A preliminary assessment of potential sites for a new Burlington High School found significant problems with the downtown option, which would likely be a more costly and drawn-out undertaking than building on the existing Institute Road campus.
With the help of architectural, engineering and environmental experts, real estate advisers White + Burke analyzed three potential locations: two sites on the Institute Road campus in the New North End; and the Gateway Block, located on Main Street between South Union and South Winooski streets.
Mayor Miro Weinberger has publicly supported the downtown option, which includes the dilapidated Memorial Auditorium, a city-owned parking lot, a fire station and several privately owned parcels. But that site poses myriad challenges, the consultants explained Tuesday during a meeting of the Burlington School District's finance and facilities committee.
The firm considered two potential scenarios for the Gateway Block. In one, the new building would incorporate a renovated Memorial Auditorium and fire station. But the structure would not include a library; instead, students and staff would use the city's Fletcher Free Library, next to the school.
In the other, Memorial Auditorium would be demolished to make way for a new building, which would be big enough to include a library. As in the first scenario, the fire station would be renovated and incorporated into the school building.
Under both models, the school building would not be large enough to fit all of Burlington Technical Center’s programs, and the surrounding area could not accommodate the 325 parking spaces the school district has said it needs.
Additionally, a historic, brick-and-cobblestone sewer and stormwater line that runs under the site — known as the ravine sewer — would likely have to be relocated and rebuilt before a new building went up.
"That's a very, very expensive and time-consuming project that's going to have to be dealt with,"project manager Joe Weith said. "There's a significant amount of engineering analysis and study that's going to be done to determine the proper design ... It's unknown what that cost is going to be, and it's unknown who's going to have to pay for it."
The soil under the Gateway Block is most likely "horrible," Weith added, and would not support a large building. That dirt would have to be removed and replaced by suitable soil, another expensive undertaking.
The Institute Road campus has been closed since September 2020, when the district discovered polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination in the buildings. In May, the school board voted to build a new school.
The district could conceivably sell the old campus without remediating it. But staying there would require an estimated $20 million to demolish the buildings and haul away contaminated soils, in addition to paying to build the new school.
Memorial Auditorium and the downtown fire station are also likely contaminated with PCBs, asbestos and lead, White + Burke said. But remediating the hazardous materials there would likely cost less than at the Institute Road campus because of the buildings' smaller size. However, the extent of the contamination at the downtown site is unknown and would require further testing, Weith said.
Traffic and transportation would be more complex in the heart of the city, White + Burke wrote in a memo about its findings. There is also limited space for construction staging and material storage. A multistory structure there would need to meet additional building codes, and the district could also run into historical preservation issues.
The two other potential sites — dubbed Institute Road North and Institute Road South — appear less complicated. Both locations could accommodate a 300,000-square-foot, multistory building and would allow for adequate parking and space for all Burlington Technical Center programs. White + Burke said there are no concerns about traffic or the existing water or sewer service at either location. There is plenty of room for construction staging and material delivery.
The Institute Road North proposal calls for the new high school to be built in an area east of the contaminated high school, in between the old campus and North Avenue. That would allow the district to build a new school while the old one was demolished, speeding up the process, Weith said.
There is little geotechnical information available for Institute Road South, which is where many of the school's sporting fields currently are. The district would need to analyze the soil there to find out if it's suitable for construction. The firm believes there is extensive fill in the area that might need to be excavated and replaced. Access to the site could require the construction of a new bus turn-off area and a new driveway and access road for emergency vehicles and deliveries to the back of the building.
The school district shared a timeline for how it hopes to spend the next two months. By November 2, White + Burke is expected to provide a site recommendation to the school board, and the board will choose one. The district will then spend the month of November finding architectural, engineering, and environmental firms to carry out the project.
The school board would like to approve the selected firms and sign contracts by December 14.