Too Big to Dismantle: Planning for Reuse of the Tarheel Army Missile Plant

By Ian Baltutis

As cities grow and develop and the national economy fluctuates, the industries that occupy cities change too. When the economy is booming, built structures of immense scale are constructed to accommodate the surge in industry. However, when the economy subsides, there is rarely the economic energy necessary to dismantle or repurpose those same structures. The Tarheel Army Missile Plant (TAMP) in Burlington, North Carolina is an example of such a structure.

TAMP is a 22-acre complex located only two miles away from the core of the city. It includes 16 buildings and contains nearly 800,000 square feet of space. It was once a booming factory site, but now it is a vacant, crumbling liability for the community.

There are many risks and uncertainties related to a facility of this immense size and heavy industrial use. For many years, these unknowns prevented any pursuits of site reuse. After 28 years of minimal activity, it took a dedicated plan conducted through the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) program for the site to begin to see incremental redevelopment progress. Despite flaws, the plan allowed multiple public and private organizations to take a role in reshaping activity at the site.

TAMP’s History

Originally constructed as a rayon textile factory in 1928, TAMP became an aircraft plant for Fairchild Aviation during World War II. Following the war, it was again repurposed by Western Electric through government contracts to become a primary production site of communications and missile guidance equipment during the Korean and Cold War. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT I and II) would eventually diminish its activity and mothball the sprawling facility (AIA 2019, 6-12).

The varied industrial and military uses of TAMP contributed to the site’s high risk of environmental contamination conditions (AIA 2019, 18). Each industry that operated at the site brought with it a series of risks. Manufacturing activities on the site were conducted by contract companies with the understanding that any long-term environmental responsibility would be borne by the federal government.

The combination of this risk transfer and the war industry economic factors during WWII, the Korean War, and the Cold War allowed the facility to expand and serve as the largest employer in the City of Burlington for decades. When operations ceased following SALT II, the economic factors that kept the factory complex in use diminished. Then, in 1991, AT&T Lucent (formerly Bell Laboratories and Western Electric) terminated activity at the complex, leaving it vacant.

A Complicated Complex of Buildings
The TAMP site has numerous environmental contamination issues. Disturbing any of the paved surfaces and ground can potentially release environmental contamination into the surrounding environment. While future technologies may reduce the cost and time required to bring the site into compliance for residential use, uncertainty about when these technologies will mature prevents action by the private sector (AIA 2019).

The scale and design of the site is also a barrier to private sector redevelopment. To streamline manufacturing operations, many of the buildings were connected to each other. This design element requires that any redevelopment done today must encompass all the buildings simultaneously. Also, the secretive nature of the military manufacturing at the site meant that the complex was built with limited external accessibility. That limits access to the buildings if they are redeveloped for a mixture of use types. Also, the building’s scale and durability– which were constructed to wartime specifications – makes demolition and redevelopment complicated and expensive. Together, these design factors result in an indivisible site which poses challenges to partial and phased redevelopment.

While the US Army Installation Management Command (IMCOM) maintains responsibility for the legacy environmental issues at the site, that remediation and responsibility is ultimately shared by multiple state and federal agencies. Current environmental activities are managed for IMCOM by the Department of Defense following the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) procedures. These procedures are implemented by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ). The site is subject to permitting and use policies established by the City of Burlington. In addition, the site is on the National Register of Historic Places. This designation enables access to historic tax credit financing, and also requires that work on the site must preserve the site’s historic assets. This complex web of responsible agencies creates a highly challenging and interdependent regulatory environment for any activity at the site.  

The combination of these development barriers has resulted in minimal activity at the TAMP site. In 2004, it was sold to Hopedale Investment, LLC and used for storage of industrial equipment. It was then sold in 2013 to Saucier, Inc, of Tallassee, Alabama (AIA 2019). Saucier undertook salvage operations at the facility to generate revenue from the significant quantity of valuable metal remaining in and on the site. They concluded salvage operations in 2015 when no more materials could be cost effectively extracted from the facility.

While the site is considered a historic asset, it represents a significant liability for the federal government and the City of Burlington. Private sector storage and salvage activities on the site only increased the liabilities and risks related to the site (AIA 2019, 6-12). The City of Burlington determined that while it did not maintain any ownership or active control of the site, it was best positioned to take planning action that could impact redevelopment.

Taking a Phased Approach
The City of Burlington engaged the American Institute of Architects (AIA) through their Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT) program to produce a plan for the reuse of the TAMP site. The SDAT Team produced the A New Future for the Western Electric Facility plan. The plan recommended a phased approach that enabled redevelopment progress while also allowing for additional time to address the environmental risks and uncertainties.

In the SDAT plan, the team recognized the attachment the community had to the facility (AIA 2019, 25). By focusing on aspirational imagery of what could be built within the historic structure, the SDAT team utilized elements of visioning to build community support for their plan. Community feedback received during community engagement sessions became the basis for the earliest phases of the plan and informed the later designs. By dressing up the grounds and structures with art and imagery that recalls the site’s history, this plan provided an opportunity to show visible progress while invisible background engineering and analysis activities progressed in preparation for later phases.

Community Engagement Flaws
The site is surrounded by low-income households and families with children. It is located one quarter of a mile from the East Lawn Elementary School. As a result, much of the feedback that they received from residents included comments about a design for children’s activities, specifically a children’s museum like the one that opened in the county in 2012 (Abernethy 2012). Faced with significant feedback for this specific site use, it became central to the first phase and design depictions. The significant flaw with this inclusion occurred when the team included an image of a building bearing the identical name of the recently constructed nearby children’s museum (AIA 2019, 31).

This flaw was noticed by prominent community leaders when the plan was publicly released. These stakeholders, who were not involved in the SDAT steering committee but were needed as critical advocates and potential financial backers, immediately rejected the plan. Unfortunately, this element would linger in local decision-making and support discussions for private engagement with the plan. Developers and investors from outside of the community, however, did not interpret the plan with this same level of negativity.

Progress Amid Unanticipated Challenges
At the beginning of the SDAT process, the TAMP property was owned by Saucier, Inc. In 2018, before the SDAT report was complete, Saucier, Inc. sold the property to David Tsui, who expressed interest in completing the report (Bollinger 2018).  

However, Tsui was not the competent and reputable developer that the SDAT process was expecting (Groves 2022). Instead, Tsui, who had been indicted previously on federal fraud charges, tried to resell the property speculatively based on its completed SDAT. Also, in an unsanctioned and dangerous effort to attempt to address the source of the environmental contamination, Tsui conducted the unpermitted demolition of several buildings on the property. Disrupting the soil and structures aggravated the environmental concerns and led to increased environmental scrutiny of the property.

Following the unsanctioned demolition, the City of Burlington ordered Tsui to stop all non-permitted work on the site. Investigations identified other causes for concern and inadvertently attracted the attention of reporter Lisa Sorg with NC Policy Watch (Sorg 2021). Sorg researched and published a series of articles detailing the environmental and health dangers of the plant. This additional attention provided the necessary traction for the City of Burlington to accelerate the NCDEQ remediation work on site. While this progression was not in the phased SDAT plan, it achieved similar progress to the plan recommended.

The accelerated cleanup efforts are an example of how the planning process often realizes related actions differently from the proposed plan. While the environmental contamination still represents the largest barrier to the site’s redevelopment, the progress generated by the SDAT plan continues to regularly attract development interests from around the country.

After decades of minimal activity, it took a dedicated plan conducted through the American Institute of Architects Sustainable Design Assessment Team program to enable development progress on TAMP’s site. With a web of stakeholders involved, the immense facility required planning to identify the phased steps necessary to make the project digestible by the local and national development community.

While the major uncertainties of the environmental contamination on the site remain, the SDAT report has enabled advocates like NC Policy Watch and the City of Burlington to apply pressure on the responsible federal government agencies to accelerate the pace of remediation. The exact timeline on when the site will return to a productive state remains unknown, but through the planning process, this once seemingly impossible project is now on the road to redevelopment at an accelerated pace.


Abernethy, Michael. 2012. “Children’s Museum Celebrates Grand Opening.” The Times News, October 6, 2012.

AIA. 2019. “A New Future for the Western Electric Facility.” AIA SDAT.

Bollinger, Luke. 2018. “Western Electric Site Sold, Burlington to Receive Grant to Assist Redevelopment.” Triad Business Journal, June 1, 2018.

Groves, Isaac. 2022. “Burlington’s Contaminated Western Electric Site Years Away from Cleanup and Development.” The Times News, March 1, 2022.

Sorg, Lisa. 2021. “Clear and Present Danger: Former Army Missile Plant Has Polluted a Black, Latino Neighborhood in Burlington for More than 30 Years.” NC Policy Watch, September 8, 2021.

Ian is an inventor, serial entrepreneur, planner, and Master’s student at UNC DCRP. After founding Burlington Beer Works, the first co-operatively owned brewery and restaurant in NC he made the jump into public service when he was elected Mayor of the City of Burlington, NC in 2015. He served 3 terms leading the launch and expansion of the city’s Link Transit bus system, construction of a greenway network, and modernization of planning, zoning, and development ordinances. He is passionate about place-making, walkable communities, and trains. He loves riding trains and visiting railroad museums all around the world.

Edited by Kathryn Cunnigham

Featured Image: Tarheel Army Missile Plant. Photo Credit: Kerry Alfred.