Arsenic and open space

There were three issues at hand during a freewheeling special City Council meeting this week: How to make a more pedestrian-friendly Park Avenue corridor; how to connect the two neighborhoods on either side of that four-lane street; and how best to allow the construction of an ambitious residential/commercial infill neighborhood without negatively affecting the people who live in the existing neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, and this—how much redevelopment funding the city should commit toward the whole thing. The city has already spent a million dollars to improve the corridor, which is seen as the southern gateway to the city, by building a median strip, planting trees and shrubs in the strip and paying for public art as a way to improve the street’s aesthetics.

After a Powerpoint presentation outlining the overall project, called the Park Avenue Visioning study, developer Jeff Greening, the man who requested the meeting and owner of the 136-acre Diamond Match property slated for the mixed-use Barber Yard development, told the council that, unless it invested more money to further improve the Park Avenue corridor, it will never see a return on its investment. His property lies a few blocks west of Park Avenue.

Greening argued that the improvements as they stand will never allow the city’s redevelopment agency to realize an increased flow in tax revenue, which is the whole idea behind the city’s redevelopment spending—to raise property value through improvements and pocket the increase in property tax. Greening thinks the area being considered for revitalization should be expanded.

“Where is your return on investment?” he asked the council.

When asked what he would like to see, Greening shrugged and said, “I’m the tail end. The tail can’t wag the dog,” meaning his project would not affect improvements along Park Avenue.

Councilmen Dan Herbert and Steve Bertagna agreed that Greening is a man of vision and seemed willing to work with the city to improve the area. It would be wise not to shut him out of the process, they said.

City Manager Tom Lando cautioned the council against earmarking redevelopment money like a drunken sailor, noting there are currently hundreds of millions of dollars in city project needs balanced against only about $50 million in potential redevelopment funds.

Neighbors living next to the old Barber property expressed concern about building on the land possibly contaminated by 80 years of industrial use by the Diamond Match and later Louisiana-Pacific operations, which used arsenic to control weeds along the railroad tracks that border the western edge of the property.

In the end the council ruled out nothing and indicated an interest in expanding the Park Avenue improvement area and moving forward with further discussions on how ambitious the plans for the area should be. Future meetings will include neighborhood get-togethers for input.