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Funds Now in Place for City to Turn Brownfield Into Park

City gets last $500,000 from state grant to wrap up funding on park project downtown.

City officials were glad to announce recently that the money is now all in place to finally turn a long vacant lot, a brownfield, downtown into a neighborhood park.

The fenced in 1.3 acres of land at 45 Walnut St., formerly home to a tanning business, was considered an “eyesore” by more than a few local officials until the city purchased the lot three years ago and cleared away the overgrown grass and weeds.

The city received word on Dec. 20 that a grant for $497,000 was approved by Mass Development. The money, which comes from a state brownfield redevelopment fund, will pay for the removal of contaminated soils and capping the site with a geotextile layer and clean fill.

The end result, says city officials, will create some much-needed green space in the downtown – an amenity for the neighborhood and an obvious complement to nearby businesses and civic institutions, such as the library.

“My administration continues to invest in the downtown area and this project has the ability to become a gathering place for residents, employees and business patrons of the downtown neighborhood for generations to come,” said Mayor Michael Bonfanti in a press statement.

The lot is situated behind the post office on Wallis Street on the other side of the North River, not far from the . A footbridge to connect to Wallis Street is still in the plans for the future.

The site used to be the home of New England Sportswear, which closed up shop more than 20 years ago and left pollutants in the soil and groundwater, much the same story as at other old tanneries and industrial operations.

Upon entering a sales agreement with the property owner in 2008, the city pursued multiple sources of funding for the project with both federal and state agencies since then. Initially, the city was awarded a $550,000 grant from the state to purchase the land and build the park. Another $240,000 was secured from a similar federal brownfield fund last year to pay for site remediation.

The city had hoped to open the park this past June.

The hitch in the plans, however, came earlier this year when the city discovered there were additional chemical pollutants in the soil that were missed in preliminary analysis of the site. The presence of dioxins (highly toxic chemical compounds) meant the cleanup was going to be costlier and the scope of the project had to be dramatically scaled back. (Polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs are similar to dioxins.)

Only a relatively small portion of the existing site could be disturbed under environmental regulations.

Another problem was that state officials also told the city they didn’t want to see any reduction in flood storage on the site. City planners say the original design would have increased storage on-site, but they later realized that was impractical with such low-lying land.

That forced the city to go back to the drawing board and eliminate public access to any areas where dioxins are. The design for the park now is a horseshoe-shaped walking path with some benches around what are described as water gardens.

There is still a small amount of space allotted for parking off Walnut Street, but no more playground, playing field or other recreational uses.

The City Council agreed to spend $265,000 earlier this fall from preservation funds to help with the cleanup. In total, the project has doubled to $1.5 million since it was first proposed, although except for the preservation funds, the entire project is still covered by grant money.

City officials say about $800,000 will be spent on design, permitting and construction while the rest goes to cleanup costs. The hope now is for the new park to open in June 2013.

Bonfanti said he eyes the redevelopment of 45 Walnut St. as not only part of a general effort to revitalize the downtown, but also as a catalyst to the long dormant RiverWalk project.

“This site is serving as a pilot project to address the environmental challenges the city will need to consider when developing the future RiverWalk and other underutilized lots throughout the downtown,” said Bonfanti. “The property is considered a brownfields site and the conditions the city encountered at 45 Walnut Street will more than likely exist throughout the North River Corridor in future endeavors.”

Even so, Bonfanti argues it’s “imperative” that the polluted sites along the river be brought to much better use.

“The revitalization of Peabody Square depends on it,” he said.

“MassDevelopment is pleased to be part of the team working to transform 45 Walnut Street into a park that will serve the city of Peabody and help attract future downtown development,” said MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones in a press statement.

The state agency works with businesses, nonprofits, financial institutions and communities to stimulate economic growth across Massachusetts. Earlier this year, the agency also awarded Peabody $1.5 million to overhaul Main Street.

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