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Old factory complexes across North Carolina are finding new lives. But in downtown Davidson, developers for years have tried to redevelop an aging cotton mill - without success. That's because cancer-causing asbestos is buried on the site. Between the cost of cleanup and the risk of stirring up asbestos, nobody has been willing to take on the job.

Despite Asbestos, Can This Old Davidson Mill Be Redeveloped?

A Charlotte company wants to redevelop the 130-year-old Linden Cotton Mill in downtown Davidson as offices, shops and maybe a brewery or restaurant. But the factory also once made asbestos products, and the five-acre site is contaminated. In Part 3 of WFAE's series Asbestos Town, environmental reporter David Boraks looks at the status of the redevelopment and concern in the historically African American neighborhood around it.

Adaptive reuse of old factories is happening all over the region. Not far from the Linden Mill, the century-old Davidson Cotton Mill houses offices and the popular Brickhouse Tavern. And a few years ago, Davidson College renovated the 1920s Bridgeport Fabrics factory into a coworking space and business incubator.

Mark Miller of Charlotte developer Lat Purser & Associates sees a similar opportunity.

"We came across the Linden Mill, and just thought that was a very unique opportunity to preserve the mill building," Miller said. "We felt like there was a lot of character in that building, and that preserving that character would add a lot to what is already a pretty dynamic town of Davidson."

The company has been working on plans for the $14 million project since 2019. But it's slow going because the site is contaminated. From 1930 until about 1970, Carolina Asbestos Co. made asbestos fabric, shingles and brake linings there. Over the years, workers tossed waste asbestos into a pit behind the factory. That pit is now a 25-foot-high mound with an estimated 2,200 tons of asbestos-containing soil that has scared off many a developer.

"We've had seven buyers since 2007. And all but the present buyer eventually did not proceed with the deals. And that was generally over the costs and risks of remediation," said Cynthia Chirot of Seattle. She and two siblings inherited the mill in 2004 after the death of her father, Robert Kenyon.

The former Linden Mill/Carolina Asbestos factory in downtown Davidson is now called Metrolina Warehouse.
David Boraks
The former Linden Mill/Carolina Asbestos factory in downtown Davidson is now called Metrolina Warehouse.

The one-story brick building along the railroad tracks downtown is now called the Metrolina Warehouse. Tenants include a furniture market, a CrossFit gym and a bottled-water business. The family has no plans to clean up the asbestos themselves. Chirot said they'd like to sell the building for a higher use, which would include a cleanup.

"This is a site that needs to be redeveloped," Chirot said. "I mean, it's because of the nature of the site, it needs a permanent cap, it needs a permanent solution, and it needs something that will be an asset to the neighborhood and to the city."

Redeveloping A 'Brownfield'

Getting there won't be easy. But state law offers a path for redeveloping sites like this one. It's called a"brownfields" agreement, and it spells out how a developer will clean up a site that has environmental problems.

It also protects developers from liability, makes local governments eligible for federal cleanup grants and can include tax breaks. Once it's approved, a developer has a better chance of lining up financing from a bank or investors. North Carolina has signed nearly 600 agreements since 2007.

Grass has now grown over a hillside where workers secured buried asbestos this past winter.
David Boraks
This mound behind the Linden Mill/Carolina Asbestos Co. has an estimated 2,200 tons of asbestos containing material. This 2017 photo shows the temporary cap of soil and grass. A permanent solution is needed for the site.

A previous developer started the brownfields process in 2016 when he proposed razing the mill and building a four-story apartment complex. That never happened. But Carolyn Minnich of the state Department of Environmental Quality said the draft agreement is now in the new developer's hands.

"They've since submitted a draft asbestos management plan," Minnich said. "We've sent them comments back... It is moving a bit slowly, but we're making a couple steps forward."

Developer Lat Purser & Associates previously cleaned up and redeveloped another site off Freedom Drive in Charlotte that's now home to advertising agency Wray Ward. Still, asbestos presents a whole raft of new challenges.

"We really had to peel that onion back to understand what they really were," said Lat Purser's Miller. "And admittedly, I mean, I've learned a lot more about asbestos than I ever thought I was going to learn. So, it's obviously a delicate situation."

If Miller eventually goes forward, the plan is to permanently cover the asbestos — not to remove it. He thinks it could cost about $5 million, as a ballpark figure. That could include spreading more soil on top of what's there now or paving over areas where asbestos is buried, Miller said.

"Right now, the site is in a temporary state, and it won't last forever," he warns. "And so a developer or a group needs to come in and permanently encapsulate the site and take this liability off the table for the town and for the neighborhood."

COVID-19 Economy May Alter Plans

Miller also said the project now faces another challenge: the changing real estate market amid COVID-19.

"You know the pandemic has certainly had a significant effect on really more of the space planning," Miller said. "Now, you have to think about what are the right uses. Originally we were heavy on food and beverage, we were heavy on retail. Now we have to relook at that."

That means if the project happens at all, it could wind up being offices instead of shops and a brewery, he said.

Ruby Houston lives across the street from the former Carolina Asbestos factory in Davidson (background). She remembers kids playing in the creek in front of her house years ago, when it ran milky white with asbestos runoff.
David Boraks
Ruby Houston lives across the street from the former Carolina Asbestos Company factory in Davidson (background). She remembers kids playing in the creek in front of her house years ago, when it ran milky white with asbestos runoff.

Whatever happens to the Linden Mill almost certainly will require more healing between the neighborhood's longtime African American residents and town officials. Over the years, neighbors have complained that town officials ignored their warnings about asbestos. Ruby Houston lives across the street from the mill.

"It is a work in process. I think that we have a long way to go," Houston said. "I quote Martin Luther King all the time: We don't know each other because we haven't communicated. We haven't communicated because we fear each other."

That's been a historical fact of life in Davidson, said former Mayor John Woods.

"The railroad tracks have always created a psychological barrier in town as they do in many towns. But we're certainly a case of that," Woods said.

That history is part of the reason there's been pushback against redevelopment from the West Side neighborhood.

Worried About Redevelopment — And The Future

People in the West Side neighborhood say they're worried that any construction will disturb the asbestos. Former town board member Garfield Carr is a lifelong West Side resident whose father and grandfather died of cancer after working at the asbestos mill.

Garfield Carr
David Boraks
Garfield Carr

"Personally, I wouldn't put a business in that building, given what I know, from, you know, growing up near it... And I think it would cause more harm than good," Carr said. "You know, if it could be torn down and just planted over, it'd be fine. But I don't know if I would agree to any development there."

Garfield Carr's mother, Evelyn Carr, has been saying the same for years. She spoke at a 2019 community meeting about the latest development proposal.

"I'm hoping that you don't do it, because we have lost a lot of people," she said then. "I lost my daddy, I lost my husband from asbestos. If y'all go in there now and tear this asbestos up… I have lived in that asbestos for 90 years… And I don't care what you do to it, you can't protect that asbestos."

And beyond health concerns, many neighbors worry that redevelopment could hasten gentrification of Davidson's West Side.

"There was a time when nobody wanted to come over here but us," said Erving McClain, who has lived in the neighborhood her entire life and now sees new people moving in. "Now, all of a sudden, if you can look around, we're getting overcrowded with them. And it takes away from, you know, the feeling of home and family around here."

McClain said she gets calls all the time asking if she and her husband want to sell their house. She says progress is inevitable. But she's adamant: "No, we're not gonna sell."

John Woods
David Boraks
John Woods

But some in town still hold out hope that something will eventually happen at the mill. During his term as mayor, Woods watched developers come and go — and he'd love to see one stay.

"That site, when you look at it from the 50,000-foot level, is an incredibly valuable site to the town of Davidson," Woods said. "We had great hopes that if and when rail transit ever gets to Davidson, that that could become a hub."

Now, as the town is waiting for yet another developer to pull the trigger, some neighbors say they're not opposed to redevelopment as long as it cleans up the site and they can still afford to live here.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.