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Land Bank, DEQ Clean Up Blighted Sites

It takes time for a property to decline into blight. Once it reaches that state it rarely emerges quickly. And that’s especially true if the restoration involves cleaning up toxic chemicals.

But with money and a plan, it can happen, as shown by two sites on Kalamazoo’s east side. One already looks much different than it did a few years ago. Now the other is about to see some action.

David Harn walks toward a group of abandoned buildings near Mills and Cleveland Streets, just east of M-43 in Kalamazoo.

“This brick building here used to be a bakery or something at one point, and that building behind us was a foundry,” he says.

Harn is with the Department of Environmental Quality. He’s walking west around the block, which looks like it’s been vacant for years. It’s an area loosely known as Merchants Publishing, after one of its long-gone businesses.

“The maintenance garage or a truck repair garage was in that area, and there’s the gas station that’s on the corner, or – used to be a gas station.”

And beyond that is a former army surplus store. Its former owner, Joseph Fabian, is serving time in federal prison for defrauding the customers of his financial business. That building now belongs to the U.S. Marshals.

“They seized it as part of a judgment against him, but the Marshals are in the process of transferring the properties to the county treasurer, who is then going to foreclose on them next March,” Harn says.

But the area that’s about to see action is the part around an old mossy warehouse. It’s on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. DEQ calls it Production Painting. No one has used it for more than 20 years. But before that it was home to many businesses. One of them did involve paint.

“Historically, though, the Production Painting site was a dry-cleaner,” Harn says.

“And so they had underground storage tanks that were probably used for their dry-cleaning vehicles; they may have been used for storing chemicals. We don’t know cause there’s no information – this was back in the 1930s and 40s.”

And that’s not the only source of pollution. Whoever graded the property used contaminated fill dirt. The painting business dumped toluene on the property.

And tests have revealed a toxic form of chromium near one corner of the building that probably migrated from the Auto-Ion Superfund site next door.

Production Painting doesn’t pose an immediate hazard, Harn says. But, “If somebody digs there they could potentially be exposed to those chemicals and it could cause problems for anybody living here or putting a business in here.”

And he’s concerned about its impact on the river. Harn says the results from monitoring wells along its banks show chemicals dissolved in the groundwater.

“Based on what we’re seeing there likely is something that’s going from what’s in those wells that we’re seeing into the river. What the concentrations are we don’t know specifically because we haven’t done anything in the river.”

These blocks feel secluded. But as Harn points out, they’re right next to downtown Kalamazoo. That makes them likely candidates for redevelopment.

And a mile away, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank has overseen just that type of restoration.

The land bank has discretion over many blighted properties that come to it through the county treasurer. It’s a partner in the Production Painting and Merchants Publishing projects.

On Riverview Drive north of Paterson Street, the land bank has turned six previously abandoned acres of weeds and buildings into a park. Like Production Painting, the property borders the Kalamazoo River.

Executive Director Kelly Clarke looks from the property toward the water.

“You can see that we’ve cleared a lot of the shrubbery and weed trees here so that we can get some better sightlines of the river,” she says.

Riverview Launch, as it’s known, features a restored barn, a bee habitat and gardens with plants native to Michigan. Youth groups ranging from the Boys and Girls Club to the MSU junior master gardeners use it for their programs.

“A few weeks ago we partnered with City Parks and they showed the Lego Movie on the barn, so it’s really, really just been an enormous transformation of something that was previously blighted and made people, a lot of people feel unsafe,” she says.

And it happened within just a couple of years.

“One of the reasons why we’ve been able to see such good progress is because there’s been a number of players who’ve come together to work together and really maximize that impact,” she says.

It helps that Riverview wasn’t contaminated. But Clarke says she’d like to see a similar cooperative approach at Production Painting, which she calls a “key site.”

Back at the old warehouse on O’Neil Street, David Harn says demolition will begin as soon as the contracts are finalized.

“We’re going to knock this building down, we’re going to basically strip off the top six inches or so of the soil, we’re going to target areas that we identified that were contaminated for additional excavation,” he says.

“And then we’ll restore the site in terms of bringing it back up to grade, and putting down basically gravel.”

And the land bank and the treasurer have plans for Merchants Publishing. They want to save the brick building on Mills Street,

“But these other buildings are going to be torn down which will allow us to come in after they’re done and do additional investigations to see what the extent of contamination on that site might be,” Harn says.

The DEQ plans to look for contamination at the old gas station in its next fiscal year.

The Land Bank and the DEQ are among several agencies in early talks about cleaning up the former Simpson-Lee/Fox River paper mill site in Vicksburg.

Harn says it’s one of the few mills where the building still stands, and he’d like to see it restored. But he says it will take a while to get that wheel turning.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.
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