From blight to might—that was emblematic of the Woonsocket Middle School Campus project, which created substantial opportunities in the community. A teachable moment indeed in this heavily urbanized downtown district of Woonsocket, which is noted for having one of the highest Environmental Justice populations in Rhode Island. On January 4, 2010, the city opened the doors to the two state-of-the-art middle school buildings for the commencement of classes following the school department's winter break.
While the project was cited for its social vision, before this could be realized was the site selection vision of the site. One of the primary concerns in siting the school was the long-term costs of transportation. The central location of the selected school site substantially reduced overall busing costs and carbon footprint that would be incurred in perpetuity. Due to the dense urban nature of the downtown area, no clean sites large enough for the school campus could be located in the central area other than the site selected.
Although the up-front costs for remediation (roughly $9 million) sounded high in the planning process, the city realized that the remediation costs were largely a one-time cost that would not be required again once the site was clean. The busing costs, if secondary non-centralized sites were selected, would in a short time exceed that cost and continue to grow in perpetuity, particularly as energy costs increase. The lower costs and anticipated carbon footprint of the central downtown location, despite the large cleanup cost, were preferable. The city leaders had the vision to see that their funding would be spent much more effectively and sustainably at the contaminated central location that was selected.
Once this site was selected, all the other success stories—particularly social—could commence. Located on prime riverfront real estate, the site had become a haven for trespassers and vagrants and had fallen into disrepair. The relatively large size (20 urban acres) and underutilized layout of former mill buildings gave rise to fires being frequently set in the old mill buildings, including two of the largest fires in the region which leveled mill buildings in 2003 and again in 2006.
Fires damaged the surrounding residences, and the blight that was created proved detrimental to economic development in the downtown area. The redevelopment eliminated the primary blight related to underutilized property in this downtown area and replaced it with a beautiful riverfront school campus. The blight, fire danger, and environmental damage caused by the site were all remedied by the school, and while the school has only been open a short time, businesses and jobs are anticipated to follow the 1,600 students and associated school personnel drawn to the site.
In addition, the school environment for the students and families of Woonsocket was tremendously improved by the new campus. The former Woonsocket Middle School building was 85 years old and not well suited for modern education. The layout was cumbersome with many hidden and poorly accessed areas and teaching areas adapted retroactively to support current education practices.
Virtually no parking and no green space had been present at the former school, which was completely surrounded by a dense residential neighborhood. The school had a well documented history of frequent student violence and fighting that the poor layout of the school exacerbated.
The new school is designed to have much better connectivity and open spaces without hidden areas, marked by extensive green space, athletic fields, and a riverside bike path area that connects to a second large municipal recreation area just a few hundred feet away. In short, the new school campus provides an immeasurably improved and safer educational campus for the students of Woonsocket.
Four keynote themes—good and bad—marked this redevelopment, including:
Long-term Municipal Benefits. 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.
Adverse Regulatory and Environmental Justice Precedents. 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, the state brownfield regulatory agency, the RI Dept. of Environmental Management (RIDEM) had been sued by a citizens group, and as a result was required to implement more robust public outreach and school siting policies, which were anticipated but not in effect at the outset of the project.
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.
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. The primary means to close that gap was application for additional grants after the project was initiated, which were not guaranteed.
Each of these issues was addressed through an extremely collaborative and transparent approach from the project team, the regulators, city officials, the public, and assistance of the multiple Rhode Island Brownfield Programs.
Collaboration among project team: As with most large brownfield redevelopment sites, there were many overlapping technical issues that had to be addressed during remediation and the construction of the schools. The project team was made up of a wide range of construction specialists, architects, environmental professionals, site design engineers, traffic engineers, school committee members, city Planning and Engineering officials, school personnel, and others. Often, solutions to problems had to balance many conflicting interests and the best solutions came from collaboration. A typical example of a multidisciplinary solution was the capping of the site.