The future Brantford Centre for the Arts may be built on contaminated soil, but that fact isn’t deterring the Brantford Arts Block from its plan to convert the former Union Gas building at 315 Colborne St. into what the charitable arts organization hopes will become a cultural mecca.
According to a site summary obtained by Brant News, some 3,000 tonnes of soil in the upper four metres of the site’s southern end contain levels of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons that exceed Ministry of the Environment limits.
The report indicates that 30 per cent of the contaminated soil – a remnant of the site’s history as a 19th-century coal gasification plant – is located under the 20,000-square-foot building, which means that a plan to remove and clean the soil would require part of the building to come down.
“It’s not really news to us,” said Arts Block board chair David Borenstein, citing a Level 1 environmental assessment Union Gas undertook with Environment Canada.
“We did see the full report [from Union Gas] and there was nothing in the report that suggested that the inside of the building was any less safe than the outdoor quality.
“The key issue is you don’t want to disturb (the soil). We’re not planning on excavating, so the issues identified don’t pose any problems with our construction.”
Borenstein said the Arts Block is “very comfortable” with the site, particularly because Union Gas has pledged to cover any remedial costs arising from the environmental assessment.
MMMC Architects, the Brantford firm that designed the proposed arts centre, did not prepare its own site assessment. Architect Anthony Bateson said that, based on information provided by the Arts Block, contaminants are contained in a tank buried under the southern portion of the site.
“The design basis is that the soil itself contains no contaminants,” Bateson said.
Regardless, Bateson said construction is designed so it will not disturb the existing soil.
“Ninety per cent of the work is contained completely within the building with no intention to break down through the floor anywhere near where the contamination was outlined to us,” he said.
Redoing the entrance at the northern end of the property, by Colborne Street, will involve breaking ground, but MMMC was told that area contains no contaminants, Bateson said.
The ongoing environmental assessment coupled with multiple pending zoning changes, interdependent funding sources and a tripartite lease agreement between Union Gas, realtor King and Benton and the Arts Block makes for an “extremely complicated” situation, said Greg Dworak, the City of Brantford’s general manager of community services.
The city, which has $300,000 in capital funding for the $2.8 million arts centre project on hold while the Arts Block works out environmental and building ownership issues, depends on the Arts Block to keep staff and council informed about the site’s environmental condition.
“The Arts Block has reviewed the assessment from their perspective and (the city) hasn’t seen any environmental reports at this point, so it’s their call as to whether there are issues with respect to (the environment),” Dworak said.
King and Benton currently leases the building from Union Gas for one dollar annually and in turn leases it to the Arts Block for the same amount. Union Gas has said it will not sell the building until the environmental assessment is complete and any needed remedial work is completed. At that time, the Arts Block has the option to buy the building outright from King and Benton for one dollar.
Councillors had wanted to see the Arts Block have a surer grip on the building before committing public money to the project, but Dworak and city staff are content to let Union Gas pay for any remediation before the city gets involved.
Borenstein takes a similar view.
“The owner of a property is responsible if there are any environmental issues,” he said. “That’s why Union Gas is working with Environment Canada to address any of the remaining environmental concerns. And it’s also why we wouldn’t want to be the owners of the building at this moment in time.”
Union Gas could not be reached for comment about the condition of the site.
While many councillors would rather see the Arts Block deal directly with Union Gas, Borenstein said King and Benton is useful as a real estate intermediary.
“Our lease agreement mimics the agreement King and Benton has with Union Gas,” Borenstein said, adding that corporate lawyer Steve Portelli of Waterous Holden reviewed the lease and added clauses protecting the Arts Block in terms of future ownership.
“I know that council had some concerns about the lease agreement and so forth, but we have yet to determine what the specific concerns are. And if we could, we could address them, either through amendments to the agreements or simply by explaining why it’s not a concern.”
Borenstein and the Arts Block are now looking to the city in hopes that the $300,000 will be approved so the group can leverage other funding and start major construction.
“At this stage, we need more money to be able to move forward with any major work,” Borenstein said. “So getting the money in a timely manner would be great.”
Borenstein said if the Arts Block had health and safety concerns about the building, the group would not welcome volunteers – including Borenstein’s teenage son – to help with construction.
“I certainly wouldn’t put him at risk, or myself,” he said. “It’s not an issue.”