bill Anderson, senior vice president of Terracon Consultants. He explained the prescribed process once PCBs are discovered.

“You know, not only 10 feet horizontally, but every foot, foot and a half, three foot, five foot, seven foot beneath the surface, so we can map out the entire area that’s been impacted,” he said.

There’s enough impact on site that the EPA and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division have designated the land as a Brownfield, Anderson said.

PCBs have been known to cause cancer if ingested over a long period of time.

The toxic chemicals are no surprise to city leaders who have known about it for years.

“It’s just been a lot bigger of a project I think than we were anticipating when we headed into it,” said Bret Bell, Chief Operating Officer for the City of Savannah. “We still would have done it, but we would have given ourselves a new timeline to do it.”

The city along with its contractors have been working closely with environmental officials on a plan to remediate the industrial waste, Bell said, which includes grant funding to pay for it. Right now, they’re focused on a plan for the back half of the property – a mostly wooded area.

As for the new parking area that’s expected to open on the land beginning tomorrow, the environmental remediation is finished. The city received approval to cap the industrial waste in place underneath the soil. A cap is an engineered barrier that protects it from leaching into groundwater.

“There will be an environmental covenant that places with this property and that would prevent future development into a residential neighborhood or prevent someone from putting a drinking water well through the contamination,” Anderson said.

The land, however, can be used for commercial development, including a parking lot, which isn’t expected to be fully completed until early fall, said Bret Bell, Chief Operating Officer for the City of Savannah. He’s overseeing the arena development.

“It’s just been a lot bigger of a project I think than we were anticipating when we headed into it,” he said. “We still would have done it, but we would have given ourselves a new timeline to do it.”

The parking lot project started is about a $9 million project being paid for with the City of Savannah’s parking enterprise fund, but Bell acknowledged it could end up costing more because of the time it’s taken to get it done.

He wasn’t ready to provide an updated estimate on the cost of the parking lot because, he said the city is still waiting on test results for the northern half of the land where most of the soil contamination was found.

“Right now, we don’t have a great estimate until we actually start digging in there and figure out how many truckloads of material we have to move off and ship to the hazardous materials landfill,” he said. “We’ll have that number within the next month or so.”

New infrastructure encouraging private development

At $9 million, each parking spot in the lot is expected to cost about $4,500 to build. The estimates for building a parking garage worked out to about $37,000 per parking space or about $75 million, he said.

In that scenario a surface lot is less expensive, but as WTOC Investigates learned the $9 million parking lot is a temporary plan to prime the land for a new parking garage, one day.

“We don’t want this to be a sea of parking, long term,” Bell said. “Our initial plans were to do a shared structure parking with private development,” Bell said.

The initial plan didn’t work out. In 2019, the City Council under Mayor Eddie DeLoach signed a 10-year lease with the property owner. The council amended the deal in May of 2020 to lower the annual lease payments to $525,000.

The city and property owner agreed to lower the lease payments, Bell said, after initial environmental testing in February of 2020 determined the industrial contamination was more extensive than first thought.

As a part of the terms of the lease, the city also will reimburse the owner for the liability insurance of running a public parking lot and any increases in ad valorem taxes. Those payments began a year ago.

“By doing the parking lot, which we consider a temporary solution,” Bell said. “It allows us to do infrastructure improvements to widen the canal to do road improvements out there, which is encouraging private development.”

As an example of the private development planned for the area, Bell pointed across Gwinnett Street to the land next to Interstate 16 where there are plans to build a 400-unit residential complex.

“We want this area to develop into a dense urban way. We want it to be an extension of the downtown with retail, potentially hotels, other uses are serving the surrounding neighborhoods - not a big sea of pavement out here.”

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