Riverfront plan remains stalled

The developer of a highly anticipated Savannah riverfront office-condominium-hotel-retail project has said he has yet to buy the six acres of riverfront property from the city -- a $1.85 million transaction -- because he's waiting for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to sign off.

The EPD says, however, the holdup isn't on its end.

Nikki Haborak, a geologist with the Brownfield Redevelopment Unit, said she asked American Environmental and Construction Services, a consulting company for Bluffton, S.C.-based The Foxfield Co., to add more information to its compliance status report on June 20. She has been waiting for an answer ever since, she said.

Once the process is finished, EPD will issue a limitation of liability letter protecting the property's new owner from being sued over past contamination, Ms. Haborack said.

Cleanup of the site, a former train yard, has long been finished.

The city's October 2006 purchase agreement with Foxfield says closing can be delayed until environmental issues are cleared up.

After the sale, if the company doesn't break ground within two years the city can buy back the land.

Foxfield president Harry Kitchen declined interview requests, and Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Margaret Woodard said she wouldn't discuss The Watermark either because Mr. Kitchen asked that all information come through him.

The planned $100 million condominium-office-hotel-retail project along the Savannah River is considered a centerpiece of downtown redevelopment, the final piece of the city's 1982 master plan, but it has been stalled by a slumping housing market.

In a previous interview, Mr. Kitchen was firm that it would be built, but with financing hard to come by, he said he was putting off the condo component to focus on the office building.

City Administrator Fred Russell said he thought Foxfield was waiting for the EPD, but he's not surprised to learn otherwise. The developer is probably trying to wait out the bad economy, he said.

With $200,000 contributed by Mr. Kitchen toward cleanup, the old pension property is now a prime piece of real estate. No one else is lined up to develop it, Mr. Russell said.

"At this point, it's not hurting me at all," he said. "If I had other people knocking at the door, then we'd probably be trying to push the issue."

Mark Senn, a partner with Blanchard and Calhoun Commercial who has developed brownfield sites in South Carolina and Tennessee, said the delay could involve a need to assure lenders that the property is clean, but admitted it could be because of the economy.

"The sources of funding and financing have dried up," Mr. Senn said. "Those that are still making loans on those types of projects are requiring about twice as much equity as they were 12 months ago."

Ms. Haborak said her contact has been environmental attorney Darren Meadows of Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley. Mr. Meadows told The Chronicle he doesn't know why the EPD's request hasn't been answered and he referred questions to Mr. Kitchen.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.