Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Price of Gas

From Dave Brigham:

The smokestack in the background tells you that you're in an industrial area. Well, you would've been if you were standing here 100 years ago. The brick buildings that once stood on this site in Waltham, Mass., were torn down years ago, replaced by a restaurant, movie theater, parking garage and public housing. The smokestack is on the former Francis Cabot Lowell Mill, one of America's first textile mills. The mill is now home to senior housing, the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation and a public Internet center.

The area in this photo between the fence and the tree line -- that's what grabs my interest. While all else around the site has been developed, this place remains vacant, because it will require some major clean-up.

This is Cooper Street, a short, dog-legged piece of road that runs off Pine Street and behind Ristorante Marcellino. This is where the Waltham Gas Light Company once stood. According to Wikipedia, this area was "one of the oldest industrial complexes on the south side of the city, with brick buildings dating to 1854-55, not long after the founding of" the gas company.

In 1902, the gas company acquired the old Parmenter Crayon Company building, according to the Waltham Museum web site. Waltham Gas at that point became owner of the entire Cooper Street area west of the Watertown railroad tracks.

Just seven years later, according to the museum web site, Waltham Gas shut down, "transferring its electrical business to Boston Edison, which still operates an electrical substation in a nearby former company building. The other company buildings were converted to other manufacturing uses, and were demolished in 2007."

I've been unable to find out who owns the vacant lot, but I did locate information about the site, a place that I've wondered about for years as I've walked by or parked in the nearby lot for a movie or for dinner.

According to a Bentley University research paper about the nearby Moody Street commercial sector, the City of Waltham doesn't own the property, which "is believed to be the site of heavy waste contamination." The report states that a chemical has been placed on the property to prevent contaminants from spreading to the nearby Charles River. The Bentley team estimated in its report six years ago that scrubbing the site might cost between $1 million and $3 million.

The city and the property owner have apparently been fighting about who should pay for the cleanup. The city evidently would like to use the site as additional parking for the busy Moody Street shopping and dining district.

In the meantime, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is doing its part to beautify the area. Directly across the river from this site, in the shadow of that smokestack, the DCR is connecting an existing part of the Charles River Greenway on Elm Street by building a boardwalk under a bridge and connecting it to a new path where until recently there were abandoned train tracks leading to a trestle.

Here's what the site looked like shortly after the DCR started:

I know I have a shot of the old trestle that used to hang over this site as it crossed the river between the Francis Cabot Lowell mill building and a car wash, stopping just short of the Cooper Street site in question. But I can't find it. I did dig up a shot I took of the trash that used to fill the site where the DCR is now building the boardwalk.

Observant Backside fans will recall I posted this shot in January 2011. Who tosses a perfectly good acoustic guitar down a hill?

So, with the state beautifying the area just across the river from the Cooper Street property and tearing down the old trestle (which I suppose some saw as an eyesore; I thought it gave a nice patina to the area), I imagine there will be pressure to settle the differences over the cleanup and move forward to put the old Waltham Gas site to some sort of use.

Here's a Google Maps view of the property (first time here on the Backside that I've tried this).

The site in question sits directly behind (or above, in this map) the building marked Ristorante Marcellino. Just under the white box in the upper left corner that I wish I could get rid of, there is the outline of what I believe was a rather large gas tank.

I understand the City of Waltham would like to use this area to expand parking, but it would be nice if it were used as pure green space.

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