Woonsocket Middle School Campus Redevelopment

60 Florence Drive, Woonsocket, Rhode Island

First, the benefits to the municipality were immense. The project utilized 20 acres of downtown, waterfront, former industrial land that posed numerous high level risks to the community and transformed that land into a state-of-the-art middle school campus providing a vastly improved educational environment to the City for generations of students to come.

John Chambers
Vice President Fuss & O'Neill, Inc.

1. Please provide a brief overview of the project.

The Woonsocket Middle School Campus redevelopment project was a remarkable brownfield redevelopment project for four primary reasons.

  • Long-term Municipal Benefits: First, the benefits to the municipality were immense. The project utilized 20 acres of downtown, waterfront, former industrial land that posed numerous high level risks to the community and transformed that land into a state-of-the-art middle school campus providing a vastly improved educational environment to the City for generations of students to come. The land was highly contaminated with multiple hazardous contaminants spread over large areas which had posed substantial human health and ecological risks for decades. In addition, the blighted and abandoned nature of the property created a haven for unauthorized access by trespassers and vagrants, resulting in multiple enormous fires which damaged both the on-site buildings and adjacent neighborhoods. In short, this site which posed significant threats to the surrounding community in terms of health risks, property damage risks, and blight to the heart of downtown was transformed into one of the finest, safest, and most aesthetically attractive public school campuses in New England.

  • Adverse Regulatory and Environmental Justice Precedents: Second, the regulatory climate in which the school was permitted was extremely adverse for this type of redevelopment. The school is located in an Environmental Justice area and serves a primarily Environmental Justice (e.g low income and minority) population. As a result of a previous school project (the Springfield School) built on brownfield property in Providence, Rhode Island, the state brownfield regulatory agency, the RI Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) had been sued by a citizens group and as a result of that suit was required to implement more robust public outreach and school siting policies which were anticipated but not in effect at the outset of the Woonsocket project. The result of this court action was that all decisions from RIDEM required buy-in at the highest levels and the regulators were extremely conservative in their decision making and approach. This problem was exacerbated on the Woonsocket project because in order to obtain $57.5 million of the $78 million required for the project, permitting with RIDEM needed to be done expediently. The $57.5 million was contingent upon school occupancy by no later than January, 2010, a roughly 2-year window to complete the entire project. This combination of a highly contaminated property raising concerns in the neighborhood and recognition that substantive public feedback and response was necessary, coupled with the reservations of the regulators and the urgency necessary to meet the public funding requirements posed an immense challenge to the City and project team.

  • High Levels of Contamination: The site had multiple large expanses of free-phase petroleum contamination, a large chlorinated solvent release source area, a large chlorinated solvent plume migrating off-property to the abutting Blackstone River, generally contaminated urban fill across the entire 20-acre site, and multiple historic buildings containing hazardous materials in various states of disrepair and fire damage. Due to the planned use of the site as a school, the City committed to full cleanup of all of these issues and redevelopment in an extremely short 2 year time frame, in order to have a fully remediated site prior to school occupancy. This commitment was paramount in addressing the Environmental Justice, school siting, and regulatory agency confidence issues expediently but was challenging to the limited budget and timing constraints inherent in the project.

  • Tremendous Funding Gap: Early in the planning stage, the estimated budget required to fund the school was determined to be short by roughly $8 million, even if the stringent January, 2010 occupancy date that triggered $57.5 million in state funding was met. The primary means to close that gap was application for additional grants after the project was initiated, which were not guaranteed. The collaborative support of the three Rhode Island Brownfield funding programs (e.g. from RIDEM, RI Economic Development Corporation, and USEPA) became integral to reducing this gap by $1.7 million prior to completion of the project.

Each of these issues was addressed through an extremely collaborative and transparent approach from the project team, the regulators, City officials, the public, and the tremendous assistance of the multiple Rhode Island Brownfield Programs. These issues are discussed in more detail in the following sections of this application. Project Background Prior to January 2010, the City of Woonsocket (population of approx. 45,000) operated a single middle school for the education of all of the middle school-aged children in the City. The former middle school building, which was constructed in 1915, was recognized as the largest middle school in New England with a population of approximately 1,600 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. The existing school facility was woefully inadequate, as it was overcrowded, obsolete in layout and infrastructure, and lacked many of the features the City and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) deemed necessary for a suitable current educational environment. Replacement of the middle school facility was identified as a top priority by the City, however economic constraints and lack of available buildable sites in the densely urbanized municipality stalled the much needed improvement project for decades. Starting in 2006, the City leadership took the initiative and embarked on a renewed effort to replace the deteriorating and antiquated facility. A group of project stakeholders was assembled, and project feasibility and site selection was extensively studied.

As part of a combined effort by the project stakeholders and aided by initial Community-Wide Brownfield Assessment Grants and Targeted Brownfield Assessment Grant Funding provided by USEPA and RIDEM, a preferred site was identified. The identified site provided numerous positive aspects including size (approximately 20 acres), central location within the City, location adjacent to a well developed mixed use urban neighborhood, centralized bus route access, site availability, and access to amenities including recreation facilities, a bike path, and the Blackstone River which abuts the site. However, the identified property was significantly contaminated due to an over 100-year history of textile, printing, and metal working industrial operations in seven large-scale, multi-story mill structures throughout the entire 20-acre site. Additionally, the site was blighted and underutilized as the existing mill buildings were mostly vacant. The site had had been the scene of two significant mill fires in 2003 and 2006 that destroyed three very large mill structures and further degraded the environmental quality of the site, the neighborhood, and the surrounding natural resources. Due to the blighted and underutilized nature of the site, and the ongoing public safety and fire hazards, the City was eager to resolve the dire need for a new middle school campus while also taking control of and redeveloping the site for productive use. After almost two years of intensive evaluation, negotiation, and acquisition of legislative approvals, the site, located at the intersections of Hamlet Avenue and Florence Drive, was confirmed as the selected site for a new middle school campus to consist of two independent and free standing 880-pupil middle schools and a large athletic field complex situated along the Blackstone River in downtown Woonsocket. Upon legislative and municipal approval, full scale site design and environmental site investigation and remediation planning commenced in the Fall of 2007.

Site development and environmental remediation began in the spring of 2008, and the facility was completed, developed, and built out by October 2009. In November, 2009 the City held an open house to show off the new school and the line of interested citizens ran out along the building and into the adjacent athletic fields for several hours. The citizens of Woonsocket, through a collaborative public outreach project, strongly supported the transformation of this severely blighted and contaminated urban property into the largest middle school campus in New England. On January 4, 2010, the City proudly opened the doors to the two beautiful and state-of-the-art middle school buildings for the commencement of classes following the school department's winter break and the school will continue to provide a better educational environment to generations of future Woonsocket students.

Fuss & O'Neill, Inc.,
317 Iron Horse Way, Providence, Rhode Island

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