Former mill site in Rock Hill set to become recreation park

adouglas@heraldonline.comMarch 9, 2013 

The grass will soon be greener on a four-acre patch of land that Rock Hill city officials and neighbors have worked for years to turn from a blighted, burned-out textile mill site into recreational space safe for families.

Rock Hill’s Arcade Mill stood for 100 years in the middle of Hagins-Fewell, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But the building burned in 1996, and for the next 10 years the remnants were an eyesore for community residents and visitors.

At the request of neighborhood residents, the city took ownership of the burned mill and tore it down in 2006.

This spring, city officials say a park called Arcade Meadows will be ready on the site where the mill’s smokestack still stands as a nod to the land and Rock Hill’s history.

For 36-year-old Tijuana Gardner and her children, the city’s work has made a difference in their lives and in their backyard.

“I like the changes I see,” she said.

The Winston Searles Memorial Trail, constructed in 2010, runs near Gardner's house, adjoining the old Arcade Mill site to West Main Street and Rock Hill’s “Textile Corridor.”

“I like the walking trail...we use it often.”

A life-long Rock Hill resident, Gardner bought her home on Hagins Street three years ago. Arcade Meadows will be just steps away from her back door.

“I love it here,” she said.

There has been more pride in the Hagins-Fewell area recently, Gardner said, since the city started to clean up, fix roads and build new sidewalks.

Homeownership rates and the income level of Hagins-Fewell’s 1,000 residents lag behind the rest of Rock Hill. The neighborhood’s average household income is just less than $26,000--about $14,000 less than Rock Hill’s city average.

More than half of the residents in Hagins-Fewell make less than $25,000 a year.

Newer homes have attracted homeowners instead of just renters, Gardner said, which “makes a difference.”

Along with city-planned improvements, she’d like to see speed bumps put in on her street to stop drivers from speeding through the neighborhood which is filled with children playing after school, Gardner said.

“It’s annoying and it’s really dangerous,” she said.

Zelma Reddick, a life-long Hagins-Fewell resident, also sees the old textile site everyday from her home.

The Arcade Mill land--once a symbol of the South’s booming textile economy that fell apart more than two decades ago--will now become a symbol of cooperation and improvement in the neighborhood.

Reddick worked nearly 30 years in a Rock Hill mill much bigger than the one that sat in her backyard.

Like thousands of other local workers, Reddick punched a time clock for decades at the Celanese plant near I-77. The plant was once one of the largest textile facilities in the world.

The old Celanese plant property of about 1,000 acres has drawn private development interest during the past few years. Rock Hill has invested millions into developing much of the Celanese land into an outdoor recreational center that includes the Giordana Velodrome.

Environmental challenges keep the Arcade Mill site from drawing the same commercial interest. But Reddick said the changes in store for her neighborhood are promising.

The city has made progress “a little at a time” on their promises, she said, and residents have been waiting a long time.

DHEC signs off on clean up

Last month, Rock Hill cleared a hurdle in the Arcade Meadows development by getting a certificate of completion for its clean-up efforts from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The certificate closes out an agreement Rock Hill made with DHEC about 10 years ago when the city voluntarily pledged to clean up the Blackwell Street mill site.

Getting recognition from DHEC is one of the most significant breakthroughs in the overall plan for improving the surrounding neighborhoods, said Rock Hill’s Grant Coordinator, Jennifer Wilford.

The rubble left by the fire contained asbestos. Further investigation of the site revealed hundreds of buried storage tanks with unknown liquids.

The tanks weren’t labeled, Wilford said, and contained “half rainwater, half who-knows-what.”

When the mill burned, coal ash containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, was everywhere, she said.

A PAH is a chemical compound known to come from incomplete burning of garbage, wood, coal or gas. Depending on the PAH found, the level of danger varies. Some PAH’s have been found to cause cancer or otherwise threaten people’s health.

As part of the cleanup, the Arcade Mill rubble was crushed and buried about 12 feet underground in the mill’s basement.

Because of the underground contaminants, DHEC’s certificate forbids anyone from using the ground water. But city residents are connected to Rock Hill’s water system and don’t have to rely on wells.

The certificate assures that the property is safe for Rock Hill’s intended uses as a recreational area and guards the city from future liability.

The city has put down new soil to serve as a buffer, and new vegetation has roots designed to rehabilitate the earth. The planting effort will aid the land in correcting itself in the long-term, city officials say.

For now, less than one acre of land near the old mill site will be used for new single-family homes. The homes will be similar to houses already built under the city’s improvement initiative for the Hagins-Fewell neighborhood.

State and federal grants have helped the neighborhood project along over the last several years.

The waiting period for the grants has, at times, frustrated some residents who wanted the improvements to come sooner, Wilford said.

Aside from the speed of the improvements, she said, “generally everyone seems to be really happy.”

Two grants from the South Carolina Housing Authority made possible new homes on Sidney and Hagins Street.

Those 10 new homes “turned the corner for the neighborhood,” Wilford said. Residents own nine of the homes. One of the city’s goals is to increase home ownership in the neighborhood.

There’s still work to do, Wilford said, to follow up on the success of building affordable homes and partial completion of the Winston Searles Memorial Trail.

Searles, a former city councilman, died in 2007--three years before the city erected a monument in his memory along the trail.

One of the first African-Americans elected to Rock Hill’s City Council, Searles was a constant advocate for the Hagins-Fewell neighborhood and held his council seat for nearly 30 years.

Road improvements such as repaving and installing curb and gutter are still needed in some places, Wilford said.

Local builder invests millions in homes

Rock Hill’s hefty goals to improve the neighborhood convinced Columbia builder Kevin Connelly to get involved.

The city’s plan and the demand for affordable housing in Rock Hill, Connelly said, motivated his company to pour nearly $20 million into several projects in the Hagins-Fewell area over the past seven years.

Connelly got his start in the neighborhood in 2006 with Innsbrook Commons--a 72-unit apartment complex facing West Main Street.

The apartments leased quickly, he said, and led to a second phase of development--Cherry Laurel townhouses--two years later.

The builder bought and restored an “eyesore” property, he said, next to Innsbrook Commons to construct the new townhouses.

At first, Connelly said, there were concerns about building “affordable housing” in the area.

“A lot of time, apartments and rentals catch a lot of scrutiny,” he said.

The apartment and townhouse manager screens tenants and keeps close tabs on the property, he said. Security cameras and a close relationship with local law enforcement, Connelly said, have helped make the development successful.

Hagins-Fewell is one of five Rock Hill neighborhoods in the city’s “Weed and Seed” program--a federally-funded strategy that targets high-crime streets to prevent violent crime, drug abuse, and gang activity.

Drug-related crimes have been on the decline in the neighborhood for the past three years, law enforcement numbers show. Rock Hill police recorded 17 drug cases in 2012--down from 39 drug cases in 2010.

Property crime dropped by 50 percent between 2006 and 2010. Over the past three years, the frequency of property crimes has fluctuated with 29 cases in 2012, 38 in 2011 and 32 in 2010.

Violent crime dropped significantly in 2011 with just five cases in the neighborhood that year.

In 2012, Rock Hill police recorded the same number of violent crimes--24 --as they did in 2006.

For a third project in the neighborhood, Connelly used state and federal tax credits, including money set aside to help developers breathe new life into old textile mills.

He transformed the old Rock Hill Body Co. building into The Cotton Mill Village--a $7 million undertaking of 21 apartments and 18 patio-style homes.

The tax credits were important, he said, because the former metal-making facility was not big enough to be “economically-feasible” without some help.

Moving back from West Main Street into the neighborhood, the idea was to build lower-density living space, Connelly said.

Along Hardin Street, the builder has put up several single-family homes that are rented--not sold--so that the landlord still has control over the look and feel of the neighborhood.

City officials say they want Hagins-Fewell to be one of their greatest successes.

The neighborhood’s success, Wilford said, is crucial to the rest of the city’s goals.

Hagins-Fewell sits right outside the perimeter of what the city considers its new “Knowledge Park” development area. The neighborhood is either in or next door to several other mapped city endeavors titled “Old Town,” “Textile Corridor” or part of the “College Town Action Plan.”

To revamp the downtown area, Hagins-Fewell and the city’s other oldest neighborhoods will have to be a part of Rock Hill’s plan, Wilford said. Work at the Arcade Mill site is evidence that the city is paying attention to needs other than increasing the chance for commercial success, she said.

“The adjacent neighborhoods needed to be addressed,” she said. “You need strong neighborhoods to have a strong downtown.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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