Midtown Raleigh News

Contamination concerns keep Exploris school from Raleigh Moore Square site

City Council members voted this week to scuttle plans for a charter school in the former Salvation Army building at Moore Square because the soil is contaminated with petroleum and other pollutants.

Downtown’s Exploris Middle School plans to add an elementary school this fall, and its leaders sought the vacant building on Person Street as a temporary location. Raleigh bought the property for $2.1 million in 2012 to help shape the revitalization of Moore Square but doesn’t expect any development there in the next few years.

Exploris proposed a two-year lease and got initial interest from council members earlier this month. But when city staffers described soil contamination at the property this week, a council committee voted 3-1 to reject the deal.

“Clearly we would love to have this work out,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said. “I just have a hard time saying yes to putting children in a spot that has environmental contamination from dry-cleaning fluid.”

The decision surprised Exploris director Summer Clayton, who said her school had been in talks with city officials for weeks and wasn’t told of possible air-quality problems.

“We were led to believe the contaminated groundwater wasn’t a major issue … that it was 30 feet underground,” Clayton said.

City officials pointed to a 2013 environmental analysis, which detailed possible ground contamination from a dry cleaner and a gas station that once occupied the block. The report also describes petroleum and chlorinated solvents flowing underground from the Moore Square Magnet Middle School property.

The analysis urged the city to avoid using any groundwater and consider “the potential for soil vapor intrusion into buildings from the groundwater contaminants.”

But the report also described the potential for air-quality problems as “low.” It showed the groundwater level of the dry-cleaning chemical tetrachloroethene at 3.6 micrograms per liter – less than the the standard 12 micrograms per liter threshold for likely air contamination.

The contamination wasn’t discussed when the council approved plans for a temporary food-distribution facility on the site. After police told charities in August that they couldn’t distribute food to homeless and indigent people in Moore Square, the city is arranging weekend distributions at a warehouse on the former Salvation Army property behind the main building.

City attorney Tom McCormick said the ground contamination won’t pose a problem for charity food handouts.

“The use for the feeding of course is much shorter in time, and these are adults and not children,” he said.

Joyce Munro, director of budget and management services, said the contamination concern isn’t the only problem with hosting a school. Exploris would be responsible for reconfiguring the building before welcoming students in the fall.

“If significant improvements are made on this site, it could change the perception of what this parcel is for,” she said, stressing the goal of development. “The timeline (for a school) presents some interesting challenges. It is likely to require some significant city effort to help shepherd that process toward completion.”

Exploris representatives say they’d closely monitor air quality in the building and their tests have already come back clean. The school doesn’t intend to stay beyond two years.

“This is a makeshift solution,” said Ben Steel of Empire Properties, which is working with Exploris. Steel, whose company has been behind numerous downtown developments, said the construction timeline is feasible.

But after the contamination concerns were raised, only Councilman Eugene Weeks voted for the Exploris lease. A final vote by the full City Council will come Tuesday.

A formal rejection from the city would leave Exploris with few options downtown. The school’s leaders are considering sites elsewhere in Raleigh, but the charter school’s model involves close partnerships with downtown institutions ranging from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences to the Raleigh City Farm.

“We are really committed to being in this location,” said Clayton, the school director, adding that she hopes to have a site selected by the admission lottery in mid-March.

In the long run, Exploris wants to create a new K-8 campus – moving its existing middle school from Hillsborough Street – at the historic, city-owned Stone’s Warehouse building near Moore Square.