The Anniston Housing Authority plans to do a full environmental cleanup of the former site of Cooper Homes — and hopes the city will help find a way to pay for it — the authority’s director told the Anniston City Council Tuesday.
The council didn’t vote on any action regarding the former public housing complex at Tuesday’s meeting at the City Meeting Center. But council members did say they favor a complete cleanup over the other option — a less-expensive “engineered solution” that would leave some pollution in place.
“There are a lot of issues on that land, and I’m not willing to push for building on that land until we have a viable solution,” said City Councilwoman Ciara Smith.
Cooper Homes, a 102-unit public housing development on West 15th Street, was torn down in 2018 — a move that city leaders at the time saw as a chance to turn a neighborhood’s fortunes around.
The Housing Authority planned to build less-dense housing at the Cooper site, while turning various empty or abandoned lots in the surrounding neighborhood into single-unit public housing. It was a model that had worked well in other places, proponents said.
The Anniston Housing Authority announced the event as a public meeting to discuss the authority’s five-year plan — but the real topic at hand was Cooper, the public housing complex that was demolished in 2018.
The project soon ran up against an old Anniston problem: pollution. Surveys of the demolished site found it was built on industrial waste. Among the contaminants found on the site were polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Once used as an insulator and lubricant, PCBs were manufactured in Anniston until they were banned as a health hazard.
The Housing Authority has yet to rebuild on the Cooper site, largely because of the difficulty of finding someone to finance the project as long as the site contains contaminants. A full cleanup will likely cost between $1.5 million and $3 million, Willie “Sonny” McMahand, director of the Housing Authority, said Tuesday.
Mahand said the Alabama Department of Environmental Management would likely have paid all the cost of a less expensive cleanup that would have “encapsulated the site” without removing all the contamination. McMahand said financing agencies wouldn’t have approved building on that site unless it was cleaned up to a higher standard than that.
Smith and Mayor Jack Draper said they met with Housing Authority officials and local lawmakers and came up with a plan to work together to get funding for the cleanup. City Manager Steven Folks said that if the council did approve such a plan — likely to come up for a vote in a future council meeting — it could include “state, federal and local” money to help with the cleanup,though he didn’t have an estimate of what, if anything, the city might have to pay.
The plan was to replace Cooper with less-dense apartment housing and build other, smaller public housing units in surrounding neighborhoods. That plan has yet to see any action taken to carry it out.
The slow pace of the rebuild remains a frustration for some on the council. Councilman D. D. Roberts asked when the Housing Authority will be able to produce a timeline when the project will actually be done. He said constituents have complained to him about the lack of a rebuild.
“Everytime I say ‘Cooper Homes is coming back,’ I’m being called a liar,” Roberts said.
McMahand said construction would take 18 to 24 months, once the cleanup is complete.
“We’ve just got to get the site clean,” he said.
In other business: At Tuesday’s meeting, the council also rejected bids for re-roofing of the former Moore Printing site next to the Freedom Riders National Monument site. The city had planned to re-roof the building for use in conjunction with the monument site. Folks on Tuesday said that after the bid for the roof was put out, city officials realized that the bid would actually need to include not just Moore but the other addresses in the same building, so the project will have to go through bidding again.
The council also approved an agreement for refurbishment of the mural at the Freedom Riders site. City economic development director Toby Bennington said the city hoped to pay for the mural and other Freedom Riders-related projects with a federal grant.
In other business, the council voted 4-0 in favor of an ordinance that would require operators of Airbnb-style short-term rentals to apply for a short-term rental business license and obtain insurance coverage.