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Interest picks up for site on Washington Street East

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Washington Street site once targeted for an East End grocery store is drawing renewed interest from developers, including at least one grocer, said Jim Edwards, director of the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority.

Another grocer also is interested in the property at 1315 Washington St. E, better known as the Burger King site because of the fast-food restaurant formerly located there, Mayor Danny Jones said.

CURA paid $700,000 to buy the property in 2003, in hopes of combining it with adjacent parcels to create a site large enough to attract a small grocery store. Jones nearly struck a deal with the owners of Parkway Supermarket in St. Albans, but the deal fell through.

Subsequent attempts to lure a grocer to the neighborhood, led by East End Main Street, also have gone nowhere.

But interest in the Burger King site has risen recently, in part because CURA has posted large signs on all its properties touting their availability, Edwards said.

"Since we put up the for-sale sign we had an inquiry -- two or three inquiries. At the board's request we had a recent appraisal for the property: $525,000.

"One [inquiry] was a neighborhood grocery store," he said. "I'm not optimistic they're going to pursue it," he said. "One was for a mixed-use development, residential and commercial, and one was a business owner -- a retail user, a regional chain. There's been no offer."

Jones, whose first mayoral campaign in 2003 was based in part on bringing a grocer to the East End, said his passion is to develop vacant property across the city, like the Burger King site.

"If we could get someone to build a grocery there, even a small one, why not give them the property? I have someone I'm working on that's interested in it."

The national economy and political uncertainty slowed local development for the last five years, Edwards said. "I think there's pent-up demand.

"[The site] is well located, on an arterial route, and it's a good size -- right at an acre."

The Washington Street Streetscape project, begun in 2007, was completed last year, he said. 

"Even if people don't consciously perceive it, Washington looks so much better than it did and the activity there -- the [Japanese] restaurant -- and what Main Street is doing, they're constantly promoting it. And it's less risky than it used to be."

Also Wednesday at the CURA board meeting, Dave Gilmore of GAI Consultants said it probably doesn't make sense to add a walking track to the first phase of construction of the East End park off Dixie Street.

GAI is waiting for the results of further tests of contaminated soil near the railroad tracks at the rear of the site, including soil under the future track, he said. Tests in 2008 showed small amounts of creosote and metals typically found near railroads.

It may still be possible to add the $20,000 track in Phase 1, Gilmore said. "Our biggest concern was we didn't want to build the trail and have to rip it out later."

Board member Karen Haddad asked what kids would do at the park. "I don't see any fun aspect."

Future phases include a sprayground and skate park, Gilmore said. "Certainly those need to be funded somehow."

Board member Diane Strong-Treister asked where the money would come from. "How do we get to Phase 2? Are you raising funds?"

East End City Councilman Marc Weintraub, chairman of council's Urban Renewal Committee, said the project highlights tensions.

"When we approve urban renewal plans, I think it's this board's responsibility. The city doesn't have the resources to do this. There's no pot of money at the city to pay for it. But it will become the city's responsibility to maintain the park when it's built, and to shut the gates at night."

Lew Tyree said Weintraub made a good point: "CURA is here, and we should be the one that should be orchestrating and driving that train. I've not been here that long but I haven't embraced that yet."

Board lawyer Joyce Ofsa said traditionally, it's up to CURA to execute some, but not all, projects in its urban renewal plans.

"If you read each plan," Weintraub said, "you can see which projects you need to take the lead and which ones you need to light a fire under.

"There's no one in town that has the job of developing parks. That's an area where CURA drives the bus. Streetscape -- that's where CURA drives the bus."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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