From hazardous site to workforce housing and homeless respite

Macon Housing Authority, DePaul USA to break ground for Central City Apartments near Daybreak


Liz Fabian

Heavy equipment recently clears the construction site where the Macon Housing Authority and Depaul USA are building Central City Apartments that are expected to be completed at the end of 2023.

As officials break ground Thursday on $18 million of affordable housing for lower income workers near downtown Macon, they won’t dig too deep.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division monitors hazardous materials in the ground where the Macon Housing Authority and Depaul USA are building Central City Apartments on about five acres at the corner of Walnut and Seventh streets.

Depaul, the parent organization of the homeless day center Daybreak, which owns about a half-acre on the block, and MHA that owns the rest, are perpetually bound by environmental covenants restricting digging below two feet on the site, which was the former home of a manufactured gas plant.

That plant burned coal to power city streetlights from the mid-19th Century until about the 1950s. Residual coal tar contains naphthalene, a chemical also used in mothballs, that has been linked to a variety of health issues including liver and neurological damage, cataracts and possibly cancer.

“We would not have cleared it for residential development if we thought that there was going to be a problem with it. I mean, if it’s even iffy, if it’s even a close call… generally we’re not going to approve it. We’re going to err on the side of safety,” said Allan Nix, an EPD geologist who oversees the site.

The parcels are part of the state’s Hazardous Site Inventory which designates areas needing corrective action due to harmful waste or substances regulated through the Georgia Hazardous Site Response Act. Bibb County has 10 other sites on that list.

Set in stone

The Atlanta Gas Light company has worked with the EPD to mitigate the effects of harmful substances in the ground at its former plant site.

A remedial process called ISS, or In-Situ Solidification, essentially injects a binding agent of cement-like material into the ground. Augers spin and mix the soil which eventually hardens and traps the hazardous material.

“All of that is encapsulated, so we don’t think there’s a threat to human health,” Nix said.

The Daybreak day center for those experiencing homelessness is on the edge of the property being developed into Central City Apartments. (Liz Fabian)

Geo-Solutions, the company that did the work on the site, reported removing about 40,000 cubic yards of soil and debris, and transporting and disposing of around 50,000 tons of soil impacted by the manufactured gas plant residue.

Another 47,000 cubic yards of soil was solidified in the ISS process, which reaches depths of 30 feet into the ground, Nix said.

“So water can’t go through it and pick up these contaminants and take it somewhere else. So you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of these columns, side-by-side, underneath the ground so that prevents the soil from being excavated or from anybody being hurt by it,” Nix said.

The site should be at minimal risk to harmful vapors, too, he said.

“Any vapors from the naphthalene – which does’t emit a lot of vapors compared to some other things – anyway, that’s down on the bedrock, and the groundwater above that, that’s clean. So that acts as a barrier to this vapor intrusion,” Nix said. “So we don’t think there’s any risk to human health as long as they abide by the covenant, and even the covenant is written very conservatively.”

The covenant bans using groundwater for drinking, or any activity that will disturb the in-situ solidification in addition to the two-foot digging restriction.

Nix said the EPD is satisfied that there is no way the residents can be impacted by soil below two feet.

“But the truth is, the soil below two feet should be safe,” Nix said.

EPD and Atlanta Gas Light representatives can inspect the property and examine records at any time to ensure and enforce compliance with the code.

Ready to break ground

Atlanta Gas Light spokesman Jeff Wilson told The Macon Newsroom the company and Georgia Power “have together investigated and cleaned up two former manufactured gas plants in Macon, which from the middle 1800s to around 1930 supplied gas for street lights, cooking and other uses.”

Atlanta Gas Light Resources became Southern Company Gas, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Southern Company in 2016.

The gas company’s role continues until the property is removed from the Hazardous Site Inventory.

“EPD and Atlanta Gas Light continue to evaluate any proposed changes in the activities taking place on the former plant sites to make sure they continue to comply with EPD’s health-based standards,” Wilson said in an email.

The Macon Housing Authority plans build an $18 million affordable housing complex on Walnut Street next to Daybreak. The development will include a respite for the homeless recovering from surgery or illness. (Liz Fabian)

Although the gas company sold the property to the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority in 2006, which sold it to the housing authority in 2020, Atlanta Gas Light still enforce the covenant as required in the Uniform Environmental Covenant Act of 2008, according to Southern Company spokesman Jeffrey Wilson.

The EPD may remove a location from its Hazardous Site Inventory once it is satisfied a site has been sufficiently cleaned up and secured.

Acquiring the necessary approvals needed to close the Central City Apartments financing delayed groundbreaking for the project, which earned crucial Low Income Housing Credits from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, or DCA, in late 2020. The program provides incentives for investors by waiving about 9 percent of federal and state income taxes for 10 years.

MHA Executive Director Mike Austin said they had to get a top executive of the Southern Company to sign off on the project.

Three buildings designed by architect Bob Brown will contain a total of 82 workforce housing 1- and 2-bedroom units with rents ranging between $400 and $800 a month.

When the project was announced, UDA’s Executive Director Alex Morrison said this type of housing has been a goal of the Macon Action Plan to open up downtown to those who can’t afford the higher-priced lofts.

Depaul’s interest is in 11 beds for respite care for the homeless population to recover from illness or injury, which makes this downtown housing project unique.

Over $2.25 million raised by Depaul’s local fundraising efforts includes support from the philanthropical foundations of Phil J. and Alice Sheridan, Peyton Anderson, the Griffith Family and the EJ Grassman Trust.

Now that the housing authority is investing nearly $20 million into Central City Apartments, Austin is lobbying the county for improvements to Walnut Street where cracked pavement and potholes abound.

“This is really the gateway to so many great things in the park and we out to get it fixed up,” Austin told his board earlier this month.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.