Downtown Burlington high school site ‘challenging’ and possibly contaminated

Memorial Auditorium in Burlington on Feb. 19, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Real estate consultants said they have found serious issues with a potential downtown location for a new Burlington high school. 

Consultants with real estate firm White + Burke found that the Gateway Block, one of the sites the district is considering for the new high school, could be contaminated with PCBs — the carcinogenic, cancer-causing chemicals that shut down the old high school building last fall. 

The Gateway Block site also could not accommodate every workshop needed for Burlington Technical Center classes and would require significant engineering, the consultants said. 

White + Burke presented those findings to the district’s Finance and Facilities Committee on Tuesday night. The Gateway Block’s feasibility was assessed alongside two other options on the north and south sides of the Institute Road campus where the old high school building stands.

Burlington High students are learning in a converted Macy’s department store while the district rushes to build a new school, aiming to hold classes there in fall 2025. 

The Gateway Block covers a series of parcels on Main Street, stretching from the Memorial Auditorium on South Union Street to a parking lot on South Winooski Avenue. It’s an area of the city that Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has long wanted to redevelop. Weinberger pushed the district to seriously consider the location in its high school site search in September. 

What about the auditorium?

White + Burke presented two options for the Gateway Block: a teardown of Memorial Auditorium, which opened in 1928 and was condemned in 2016, or a renovation. The consultants said PCBs, along with asbestos and lead, were expected because of the structure’s age.

It may not be possible to tear down Memorial Auditorium because of its historic status, according to White + Burke. If it could be torn down, getting the necessary approvals would take significant time.

Because the auditorium is smaller than the old Burlington High School, the consultants said it would likely cost less to remediate the auditorium than the old building. Still, other issues with the site would be complicated for the district to address. 

A new stormwater and sewer system would be needed, which the consultants called an “extensive, costly, and time-consuming project.” The site’s clay soil also requires a deep foundation, which would likely add significant cost. White + Burke said the site’s traffic challenges are not insurmountable but would add complexity to the project. 

The firm also said the Gateway Block site doesn’t have enough space to accommodate all of the classes that the Burlington Technical Center offers, such as aviation, automotive repair and other building trades.

Overall, White + Burke reported its geotechnical engineer “considers the Gateway Block site to be far more challenging than the Institute Road site.” 

Joe Weith, White + Burke’s project manager for the Burlington site evaluations, told VTDigger on Wednesday that his firm hasn’t yet conducted any cost analysis for the sites under consideration, so it’s difficult to say which option would be the most costly. 

“Generally speaking, multiple story or quote-unquote ‘high rise’ developments in downtown settings tend to be more costly than a typical more suburban type of development project with two or three stories,” Weith said.

On Institute Road

The Institute Road north campus site would require an updated stormwater system in accordance with updated state rules, White + Burke consultants said. The firm found no “significant” concerns about water and sewer needs, and had no concerns about contamination in the area because it hasn’t been built on before.

Consultants said a new stormwater system would be needed for the Institute Road south campus site, which would likely create a “significant disturbance” to the track and field area. While the soil of that site could not be fully analyzed, White + Burke said the site’s current conditions would complicate foundation building. 

Some demolition of buildings would be needed for the south campus, but consultants said they don’t expect to find PCB contamination because the structures were built more recently. 

Both Institute Road sites have large open areas, consultants noted, which would make construction and material delivery easier. That is likely to reduce construction time and costs, they said. 

White + Burke’s timeline for the project aims for a final site recommendation by early November, if not by the school board’s Oct. 19 meeting. 

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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