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Report: No major environmental problems at Empire Hotel

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The Empire Hotel cleared a significant environmental hurdle in January.

A recently completed environmental study shows previous uses of the Empire Hotel have not caused environmental problems that would prevent redevelopment of the vacant building.

The study, completed in January and obtained by the Salisbury Post, noted that a dry cleaning business previously operated on the Empire Hotel site. Prior studies questioned whether the dry cleaning store contaminated soil below the Empire Hotel. The January study shows neither the dry cleaners nor other businesses negatively affected soil or groundwater to an extent that would prevent a proposed mixed-use development on site.

William “Billy” Hughes, founding principal of Historic Preservation Partners, has tentative plans to turn the Empire into retail space and apartments. Hughes’ group has an option to purchase the Empire Hotel, but has not completed the purchase. His group previously completed a renovation of the Loray Mill in Gastonia.

Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander calls the latest study’s finding “something we’re excited about.” It’s an initial hurdle as Hughes completes his “due diligence,” she said.

“It’s one of the significant things that’s going to be important as things move forward,” Alexander said.

Past uses

Known as the Boyden House in its early days, the Empire Hotel’s construction started in 1855. Its formal opening was in May 1859. More than 100 years later, the building would close its doors to guests.

A 2016 environmental study found that a laundry business operated on the premises of the Empire Hotel from about 1907 to about 1954. It expanded between 1922 and 1931 to include a dry-cleaning business, which is seen as an environmental condition that could be problematic.

Other environmental conditions in past studies included: a tire repair business that operated on site from earlier than 1950 to at least 1966, gas engine pumps and maintenance activities associated with a water tower on the east side of the property until 1954, an automotive service garage with gasoline tanks near the Empire Hotel site and general industrial uses from before 1902 to at least 1922.

The recent study gave certainty to past concerns about environmental conditions by boring into soil and installing water wells.

Findings

Simply put, the recent study “provides compelling data” that no environmental conditions would stand in the way of redevelopment, said Community Planning Services Director Janet Gapen.

The recent study found arsenic and chromium in soil around the Empire Hotel at naturally occurring levels. Several other chemicals were detected at low levels in ground water. Tests also found a chemical widely used for dry cleaning fabrics at levels above state standards for groundwater.

Environmental services company Cardno, who conducted January’s study, noted that groundwater is not in use at the Empire Hotel site. Additionally, concentrations of chemicals on site were low enough that its unlikely for vapors to leak into buildings.

“Therefore, the findings of this assessment indicate site soils and groundwater have not been impacted by the identified (environmental conditions) to a degree that prevents the site’s reuse as a mixed-use development,” Cardno’s study states.

Asked about the study, Hughes declined to comment and referred questions to city staff.

“Because you’re not using groundwater, you’re paving over the soil that may contain low levels of contamination, there is not any special mitigation that would need to be conducted,” Gapen said.

Groundwater, however, isn’t the only concern.

Councilman Brian Miller, who sits on the board of Downtown Salisbury Inc., said he wasn’t familiar with the latest study but described other environmental conditions that could increase development costs.

“What I know about from the past is that there’s some asbestos tiles and some lead paint in the building, which is all common era for the building,” Miller said.

Mark Lewis, a former city councilman and Downtown Salisbury Inc. board member, also said he’s aware of potential asbestos problems inside of the Empire Hotel.

Gapen said asbestos and lead paint is “almost commonplace for a building like that.”

“For a developer working in a building like that, it’s sort of part of what they know they’ll have to do,” she said.

The exact cost of asbestos abatement is unclear but a 2008 estimate pegged the price at several hundred thousand dollars.

Future development

If the Empire hotel continues as planned, the sale could close in August 2017 and groundbreaking could occur in 2018.

Hughes plans a $20 million redevelopment, which would include about 29,000 square feet of retail space. The building could support 50 to 70 apartment units, Hughes said when announcing his plans.

Although Downtown Salisbury Inc. owns the Empire Hotel, Board Chairman Greg Shields said the organization won’t take an active role in development until after Hughes and his group completes its “due diligence.”

Gapen said she’s not aware of any additional environmental research that needs to be conducted. January’s report did not suggest any additional environment studies.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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