Aug 3, 2023 - News

Scoop: Phoenix kept working on shelter site even after ground risks were discovered

A fenced construction site.

The Lower Buckeye Road homeless shelter construction site in May. Photo: Jessica Boehm/Axios

The city of Phoenix knew in January that "environmental work was needed" at the site where it planned to build a homeless shelter but continued onsite work through June, when methane gas was discovered, according to records obtained by Axios Phoenix.

Why it matters: The homeless campus was supposed to open this summer to provide more than 200 people with indoor shelter during the dangerous heat. Instead, the city is starting from scratch to find a new location.

Catch up quick: City spokesperson Kristin Couturier tells Axios Phoenix the city knew the site was used for illegal dumping in the past. A geotechnical report produced in January found a significant amount of construction debris and trash, confirming previous dumping.

  • The report recommended the city and its contractor remove the entire 15- to 30-foot-deep layer of fill that was not native to the area to mitigate environmental and structural issues.
  • The city ultimately agreed to remove just the top 5 feet of fill to "limit earthwork."

Of note: The city did not test the soils for methane gas or other environmental hazards at that time, even though the January report noted the presence of organic material that could be "problematic."

What they're saying: Couturier tells Axios the city realized "additional environmental work was needed" after reviewing the January report but had to "work within scheduling constraints and availability of contractors and equipment" to complete it.

Yes, but: That didn't stop the city from moving forward with potholing, fire hydrant line demolition and other pre-construction work, according to city emails.

Reality check: "If the city intends to put human beings on top of a trash pile it definitely mandates [an environmental] study," Peter Petrovsky, a civil engineer and environmental testing expert, tells us.

  • "They shouldn't even start a project without taking those fundamental steps."

The intrigue: According to emails reviewed by Axios Phoenix, representatives from the city's homeless solutions office, planning and development department and street transportation department discussed conducting an environmental assessment in February but decided it wasn't needed.

  • The first soil test was conducted in May, but the city thought there were quality control issues with the testing, so it ordered a new environmental assessment that was completed in June.
  • The assessment found methane at high enough levels that could produce "acute physical hazards during site construction activities, as well as potential long-term physical hazards."

The latest: The scrapped homeless campus was supposed to include a structure large enough for 200 beds and four prefabricated shelters with private rooms made from shipping containers.


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