Friday, February 01, 2002

Hopes run high for empty GM lot

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NORWOOD — When General Motors Corp. shut down its Chevrolet Camaro line here in 1987, the automaker left behind a 60-acre industrial site — and a major identity crisis for the city.

        Knowing that new industries would look toward the suburbs instead of GM's abandoned property, city officials shuddered as the last Camaro rolled off the Norwood line. More than 4,000 jobs left, the tax base plummeted and city services suffered.

[photo] The former GM plant's 15-acre parking lot is Norwood's largest undeveloped site.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        In time, other developments filled most of that space, helping the city recover financially. But GM's 15-acre parking lot just sat, cracked, contaminated and blanketed with weeds along the Norwood Lateral, one of the city's major gateways.

        Now, the city and a developer are on the brink of erasing that last, bleak image of the city's darkest days.

        By March, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency plans to issue a “no further action” letter to GM — confirming that pollution no longer impedes commercial development of the land. That will clear the way for Al Neyer Inc. to buy the parcel and spend up to $25 million to construct an office development that would accompany restaurants, stores and possibly a hotel.

        “We're hearing that it's finally on the verge of being approved. We've heard that before, (but) now that's something that everybody is saying,” said Rick Dettmer, Norwood community development director.

        “When you have GM and EPA negotiating, it's like two elephants trying to dance. They don't move quickly or gracefully.”

City has seen success

        The city's central location and access to major highways have brought several successful developments, including the Central Parke office complex, which sits on GM's old assembly plant site on the south side of the Lateral, and Rookwood Commons and Rookwood Tower. In November, city officials gave the green light to Cornerstone of Norwood, an office tower development that will replace homes and apartments along Interstate 71 in the next two years.

        Ken Schon, vice president of Al Neyer, is eager to see Norwood witness further transformation.

        “It's been hard to get anyone to make any type of commitments until we get through this and actually own the property,” said Mr. Schon, who flew to Detroit several years ago to talk to GM officials about purchasing the site.

        “We like the Norwood location,” he said. “It's at the geographical center of Cincinnati. Not only that, but with the frontage on Montgomery Road and the Norwood Lateral, it's just great exposure.”

        There are other abandoned industrial sites in Norwood, but they can't compare to the 15-acre GM lot in terms of size, city officials said.

        “It's the last large undeveloped piece of property in the city. It's central for (the city's) plans for the future,” said council member Jane Grote.

Long haul

        The Neyer plan means more to this city than adding another jewel to its development crown, however. It finally closes the wound left by GM's disastrous departure.

        GM began operating in Norwood in the 1920s but didn't purchase the 15-acre lot from Globe-Wernicke Co., a manufacturer of wood furniture and steel safes, until 1966.

        Residents have long been concerned about the property because Globe-Wernicke once used it for painting. GM workers used the lot solely for parking. The pollutants were there before GM arrived, said Robert Hare, GM's environmental project manager.

        GM began cleaning up the site after it left, and razed the old plant for the city. The auto manufacturer made the clean-up attempts official in 1998, when it enrolled in the EPA's Voluntary Action Program.

        GM has removed underground storage tanks, tested the soil and ground water for contaminants, and submitted reams of paperwork.

        “We've done quite a bit of testing and spent quite a bit of money on evaluating the site,” Mr. Hare said. “... Whatever's left there is not ... going to present any risk to (residents). That's what the Voluntary Action Program is designed to do.”

        Still, there are new deed restrictions for the property owner. According to state EPA records, these restrictions stipulate:

        • The property shall have only a commercial use.

        • Ground water can be used only for testing purposes.

        • Excavation work cannot go deeper than 2 feet on parts of the property.

Residents concerned

        Amy Joy, 42, of the 5000 block of Silver Street, lives a few hundred feet from the contaminated site. Despite the EPA's likely OK, she remains concerned about the property's environmental hazards.

        “I look at it this way. If it's not properly cleaned up, just the dust, (when they start to build), is going to be a hazard to the community.

        “Fifteen to 20 years from now, what type of cancer is this going to cause? What type of neurological problems to our children is it going to cause?”

        But Martin Smith, EPA's environmental specialist, said the ground is safe.

        “Right now, it's protective of human health. It's fine land,” he said.

        Still, it has been an eyesore. City officials have seen brush fires rush over the concrete lot, fueled by dry, crackling weeds.

        “It needs to have something done with it. It looks rather tacky,” said Ron Rankin, a Norwood resident and former UAW Local 674 president. When GM left, he spent many hours helping other GM employees seek new jobs and counseling services.

        He and his former co-workers still meet for an occasional breakfast. Over cups of coffee, they reminisce about GM's old property and how it has changed.

        “It's very important that something be done with the property,” he said. “It's good to move on.”


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