Chicopee brownfield project that has cost millions — and spanned 15 years — close to completion

A brownfield project that a former mayor described as the state’s worst legal and environmental quagmire is coming to an end, and the former factory property could be ready for redevelopment in a year. The city is scheduled to go out to bid to remove asbestos, PCBs and other hazardous waste from the last three contaminated buildings on the former Uniroyal factory complex at the end of November. The work is expected to take eight months to a year and will ready the property for development by the beginning of 2022, said Lee M. Pouliot, director of the city’s planning department. “That is a significant milestone. Chicopee should be very proud they have gotten something of this magnitude done,” he said. “It is definitely Chicopee’s largest brownfields.”

The project started as a pledge from former Mayor Michael D. Bissonnette when he was elected in 2006. Bissonnette fought to have about 72 acres of the former Facemate and Uniroyal properties, which were in tax title, turned over to the city. The protracted legal battles were followed by the first efforts to sort through the maze of dilapidated buildings in the former factory campuses — one of which produced tires and the other which produced textiles — to see them cleaned of an unfathomable amount of hazardous waste, torn down and redeveloped.

During Bissonnette’s eight years in office, the city received multiple grants and was able to clean up and raze most of the buildings on the Facemate property and the oldest Uniroyal buildings. That paved the way for the new RiverMills Senior Center on one parcel. Mayor Richard J. Kos, who took over as mayor in 2013, continued the efforts to clean the property. He also oversaw the sale of a second Facemate parcel, which is now the RiverMills Assisted Living Center.

The city has spent about $35 million on cleanup work so far. In addition, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has awarded multiple grants totaling $2.2 million for the project, MassDevelopment provided about $2 million and the city has received several smaller grants, Pouliot said. “I think the city could have sold this property as is, but it would have diminished the ability of a developer to do a great project,” Pouliot said. Over the next year, the city will finish cleaning the two largest remaining buildings that are on the upper tier, or the highest part of the sloping property. The buildings will not be torn down like the others were, Pouliot said. “They are the newest in the complex. They were built during the war and they are built to sustain a bombing,” he said. “They are structurally sound, but they need a significant amount of work.”

The structure is so sound a vehicle can drive through them and a number of vintage firetrucks were found stored in one when the city took over the property, he said. The plan is to remove the hazardous materials and leave them standing in case a developer is interested in the structures. If not, the buildings can be torn down later. “If will give the private world a chance to tell us if they want them,” Pouliot said.

The city also removed the asbestos from the former administration building at a cost of about $400,000 and spent an additional $185,000 to secure it in case a developer may want to reuse the historic building. The project was controversial, with many people lobbying instead to have it torn down. The last building that will be razed is the former power plant located on the bottom of the slope — the most contaminated building on the lot. “Every single piece of equipment is wrapped in asbestos,” Pouliot said. Michelin North America Inc. is also finishing work to clean up contamination in the soil and groundwater. The company, which purchased the Uniroyal name, negotiated an agreement with the city that called for it to handle the soils and clean up some PCBs, mostly found on building surfaces where transformers were located.

The final piece of the project may actually make the city a little money. To make the parcel more developable, the city has proposed to fill in the lower level to even it out with the dike that runs along the Chicopee River. The plan will give a developer a larger expanse of flat land and reduce the slope where the campus sits, Pouliot said. The proposal is complicated and the city continues to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to receive approvals for the work. It has stockpiled crushed brick from some of the razed buildings and plans to sell the space to construction companies looking for places to dump clean fill. The key: any new fill must meet the chemical characteristics of the soil composition that is already there. For example, the property can’t be filled with large chunks of stone and cannot be contaminated, he said.

“There seems to be a market for space to dump fill. There is not a place to bring it anymore,” Pouliot said. Any money the city receives will go into the general fund and defray costs spent on the project. As the project comes to a close, Pouliot and Mayor John L. Vieau, who was a city councilor when the first building was torn down, are looking forward to how the property can be used.

The city is now in negotiations to sell the final piece of land that was once part of the Facemate campus to a developer who has not been named yet. The developer wants to build an indoor sports complex, apartments and turn the former historic Baskin warehouse on the property into a restaurant. Vieau, who took over as mayor in January, said he knows the easiest way to prevent tax increases while still providing city services is to encourage new growth. He said he is excited to see private owners developing property that has not generated taxes for years. “We can use the property, we will have new tax revenue and reactivate the neighborhood,” Pouliot said. “Where else can you find 20 acres of open land in the middle of the oldest, densest neighborhood.”