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Louisville, developers aim to rehabilitate West End site contaminated by chemical plant for decades

City leaders and community members gathered Thursday to discuss efforts to redevelop the vacant Rhodia chemical plant site.
Jacob Munoz
City leaders and community members gathered Thursday to discuss efforts to redevelop the vacant Rhodia chemical plant site.

The former home of a Rhodia chemical plant has sat vacant on polluted land for almost 30 years. The city and its contractors are moving to transform the site for a mixed-use development project.

An abandoned two-story structure is all that remains on the nearly 17-acre property, which straddles Louisville’s Algonquin and Park Hill neighborhoods. The brownfield sits hundreds of feet away from the Parkway Place apartments, a public housing complex.

On Thursday, Mayor Craig Greenberg and site leaders held a press conference on its steps to announce upcoming redevelopment efforts.

James Beckett is the managing partner of Re:land Group, the site’s primary developer. He said he wants to turn the property into a space that gives nearby community members, who are predominantly Black, a feeling of ownership and pride.

“We will begin with the end in mind. A place where all people can thrive, and when they look outside their windows or step outside, they see green space. They see beauty. They see amenities,” Beckett said.

An advisory group of community members is working with the city and developers to develop a master plan for the site. It could eventually include housing and retail space.

Greenberg said leaders expect to begin construction next year — once contaminated soil is removed or treated.

“We believe this to be the cornerstone for future development in the Park Hill and Algonquin neighborhoods, developments that will improve the quality of life for the people who live here and help us reverse decades of disinvestment and neglect,” Greenberg said.

Progress on transforming the city-owned site has picked up in recent years.

Louisville Metro entered into a contract with Re:land Group and co-developer Luckett & Farley two years ago. And last year the city allocated $10 million in American Rescue Plan funding for site remediation efforts.

Annette Holt lives near the Rhodia property and said residents need a communal space like the one being proposed.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to have events right here,” Holt said.

Lauren Heberle is an associate sociology professor at the University of Louisville and the director of its Center for Environmental Policy and Management. She said brownfields like the Rhodia site are often located in disinvested communities with higher concentrations of minority and low-income residents.

Heberle added she’s excited about the new development but hopes residents of the Parkway Place apartments are protected from displacement if the project contributes to gentrification.

“The whole community could benefit from having something there. It's close enough to the university. It's sort of this bridge, both north-south and east-west,” Heberle said.

A contaminated history

The West End site was first developed by the local Jones-Dabney Company in 1919. Different companies used the site for chemical manufacturing and similar activities for decades, until it was vacated in 1994.

Rhodia, which acquired the property in 1998, commissioned a 2001 report that found more than 250 chemical spills and releases occurred there since 1974, and that soil and groundwater were contaminated.

More recently, the city ordered two reports that were released last year. An investigation confirmed soil contamination levels exceeded Environmental Protection Agency limits, while a remediation plan offered strategies for allowing residential development, which had been prohibited by an environmental covenant.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet approved the plan earlier this year.

Last week, Louisville awarded two remediation contracts for the Rhodia site: one to Louisville-based EnviroForensics for around $400,000 and another to St. Louis-based O6 Environmental for about $7.5 million.

Joseph Stephens, regional director of EnviroForensics, said his group’s responsibilities will include checking the soil leaving and entering the site for contaminants.

“The concentrations that I’ve seen so far aren’t that scary at all. It’s not hazardous waste or anything like that, but it is above regulatory limits, and they need to be excavated and removed from the site,” he said.

Stephens said he hopes to begin remediation efforts soon but did not provide a specific timeline.

Correction: This story was updated to clarify when Rhodia took over the property.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.