BURLINGTON -- Real estate developer Ernie Pomerleau believes he's got a winning formula for beating the 501 blues. That's the 501 Pine Street blues, to be specific.
Over the last 10 years, at least three other developers have approached the city with proposals for the South End property, a former industrial site just north of the Burlington Electric Department and across the street from the old Specialty Filaments building. All of those proposals, including one for a Shaw's supermarket and another for a Maplefields gas station and convenience store, were withdrawn, due in large part to community opposition.
This time, however, Pomerleau is cautiously optimistic that his proposal -- a three-story, 75,000- to 80,000-square-foot, green office building -- will win over neighbors and the city's various review boards.
"If you're a developer, you have to be a Pollyanna," says Pomerleau, who says a new sign on the property signals the beginning of his "soft marketing" effort. He's already had "an informal chit-chat" with the Design Advisory Board and Development Review Board, but has not yet submitted formal permit applications; he plans to do so in the next couple of months. "It's not a supermarket, it's half the amount of parking, it has no gas station, and it's a beautifully designed building," Pomerleau says.
Which isn't to suggest that the project will sail through. The eight-acre parcel is a brownfield site, or former industrial property, and also sits adjacent to the barge canal Superfund site. "We've been overwhelmed with the number of studies we had to do on the front end," Pomerleau says, citing numerous site assessments, stormwater-control studies, wetland reviews, Superfund boundary reviews and geotechnical surveys. "Other projects have all been walks in the park compared to this."
And, despite recent reports that new coal-tar contaminants are leaking into the barge canal, Pomerleau believes his project can proceed as planned. Karen Lupino, the EPA's Boston-based remedial project manager for the barge canal site, says the agency has known about this issue for more than a year and insists it has no impact whatsoever on the proposed development.
Pomerleau describes the proposed building as a "Class A" office space that would sit close to Pine Street. The front of the building would be aligned with the Maltex Building to the north, with parking in the rear and possibly some retail space and services on the first floor to create a "streetscape" consistent with the city's plans for Pine Street.
The Burlington-based developer won't reveal who might occupy the new building, though he admits several companies interested in relocating to the area have already approached him.
The new office building would occupy 5 of the 8 acres that comprise the site, with the remaining 3 acres -- which are part of the Superfund site -- deeded to the city for conservation purposes. The city would not accrue additional financial liability for accepting that parcel, according to Michael Monte, director of the Community and Economic Development Office.
Monte notes there are numerous restrictions on how the usable, 5-acre portion of property can be redeveloped. For instance, the YMCA could not relocate there, as some have suggested, nor can there be residential dwellings or daycare centers so close to a Superfund site. Nonetheless, Monte touts all the usual benefits for the Pomerleau proposal, including additional property taxes, zoning fees, building fees, new jobs and an increase in much-coveted office space in the city's inner core. He adds that CEDO is not putting up any funding for this project.
Pomerleau notes that he's been working with the EPA to address various issues related to the Superfund site -- in particular, concerns over stormwater management. He says they're exploring designs for a "green roof" that would collect stormwater runoff and recycle it for irrigation, toilets and other nonpotable uses.
The property, a former manufactured-gas plant that operated at the Pine Street Canal from 1895 to 1966, was listed as a federal Superfund site in 1983. EPA investigations from 1989 to 1992 revealed extensive coal-tar contamination in the soil and sediment in the canal and adjacent wetlands. In 1998, the EPA proposed capping the contaminated sediment and soil; the work was finally completed in 2003.
Since then, however, several "breakouts" of coal tar have been discovered in the canal, most recently in spring 2005. "This isn't anything new. It's under control and very contained," the EPA's Lupino says, adding that none of the contamination has reached the lake or poses a significant health risk to humans. Though there now appear to be more contaminants, and they're more mobile than the EPA initially thought, Lupino says, "It's not a big deal, or a sky-is-falling kind of thing . . . We're just tweaking the existing remedy to account for new knowledge of the system."
For his part, Pomerleau is making doubly sure that all his plans are in accordance with state and federal requirements. As he puts it, "Anytime you're surrounded by a Superfund site, you'd better dot all your 'i's and cross your 't's."