A tall wooden fence separates rows of family homes from a far-reaching field. The soil lining these neighborhood homes is deemed safe, but on the other side of the fence an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site continues to be remediated.
The residential part of the EPA’s remediation program has come to a close, but the future of the Stephen Foster neighborhood remains unknown. Some see a bright light on the horizon, but others question the likelihood of a neighborhood revival.
Scott Miller, a project manager for the EPA, said the residential area is now safe and up to state standards, but groundwater remediation continues in the fenced-off industrial portion of the site.
The Cabot-Koppers wood treatment plant became a Superfund site in 1983 when the EPA learned that dioxins had been contaminating the soil and underground aquifer for more than 100 years. The cleanup of nearby residential yards was completed in Nov. 2014 by Beazer East, Inc. after hundreds of soil samples were taken to confirm that the level of toxicity was no longer dangerous, Miller said.
The entire remediation project will be completed within four to five years, according to Mitchell Brourman, a senior environmental manager with Beazer East. While the on-site remediation continues, the company will begin engaging the community, local stakeholders and development officials in order to come to an agreement on an appropriate way to reuse the land.
But the remediation must be complete before any changes can take place, Miller said.
“Our first and foremost priority is to deal with the environmental issues,” Brourman said. “We’ll never forget the fact that the property has an industrial history, so anything that gets constructed out there will have to make accommodations for that.”
Mike Annable, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Florida, conducts on-site research at the plant. Annable said the contamination covers a wide area and extends fairly deep, and it will be a challenge to complete the cleanup within the four to five year time-frame. However, he does think it is possible.
Because the site is so old, Annable believes it is unlikely that toxins will migrate. But he can’t say with certainty.
“As long as it meets the state standards, that’s the definition of clean,” he said. “What it takes to meet those standards is what is quite challenging.”
Stephen Foster is included in a 1,000-acre area that has recently qualified as a Community Redevelopment Area. The study was commissioned a few years ago, but results have just been released. Many see the potential CRA designation as foreshadowing of a new future for the neighborhood.
Nathalie McCrate, a project manager for the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, said the CRA process involves a third-party blight study to determine the area’s level of decline and a decision from the city and county commissions. Once the relevant parties give the green light, the CRA can create a 30-year strategic plan to improve the area.
“It’s a tool for county and city government to be able to focus funding in a way that can serve an area in need,” she said. “But there’s still a lot of unknowns at this point.”
Darlene Pifalo, a local realtor for 30 years and the 2001 president of the Gainesville-Alachua County Association of Realtors, recalls that it was difficult to sell area homes before the cleanup. But the recent successful sale of two listings in the Stephen Foster neighborhood shows that things are improving.
Both homes, located on 29th Avenue and 6th Street and 30th Avenue and 6th Street, have sold in an average amount of time after the prices were lowered slightly.
“If it’s priced right, it will sell,” she said. “People do their own investigating and inspections.”
Gina Hall, the current president of the Gainesville-Alachua County Association of Realtors, confirms the area is doing better than previous years. Miller frequently gets calls from prospective purchasers that want information about specific lots.
But some of the current residents question whether the remediation merely met the safety parameters, but didn’t entirely eliminate the toxins.
Rik Santos, a 43-year-old resident of the Stephen Foster neighborhood for a little more than one year, was not directly informed about the Koppers Superfund site. He moved in two months before they began working on the remediation and doesn’t plan to keep his children there long term.
“There are a lot of houses for sale but the high priced ones, they’ve been on sale forever,” Santos said. “Unless you get new people coming to Gainesville, I think everyone’s going to be kind of wary of it. How are you going to convince people that this toxic site is safe to live at now?”
Santos has heard rumors that the area that formerly housed the Koppers wood treatment plant will be made into a 40-acre park, but he said it’s unlikely that he would allow his 4-year-old son Mookie to play there. There are other parks in town, he said.
“The future has potential, but I think it’s got a big, shrouded past,” Santos said.
Beazer East has an agreement with the city to carve out some of the area for extended bike trails and more green space, but Brourman said that many details are still being worked out. The main point is that the company will begin making preparations that will allow them to be ready to find a new use for the land when the timing is right.
“We do want to see the property restored to some kind of productive future land use,” he said. “We’ve got the seeds germinating.”