TRAVERSE CITY — Chlorinated solvents still linger underneath an East Front Street property decades after the dry cleaner there folded.
The land, at 401 E. Front St., backs right up to the Boardman River, and Downtown Development Authority CEO Jean Derenzy said the authority got a $400,000 grant from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, to clean it up. It ties in with the DDA’s focus on the lower Boardman River, and the authority board recently approved the grant agreement.
“When it comes to the environment and work on the lower Boardman, we are really looking at protecting that river and doing more than just ‘cap-and-cover,’ we really want to get to the environmental due diligence that will protect the river in perpetuity,” she said.
The cleanup stems from plans by property owner Bob Cornwell to renovate the former offices of the architecture firm he founded, then sold a few years back. He initially planned a three-story structure but bids showed the cost to be impractical.
“It’s been a great little property but it’s very tiny, and it’s very difficult to make the economics work on that small of a piece of property, so we’re trying to figure that financing out and make sense of it,” he said.
The site’s in an ideal spot otherwise, so Cornwell said he’s thinking of a two-story structure instead with residential on the second floor and either commercial or residential on the first — plans aren’t final, he said.
Mac McClelland is the brownfield redevelopment manager for Otwell Mawby, the environmental firm working on the cleanup. Historic documents show a dry cleaner at 403 and 405 E. Front St. from at least 1946 until the late 1950s.
Those two addresses appear to be part of the same parcel, McClelland said — Grand Traverse County parcel maps only show buildings at 401 and 415 E. Front St.
Initial testing showed tetrachloroethylene in the soil, McClelland said. It’s a solvent once widely used by dry cleaners but no longer, and one found around numerous other businesses that used it.
The solvent, known as PCE, is also used to degrease metals in the aerospace industry, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Long-term exposure to low levels can affect memory, mood, attention, reaction time and vision.
McClelland said there’s no imminent health risk at 401 E. Front St. Nor is there evidence that the solvent is getting into the Boardman River, but it eventually will if it hasn’t. Further testing will determine what’s happening at the site, and inform plans to clean it up.
EGLE just approved a work plan for the site and Otwell Mawby got authorization to proceed, so testing should start within the next month, McClelland said. The collected data will be used in a feasibility study for how to handle the contamination.
“So our hope is to have pretty good answers by next construction season of what we might be able to do,” he said.
That’ll likely involve partly filling in the building’s basement, Cornwell said. Its floor is more than a foot below water table levels that have surged as Lake Michigan hit record-level highs, so a sump pump in the building is running almost constantly, he said.
Derenzy, formerly Grand Traverse County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority’s deputy director, said the property was on EGLE’s radar as a site with historical contamination.
Cornwell’s father purchased the building in the mid-1960s and he in turn bought it from his father, he said. Now, he wants to take care of a problem he didn’t realize to be as bad as it is.
“So ... right now our priority is to get the contamination dealt with and then move forward once we know what that’s going to entail, and move forward with the design of the building,” he said.