Council approves agreement for additional cleanup of Blazing Star Landing to make way for more apartments

Published 5:59 am Tuesday, April 25, 2023

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The Albert Lea City Council on Monday voted to approve a professional services agreement for the environmental remediation of 4.5 acres of the Blazing Star Landing.

Albert Lea City Manager Ian Rigg said development firm Unique Opportunities LLC of Redwood Falls previously built 48 units of multi-family housing on a 3.41-acre portion of the southern most part of the property and has plans to build a second larger apartment building to accommodate 96 additional units directly east of the existing development.

The apartments are known as the Front Street Apartments and also include garages, a parking lot, sidewalks, a stormwater pond and green space.

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The city of Albert Lea earlier this year was awarded an about $456,000 cleanup investigation grant through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to pay for more than half of the about $870,000 remediation project.

The professional services agreement would prepare the plans and specifications, and provide the construction oversight needed to remediate the site.

Rigg said the plans and specifications would be completed this spring, and the project would be advertised this summer with construction occurring late summer and early fall to have the site ready for construction in 2024.

The property is at the site of the former Farmland Foods plant.

Aside from the part of the property where the apartments are being built, Rigg said in the coming months the city will plat the remaining part of the land to determine potential future uses for that property.

From contaminated past to promising future

The city recently won a Community Impact Award for the Front Street Apartments project, highlighting the success of the $1.26 million cleanup that cleared the way for the $5.9 million apartment complex.

“This project is truly a story of rising from the ashes. A little over 20 years ago, a meat-processing plant caught fire and burned on this site. Hundreds of jobs went with it. Today, our community has turned around and now needs housing for hundreds of open jobs,” said City Planner Megan Boeck when receiving the award from Minnesota Brownfields, a non-profit that works to clean up contaminated sites for economic growth.

“Thankfully, a better story became a reality with the help of many partners, including the private developer who bought the land, built the apartments and looks to add more. We thank Unique Opportunities — the developer that came to Albert Lea and saw this property not for what it was but for what it could be.”

Soil contaminants at the first site included arsenic, selenium, cadmium and derivatives of diesel fuel, which can be harmful to humans at certain levels. The contamination stemmed from the site being used for meat-packing for 90 years and a dump that closed in 1974. Between 1951 and 1974, the property owner filled in part of the channel between Fountain and Albert Lea lakes with material that included ash from burning coal and potentially other hazardous materials.

The city acquired the property, which encompasses 33.29 acres total, in 2004 after a fire destroyed the meat-packing facility and it closed permanently. The city named the site Blazing Star Landing for the nearby state trail of the same name. While several developers expressed interest in the site over the years, the unknown extent of contamination and cost of cleanup were barriers to developing the property.

By 2020, the city faced a critical housing shortage, as documented by two studies. The cost of cleanup remained a barrier, until a grant of $944,000 from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) cleared the way.