When the Sans Souci community weighed in more than two years ago on what it wanted to see most, creative redevelopment of the former Union Bleachery mill site was at the top of the list.
The challenge then, as now, is that the location is the largest and most prominent Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in Greenville County. Significant work is required to neutralize existing health and environmental issues that exist to ensure the safe re-use of the property. Until those health risks can be mitigated, the EPA won’t declassify it as a contaminated site.
Enter Dean Warhaft, a Miami-based developer who has previously worked with the EPA to redevelop similarly contaminated properties, known as brownfields, and who has for the last year prepared a plan to pay for and expedite the cleanup of sections of the former factory.
In exchange, he would be allowed to develop one of the largest pieces of open space in the immediate Greenville vicinity — 240 acres at the intersection of Old Buncombe Road and West Blue Ridge Drive, also known as State Highway 253, less than three miles from the city's center.
Warhaft would act as the overall master developer for what would be a planned development that, as proposed, would include a mix of office, retail, restaurant, hotel, townhouses and apartments. It would also include 55 acres of open space and up to 10 miles of new multiuse trails surrounding the project and connecting to the nearby Swamp Rabbit Trail.
The plan would extend a street network from the existing Union Bleachery mill village through the new development to reconnect to the rest of the Sans Souci community.
Warhaft’s initial plans call for up to 3.5 million square-feet of office space, a 200-room hotel and up to 2,000 new apartment and townhouse units. He said he is in discussion with a major life sciences company that may locate on up to 500,000 square-feet within the development.
The site itself would have its own high-density urban core and a secondary town-center style section with a proposed grocery store and ground-level retail.
Buildings closest to the edge of the development would be limited to 55 feet in height and step up closer to the development’s core, similar to how the Greenville County Square redevelopment project is designed.
It would include at least five main entrances on Brooks Avenue, Old Buncombe Road and State Highway 253, with at least two secondary entrances. The entire development would be constructed as a transit oriented development with bike and pedestrian access in mind. A boulevard would run throughout, creating another main thoroughfare for drivers to bypass the intersection of Old Buncombe Road and Highway 253 if needed.
But those plans are preliminary. At an initial public hearing in February, Warhaft told council members they would get multiple bites of the apple when it came to design approvals. Due to its massive scope, the project timeline could be as long as 20 years and include six to eight different phases, according to an initial site plan.
“It’s about patience,” Warhaft said.
The timeline is complicated due to uncertainty about what mitigation the EPA will require, particularly to a 33-acre portion of land where the shell of the former U.S. Finishing/Cone Mills building still stands.
A heavy metal — chromium — leached into the groundwater beneath that land and is still there, sitting in a plume beneath the site, according to the EPA and Warhaft. It’s a known carcinogen that if inhaled or ingested can cause lung cancer, birth defects and respiratory issues, according to the EPA.
The EPA hasn’t yet determined what’s needed to eliminate health risks from the chromium, but Warhaft said the usual treatment involves injecting material into the groundwater that oxidizes the chromium and makes it inert.
The EPA initially listed it as a Superfund site in 2011 due to contaminated surface water, groundwater and sediment resulting from facility operations. By 2012 the EPA had fenced off the site, demolished buildings that contained asbestos and hauled away containers filled with contaminated materials that were stored there.
Its investigation of the soil and groundwater on the bleachery site itself is expected to last until December 2022 or February 2023, and a cleanup plan will be developed by late 2023. Only then will the developers know what is required to declassify the site from the Superfund list.
Multiple developers have tried and failed to redevelop the site in the past due to the difficulty of declassifying a Superfund site and the expensive cleanup work that will be required. Complicating that, much of the site is in receivership and owned by the state of South Carolina. Its last owner, American Fast Print, abandoned the site after a fire in 2003 destroyed the main building and the company went bankrupt.
“Ultimately when we close on the property we’ll be buying it from the state,” Warhaft said.
It is in the care of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which asked the EPA for help due to the unknown contamination and high costs to monitor and clean up the site.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re working with both of them collectively to get them both on the same page,” Warhaft said.
Before the site can be removed from the EPA’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites, the contamination must be studied and mitigated. Under the EPA’s timeline and without a developer interest, those studies and any cleanup may not have happened for another 20 years, Warhaft said.
But since he showed interest it kick-started the process. It may not be long until he’s able to start developing parts of the site.
The EPA has divided the site into three sections and each one can be studied separately with separate mitigation plans. That way, Warhaft said, the EPA may clear some of the unaffected areas of land more quickly and he can start to develop those sections while continuing to work on the most significant part of the site, where the mill once stood. The EPA has issued a notice of no further action needed for 150 acres on either side of the mill site, which would allow those sections to be delisted as soon as this summer, Warhaft said.
Warhaft also decided not to include any single family houses in his plan in order to limit the amount of digging that would be done by residents, further limiting the risk of health issues.
“From our standpoint, even though the testing of the land met single family, our thought was 'let's play it safe across the board. Let's not even have those discussions,'" he said.
Warhaft said he received approval from both DHEC and the EPA for the proposed uses for the site before submitting site plans to the county.
Warhaft and his partner, Florida attorney Warren Zinn, would close on the purchase when those 150 acres are no longer listed as a Superfund site and are listed instead as part of the EPA’s brownfield program, which allows certain types of development. They would build on those sections first while still cleaning up the other, which would allow them to recoup some costs while they continued to spend on cleanup, he said.
Rachel Rossman has lived in Sans Souci for the past eight years and serves as president of the Sans Souci Neighborhood Alliance. She was part of the community when residents banded together to draft a Sans Souci Area Plan in 2018, with help from Greenville County planners, to guide how the area develops.
In that plan, the community sought creative redevelopment of the bleachery site with innovative ways to connect the community to the nearby Swamp Rabbit Trail while using some of the land as community open space. Rossman sees the potential for all of that in the developers’ plans.
“It’s a huge space and it’s right on the Swamp Rabbit Trail so I think the potential for it is great,” Rossman said.
She said there would be community concerns to keep in mind, such as the increase in home values that could increase property taxes for some on fixed income.
And traffic, of course.
“We are going to have issues with traffic but then maybe having some local retail nearby would be good,” she said.
She said they would welcome more working class affordable housing. Warhaft said he plans to set aside both affordable and market rate housing in his plan.
The developer so far has made himself accessible. He held a virtual meeting with the neighborhood alliance before presenting his rezoning request to the county, she said, and he has scheduled a visit in April to discuss the plan with locals. He also has answered phone calls from a number of residents who wanted more information, she said.
“Overall,” she said, “having a development like that in place probably is good for the county and Sans Souci.”
While the EPA’s initial plan was to demolish what’s left of the mill building, Warhaft said he hopes to save what he can, including the iconic smokestacks and parts of the brick walls.
“I think preserving some of that is important,” Rossman said. “Even if it’s just the smokestacks and a plaque could go up to acknowledge what was there. That was a huge mill and bleachery. There’s a lot of history there. I don’t want that to just be bulldozed over.”
The residents main concern, of course, is that the contamination is cleaned up properly, she said.
Warhaft said his team is ready for that task.
“Ultimately somebody needed to do it, and we were happy to do it.”