What Lies Beneath: The Brownfields of New Street & Vicinity

Pile of dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

Pile of uncovered dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

In the rush to transform the former industrial area along New Street into a residential neighborhood, there has been a troubling lack of discussion about what kind of industry historically took place there, and an unfortunate lack of public awareness about the types and amounts of hazardous waste those prior uses have left behind.

Just days before the Cambridge Planning Board’s July 22 public hearing on a proposal to construct a 93-unit apartment building on the industrial parcel at 75 New Street, we learned that the site contains dangerously high levels of heavy metals (lead and barium), toxins (arsenic), petroleum byproducts (TPH), and known carcinogens (at least three hydrocarbons, including benzo[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, and benzo[b]fluoranthene). We learned this not from the developer (AbodeZ Acorn New Street LLC) or the City, but from a “Notice of Release Form” filed with the Mass Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) on June 4th. The July 22nd public hearing was the third on this project (the first was in early March), and the subject of the site being a brownfields has never been mentioned. Not once.

The amounts of the hazardous substances in soil samples at 75 New Street far exceed the permitted “safe” levels. The level of lead is more than 7 times the permitted level; total petroleum hydrocarbons exceed the permitted level by 3.5 times; benzo(a)pyrene is present at up to 5 times the legal limit; and arsenic exists at 35% above permitted levels. On June19th, MassDEP notified the developer of its strict statutory liability to assess and remediate the site within one year. Environmental risk reports like these are in the category of publicly available information that 99.9% of the public never sees or hears about – unless you regularly troll the MassDEP website, or work for a city agency like the Department of Public Works that receives official notices from the State. Very few people are aware of what lies beneath our streets and basements, or the potential risk to public health of not knowing and taking protective measures. (These reports are available on the MassDEP website’s waste site and reportable release file viewer under RTN 3-32213.)

The Planning Board did not hear about the extent of the toxic waste on the site at 75 New Street, because the developer did not volunteer the information before or during last week’s hearing, and our letter and its five supporting documents (emailed the day before the hearing), which contained the details of these findings, were withheld from the Board for procedural reasons that remain unclear to us. So the Board did not have critical information that might have informed their deliberation on Special Permit General Criteria 10.43: whether residential development on this former industrial parcel would pose a “detriment to health, safety or welfare of occupants or citizens.” Those at potential risk would include the residents living next door in the proponent’s “Park 87” building (including quite a few young children), Danehy Park users (home field of Cambridge Youth Soccer and the high school’s athletics teams), people at the adjacent Fresh Pond shopping center, and construction workers on the site itself, all of whom could be exposed to airborne dust containing toxic substances during excavation and construction at 75 New Street, if the project is approved.

The Problems Don’t Stop at the Property Line

Park 87 building

Park 87 building

We also just learned that the soil at Park 87 (the 54-unit apartment building constructed next door in 2010 by the same developer as “Phase I” of the complex) had very high levels of toxic waste, though not as high as the levels at #75. To prepare the Park 87 site for the construction of housing, AbodeZ Acorn was required by MassDEP to replace the soil to a depth of roughly 10 feet, install a vapor barrier, ventilation system, and monitoring wells under the building’s foundation, and cap all exposed soil with 3 feet of clean fill. The contaminated soil was trucked out of the area on the public streets.

In February 2011 – two months after the first residents had begun to move into the new building – AbodeZ Acorn issued a 495-page Release Abatement Measure Completion Report detailing the extent of the soil contamination at 87 New Street, a report that estimated the post-abatement risk of health problems among utility workers and children, should they contact any polluted soil, water, or air on the site, at 56% and 42%, respectively. (The RAO reports are available on the MassDEP website’s file viewer under RTN 3-28725.)

In fact, the apartment building at 87 New Street carries numerous legally binding “Activity & Use Limitations” to protect residents of all ages, as well as utility and construction workers, from exposure to the hazardous substances in the soil and groundwater on the site. Ironically, one of the AULs prohibits the site from ever being used as a single-family residence or a daycare facility, yet multi-family use is permitted. In addition, there can be no in-soil gardening on the premises. The property owners also are required to abstain from any extensive construction work (longer than six months) on the site, a condition that does not (yet) apply to their even more contaminated property next door at 75 New Street. (The AUL report for 87 New Street also is available on the MassDEP file viewer site under RTN 3-28725.)

The Concord-Huron sewer separation project produces a lot of dust. What's in it?

The Concord-Huron sewer separation project produces a lot of dust. What’s in it?

We were disturbed to learn that MassDEP has on file numerous reports of high levels of benzo(a)pyrene (and other toxic waste) throughout our Huron Village neighborhood, where all the streets and sidewalks are being excavated and reconstructed in conjunction with the multi-year, multi-million-dollar sewer separation project. More on the problems closer to home in a future post.


How did we get here? The History of New Street

We have heard a great deal about how New Street was the road to the town dump, but the dump operated for a relatively brief period, from 1952 to 1971. In fact, New Street is not new at all; it was first laid out in the mid-19th century when the Danehy area was a swampy clay pit and brickyard well served by freight spurs of the Boston & Maine Railroad. To this point, the name “New Street” first appears in a City atlas in 1878.

1886 map of New St and area. Fresh Pond is at the bottom.

1886 map of New St and area. Fresh Pond is at the bottom.

Mid-20th c. map showing the Cambridge Offal Dept. on New St.

Mid-20th c. map showing the Cambridge Offal Dept. on New St. (yellow square building at right)

From 1901 to 1903, the Cambridge Board of Health operated a smallpox hospital on the site of 75 New Street; few of its patients survived. The City burned the “pest houses” after the epidemic. For more than 30 years, from 1928 to 1962, the City of Cambridge owned the land on New Street that corresponds to today’s parcels at #75 and #87. In 1930 it opened a facility to collect offal (up to 8,000 tons annually according to newspaper reports at the time), which it sold to hog farmers. With the construction of a modern incinerator on Raymond and Bolton Streets in 1939, the City began burning the offal it could not sell, along with its other trash. The large amounts of ash subsequently dumped on city-owned land (more than a dozen former clay pits and ponds in the area, including the present-day sites of the Tobin School, the Concord Avenue Armory, Rindge Towers, Cambridge Park Drive and other parcels later sold to private companies) may be, in part, responsible for the high levels of benzo(a)pyrene still found on New Street. At the time, no one was aware of the health risks, but today benzo(a)pyrene’s link to cancer is well documented. [Note: This paragraph was edited on 8/1/14, based on additional research about the history of offal and waste incineration in Cambridge.]

In 1946, the City of Cambridge acquired all of the land at the north end of New Street encompassing the remainder of 75 and 87 New Street through eminent domain, and used the land for waste fill. Two decades later, in 1968, the City sold two 40,000 square foot parcels to two local, family-owned businesses: the Ugliettos of Cubby Oil acquired #87 for fuel oil storage, and the Adams bought #75 for their window business. The Adams family subsequently bought out the Ugliettos in 1980, recombining both parcels, before selling all of their land to AbodeZ Acorn LLC over the last few years for a total price of $8.25 million. That’s a high price for a brownfields that abuts an auto body shop, another business that could pose health risks to future neighbors. Directly behind 75 New Street are the loading docks of Whole Foods, which operate 24/7. But developers see huge potential in this evolving neighborhood, so long as they can maximize the floor-area-ratio (FAR) through special permits to reduce setbacks.

Piecemeal Planning Fails Us Again

In summary, while window manufacturing at J&C Adams seems like a relatively clean form of industry, the alarming results of the recent environmental tests at 75 New Street have opened a window to New Street’s industrial history, a history that needs to be much more closely examined by all parties before any more permits, special or otherwise, are granted. The Concord-Alewife Plan entirely ignored the need to remediate known and likely brownfields in the process of redeveloping an area “whose special character derives from its industrial history.” Published in 2005, the 89-page report included not a single word on the area’s legacy of hazardous waste.

Cambridge DPW also would have to consider these significant environmental risks in undertaking its planned reconstruction of New Street’s sidewalks and streetscape to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, as one can assume that the contamination does not stop at the proponent’s property line. In fact, Cambridge DPW already has a Notice of Release Form on file regarding extensive contamination at the City’s own storm water pumping station on New Street. The location of the release is actually directly across the street from 75 New Street. In truth, the City has good reason to expect that most of the formerly industrial land in the Concord-Alewife area is contaminated to some degree. Like traffic and flooding, environmental pollution that can easily migrate underground cannot be adequately addressed on a piecemeal, project-by-project basis, and redevelopment will require far better coordination and communication among city and state officials and residents than has so far been demonstrated with these New Street projects.

This post begins to tell a story that we hope will elicit much more discussion, as the City continues redeveloping a part of town whose industrial past has remained buried up to now.

Copies of the documents that the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance submitted to the Planning Board on this topic are available upon request. Please email freshpondresidents@gmail.com.

Pile of uncovered dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

Pile of uncovered dirt at 75 New St. Gate was unlocked.

Parking lot at 75 New St. At right is driveway to Park 87 apartments.

Parking lot at 75 New St. At right is driveway to Park 87 apartments. Multiple dirt piles left over from soil sampling should have been removed from the site.

An auto body shop abuts the south side of 75 New St.

An auto body shop abuts the south side of 75 New St.

Loading docks for Fresh Pond mall behind 75 New St.

Loading docks for Fresh Pond mall behind 75 New St.


9 thoughts on “What Lies Beneath: The Brownfields of New Street & Vicinity

  1. Excellent research and writing, again. Thank you.

    Note that there is also a known toxic plume near New St., in the Concord Av area: under Cambridge Self Storage. (a site which had a history of a few manufacturing uses resulting toxic waste.) This extends under Fern st, and is monitored for plume migration by an independent firm that is required to file DEP reports. This became an issue when Lyman Trust, that owns, it wanted to developers for condos about 10 yrs ago. The clay below retards the migration some, however, it may pose further risks to disturb it.

    In addition, much of the land off Concord beyond the two rotaries, between Fresh Pond Parkway and Belmont was industrial and still is. Makes one wonder what lies beneath the new (Fawcett St., Wheeler St., etc.) and proposed apt buildings there, and very close to Our Fair City’s reservoir.


  2. Seems like the new 2 football fields long apartment building should be pulled if in fact it has been obtained. Thank you for this very informative report. It is pretty appalling
    to read about all the toxic information and the city to have not mentioned a word about it.


  3. Thank you ever so much for this information. I have forwarded this email to the Coolidge Hill Residents. Has the permit for the 2nd apartment building –bigger one—2 football fields long on New Street been obtained by the developer? Can it be rescinded?

    Again many thanks. I have been unable to attend meetings as I am away until August.

    Beverley Evans 116 Coolidge Hill.


  4. Pingback: In Case You Missed It: Planning Debate Heats Up | Fresh Pond Residents Alliance

  5. Pingback: What Lies Beneath, Part II | Fresh Pond Residents Alliance

  6. It seems to me that they did more than enough to remedy the problem at Park 87. What would you people rather they do, leave the tainted soil there. How about just laying on so many restrictions so the area can remain a blighted former industrial zone. The rebuilding of the street and redevelopment of the property along it is a gift to the people in the area.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s