Salisbury City Council sets guidelines for Kesler Mill development

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, September 13, 2023

SALISBURY — The Kesler Mill site was once a manufacturing epicenter, but ever since the mill closed permanently in 2003, it has transformed into a source of speculation on what will be developed on the vacant property. The 13-acre block that is located at the intersection of North Martin Luther King Jr. and Park avenues is currently an undeveloped brownfield site. According to the North Carolina Department Environmental Quality’s website, “A ‘brownfield site’ is an abandoned, idled or underused property where the threat of environmental contamination has hindered its redevelopment.”

The city of Salisbury received two grants for an environmental assessment of the site and one from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2020 to fund cleaning of the area to make it safe for public use, which was completed earlier this year. Now that the site is no longer stagnated by its environmental impact, different scenarios can be properly assessed to evaluate what will be the most viable project that can be established there.

At the Sept. 5 meeting, the Salisbury City Council heard from Development Finance Initiative Project Manager Sonyia Turner about the “guided public interests” for the future development at the Kesler Mill site. These interests represent the community values and broad goals relevant to the project. The University of North Carolina School of Government Development Finance Initiative, a program of UNC’s School of Government, “partners with local government to attract private investments for transformative projects by providing specialized finance and development expertise.” DFI was hired in January by the city to figure out the most feasible proposal for the Kesler Mill site and to attract private investment.

DFI studied site, market, and financial analyses as well as public interests to narrow down the options for what can be constructed.

“The component that really differentiates us from the private sector is understanding what the public interests are,” Turner said.

Proceeding with commercial use for the Kesler Mill site is hampered by low traffic, lack of visibility from major roads and interstates, and the added instability of the larger commercial property market. However, demand for residential housing has gone up in recent years. DFI says there is a need in Salisbury for multifamily, single family, and affordable housing options.

The property does have limits on the type of structures that can go up. The NCDEQ does not allow single family detached residential because there can be no groundwater use. Any development that is built will require a vapor barrier to mitigate groundwater which is easier as a multifamily with one owner versus various owners. Townhomes can still be considered.

DSI described the Kesler Mill site results for commercial use as challenging, but compatible for residential. Over the summer, Salisbury and DFI had community input sessions and sent out an online survey to gage public interest for what should be done to it, where 40 community members and residents that live nearby participated in either one. The guiding public interests from city staff and residents indicate that the Kesler mill site should provide housing for low-to-moderate incomes for mixed income households, respect the character and history of Park Avenue, incorporate connections to sidewalks and streets towards downtown, provide a greenway or trail, and maximize private investment.

At the end of the presentation, council endorsed those guided public interests. Planning Director Hannah Jacobson says the DFI  are “halfway through the scope of work.” DFI will soon begin site and financial analysis with JDavis Architects now that they have approval to proceed with the results.

“I love the Kesler Mill site,” Mayor Pro Tem Tamara Sheffield said. “It’s a great opportunity to find something that’s been sitting dormant for so terribly long. It’s not healthy for the environment, for us to be able to get it…I’m excited for us to keep moving this forward.”