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Middle schools win award for environmental reclamation

October 12, 2011

WOONSOCKET – Built on what was once a polluted, burned-out mill site overlooking the Blackstone River, the $80 million middle school campus has been named the winner of a prestigious national award recognizing the best environmental reclamation projects in the country.
The redevelopment trade publication Brownfield Journal chose the Hamlet Avenue campus as the 2011 winner of its “gold standard” award in the social impact category.
Though the magazine also announced winners in two other categories of competition, the middle school was the only winner in its class from 26 projects nationwide, said John A. Chambers, vice president of Fuss & O’Neill, the city’s consulting engineers.
“We’re very proud,” said Chambers. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and this was probably the most challenging brownfield project I’ve ever been involved with. It was just a great collaborative effort that ended up being a great asset to the community at the end of the day.”
Chambers and Fuss & O’Neill’s Patrick J. Dowling, project manager, gave Mayor Leo T. Fontaine a sneak peek at the award Tuesday.
See AWARD, Page A-2
Continued from Page A-1
A formal presentation will be made to the members of the Middle School Building Committee, including its chairman, retired Planning Director Joel Mathews, during a City Council meeting on Monday, said Fontaine.
“I’m very pleased the project has earned this recognition, having been through the process from beginning to end,” he said.
“It’s very gratifying to see so many people’s hard work being recognized for something that’s been of such a significant benefit to the community as the middle school.”
The award is a gracefully curved arc of amber-colored glass reminiscent of a swan. It’s actually an abstract homage to the phoenix, the bird of Greek mythology which is said to have risen from the ashes of death to fly again – a fitting symbol for brownfield reclamation work, says Dowling.
It’s especially fitting for the twin middle schools, which might have never been built were it not for one, but two fires.
The schools, each capable of housing nearly 900 students, were completed in October 2010 on a 20-acre parcel sandwiched between Hamlet Avenue and Villa Nova Street.
For many years, the parcel was the site of a sprawling factory complex that included the Lafayette Mills and Florence Dye & Textile. Piece by piece, the city began taking possession of the land around 2006, after the mill buildings were all but decimated by the two massive fires.
The site had ample room for the schools, but it was also a textbook case of what developers have come to call a brownfield – a place marked by extensive environmental contamination which must be eliminated, often at great expense, before a lick of real construction can begin.
Fuss & O’Neill says the project was “a remarkable brownfield development,” in part because of the magnitude of the contamination at the site.
Dowling said $10 million of the total project budget was dedicated to cleaning up the tainted legacy of the site’s industrial past, including large expanses of petroleum released into the soil from underground fuel tanks that belonged to the mills.
Chambers said there were at least a dozen 25,000-gallon underground tanks at the site, all of which had leaked at one time or another.
The contamination also included a large release of a chlorinated solvent that was billowing underground toward the Blackstone River and a motherlode of asbestos that became incorporated in the charred demolition debris at the site.
The project was also steered to fruition despite an $8 million shortfall in funding, the engineers said. Cleanup grants from the U.S. Environmental Project Agency, the state Department of Environmental Management and the state Economic Development Corporation made up $1.7 million of the gap.
“First, the benefits to the community were immense,” the Brownfield Journal says on its Web site. “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.”
Brownfield Journal also gave out awards in the economic impact category for the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market and, in the environmental impact category, the reconstruction of Denver Colo.’s public works facilities near a portion of the Platte River previously used for chemical processing and mining.
The projects may not always be household names, but in 2010 Target Field, the home of the Minnesota Twins, won the journal’s top award in the economic impact category.

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