AmerenUE and city officials seek to swap 2-acre downtown plot

Sunday, October 28, 2007 | 3:36 p.m. CDT; updated 10:47 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 18, 2009

COLUMBIA — A 2-acre section of land downtown could be getting a makeover; that is, if city officials can come to an agreement with AmerenUE, Missouri’s largest electrical utility company. The two parties are searching for a way to evenly swap the 2-acre plot of land, located near the intersection of Orr and Ash streets, with another city-owned property.

AmerenUE’s Works Headquarters facility is currently stationed at 210 Orr St., formerly the site of Columbia’s manufactured gas plant. But Mike Cleary, communications executive at AmerenUE, said the company is looking to relocate. “As Columbia’s grown it’s gotten harder to get our vehicles, mostly service trucks, in and out of there, so we’re looking for a new location, something that provides easy access to major thoroughfares.”

AmerenUE has yet to find a suitable piece of property to relocate to, and Cleary said, “That’s what’s holding things up.”

AmerenUE is also looking at privately owned sites for the new location of their headquarters facility.

If the city purchases the land, it could be put to several different uses. Jill Stedem, public information specialist at Columbia’s Department of Public Works, said, “There hasn’t been a lot of discussion lately, but there were suggestions for both an open-air farmer’s market or as a bus facility for Columbia transit.”

Due to the presence of coal tars beneath the surface, the site would need to be cleaned up before the city could put it to use. This responsibility falls to AmerenUE, which inherited the land through a series of company mergers and is responsible for the environmental upkeep of the site.

Cleary said AmerenUE plans to take care of cleanup regardless of who ends up using it.

“We intend to do it right and get it cleaned up so the city, or any future owner, can do something great with it for the downtown area.”

Cleanup efforts would be similar to those undertaken by AmerenUE in 1994, when the city made various street, sewer and utility improvements along Orr Street. The company removed by-products of manufactured gas plant operations from a part of the site west of Orr Street, including coal tar, oil and ash. These byproducts are located in the ground and although not normally harmful, can become dangerous under certain working conditions and repeated exposure.

Cleary said that “The actual cleanup would take several months, maybe, just based on how the first segment went and the fact that there would be demolition involved too.” However, getting to this stage would take several years, as AmerenUE would have to first present a plan for cleanup to either the Environmental Protection Agency or Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources. This plan would then have to be reviewed and approved before cleanup could begin.

Excitement over a potential land swap could be a bit premature, as nothing is set in stone, Stedem said,

“The city is still working to find suitable land as a possible trade option for AmerenUE, but there has been nothing definite and nothing in the works at this point. I’m not sure how long of a time frame it will take, but we’re still working on it.”

Cleary agreed that while AmerenUE is excited about a potential swap, nothing has been decided.

“We’d like to work with the city on something beneficial to both of us, but we don’t really have a plan yet because things are a bit premature. There will be a lot of public involvement if we get to that stage though.”

Stedem said that while there is no deadline in mind and the issue will not be on the next council agenda, the city is looking into possibilities.

“City Council will be discussing the issue in the near future and determining which uses are appropriate. They’ll make the final decision about whether or not the city will purchase the land and what its use will be.”

If the city does end up purchasing the land, Stedem said, the council will hold a public hearing to discuss the issue.

“The city will be looking to do a feasibility study for Columbia Transit to find a new location for a new bus facility.”

The Columbia manufactured gas plant was built in 1875 on the west side of Orr Street, at the intersection of Orr and Ash streets. The plant remained operational until 1932, when natural gas replaced manufactured gas.

AmerenUE never owned or operated the Columbia manufactured gas plant.

Cleary said site cleanup in Columbia could be similar to another cleanup project by AmerenUE in Moberly. “We’d most likely hold a public open house of some kind. We’d try to make sure nearby neighbors aren’t inconvenienced in any way — try to make the cleanup as unobtrusive as possible.”

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