The Last Big Piece of the Puzzle
Lee Pouliot says he’s always had what he calls a bit of a fascination with what is known simply as the Uniroyal property in Chicopee — although there is nothing simple about it.
He grew up the city, but, because he’s only 37 (and a BusinessWest 40 Under Forty winner in 2020), all he’s known of the buildings — most of them, anyway — is as empty shells, the subjects of stories that almost every long-time resident of this community tells about working at the tire-manufacturing complex, or being related to someone who did.
While he was earning a master’s degree in landscape architecture at Cornell more than a dozen years ago, Pouliot took this fascination to a higher level, engaging himself and a few of his classmates in a final project — one that would create a development plan for the complex of buildings for the Uniroyal and adjacent Facemate properties, located in the center of the city.
Later, as an intern in the Chicopee’s Community Development office and then as a staffer in that office, he worked with city leaders to move a project to redevelop that complex, through a series of critical next steps.
“The reality is that there are a number of developers who have considerable experience with mill conversions. And so, in some ways, the city is trying to target developers who have this kind of experience, in the hope that we can see something creative done with those buildings that keeps them standing.”
And now, as city planner, a position he’s held since 2015, Pouliot is playing a lead role in writing what is essentially the final chapter in a long, complicated story that has, in some ways, been more than 40 years in the making.
This chapter involves a 9.58-acre parcel at the Uniroyal site, one of two yet to be developed, the other a 10-acre parcel being eyed by the city for recreational uses. A request for proposals was recently issued for the first of those parcels, which includes four buildings, including one that served as an administration building.
Those requests are due back on July 21, and Pouliot, like everyone else in the city, is anxious to see what the development community has in mind for this parcel, which is being marketed as RiverMills at Chicopee Falls, and especially the four remaining buildings on it, which the city opted not to demolish, in part because of their structural soundness.
“The reality is that there are a number of developers who have considerable experience with mill conversions,” he explained. “And so, in some ways, the city is trying to target developers who have this kind of experience, in the hope that we can see something creative done with those buildings that keeps them standing.”
The bid package issued by the city touts this as “one of the largest contiguous areas of former industrial properties poised for redevelopment in Western Massachusetts.”
Further, the big package notes, “unlike other comparable sites, most of the costly and lengthy procedures required to prepare for redevelopment have been completed, reducing the risk and uncertainty typically associated with brownfield redevelopment.”
It is hoped that these amenities, if they can be called that, will trigger the imaginations of developers and yield some intriguing proposals, said Pouliot, adding that there are many possible uses for the buildings and the property. Housing is still a priority for the city and region, and the buildings, with some work, will lend themselves to that purpose. But there are other potential uses as well, he said, including retail, hospitality, and service businesses.
For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Pouliot about the long journey that Chicopee has taken to reach this critical juncture with the Uniroyal property, and what might happen next.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
When asked what it was like, personally and professionally, to see the project reach this important milestone, Pouliot exhaled, glanced toward the ceiling, and then shook his head a few times.
“Housing is still a priority. I think anyone looking at the state of housing in the Commonwealth, or this country, would be foolish not to consider housing a likely piece of redevelopment here.”
The body language spoke volumes about the length and complexity of this project, which has been ongoing — in some respects, anyway — longer than he’s been alive and has involved several different mayors, planners, and Community Development directors.
“In some ways, it feels odd that we’re nearing the end because so much of our time has been focused on getting to this point,” he said. “But it’s also significant — this has been no small feat for a community of Chicopee’s size; this is a huge milestone for the city.”
Recapping the Uniroyal story quickly, Pouliot said it starts back in the late 1800s, when that the land was first used for manufacturing. From 1896 to 1898, the property was owned by Spaulding and Pepper Co., which manufactured bicycle tires. Fisk Rubber Co., which later changed its name to United States Rubber Co. and then to Uniroyal, manufactured bicycle, automobile, and truck tires and adhesives at the site from 1898 to 1981.
Uniroyal closed its plant in 1980 and sold the property — which stretched over 65 acres and included 23 buildings — to Facemate Corp., located adjacent to Uniroyal, in 1981.
Fast-forwarding, he said the city spent years working to acquire both the Uniroyal and Facemate property (Facemate went bankrupt in 2003), and did so in 2009, soon embarking on a massive cleanup that would cost more than $40 million and involve federal, state, and local money, while also planning work for development.
Eventually, individual parcels on the site were developed; the initial redevelopment project involved construction of the RiverMills Senior Center. Later, a private developer built River Mills Assisted Living at Chicopee Falls on a three-acre parcel. A third, four-acre parcel has been optioned to Brisa Development LLC of New York, which plans to build a mixed-use development that includes a 107-unit apartment building, an indoor sports complex, and a brewery and restaurant.
The 9.58-acre parcel that is the subject of the request for proposals is essentially the last big piece of the puzzle, said Pouliot, adding that it’s dominated by the four remaining Uniroyal buildings.
One is the administration building, or Building 26. The city has an agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Commission to try to see that structure redeveloped, he explained, adding that it is eligible for listing on the National Historic Register.
There is also a smaller building, what Pouliot called a retail shop for Fisk Rubber Co., where it sold and even installed tires, as well as two large manufacturing buildings, numbered 27 and 42, that are considered to be in “structurally decent condition,” he said.
“Instead of incurring the cost of demolition, which would have been a few million dollars more than what we were paying for cleanup, we decided to preserve them and see if there was appetite within the development community to do something with them,” he explained, adding that, if there is no appetite for taking them on, the city will look at what developers are proposing and decide the best course from there.
“We’re not going to predicate a decision on just whether or not all the buildings can be reused,” he said. “Certainly it is the city’s intention to sell the land and see something happen; this is just one of the criteria we’re looking at to see what the development community can respond with.
“There are a number of developers who would prefer raw land, but the reality with this site is that it’s not raw land,” he went on. “You could consider this an industrial archaeological site; there are going to be limitations on development regardless of whether the buildings are standing or not.”
Elaborating, Pouliot said he’s learned much about the property — and tire manufacturing — over the years, including the fact that, at some point between the two world wars (exactly when he’s not sure), the U.S. government began to oversee rubber production to make sure there would be enough tires for the war effort.
This government involvement helps explain why many of the buildings at the Uniroyal site, including Buildings 27 and 42, were built to withstand aerial bombing, he went on, adding that the structures are still sound a century or more after they were built, in some cases, which may become a factor in whether those in the development community want to try to do something with them. “Their structural capacity is incredible.”
Returning to the matter of what the city would like to see by way of development, Pouliot said priorities were spelled out in the River Mills Vision Plan, the development plan created for both the Uniroyal and Facemate properties combined.
“We were looking for redevelopment that reconnected these properties to the Chicopee Falls neighborhood and supported the neighborhood with appropriate-scale development,” he said of the overarching objective, adding that there hasn’t been any connection, other than history, for many years.
This effort would ideally be a mixed-use project that can connect people with the river, he went on, adding that housing was, and still is, a need within the city.
“Housing is still a priority,” he said. “I think anyone looking at the state of housing in the Commonwealth, or this country, would be foolish not to consider housing a likely piece of redevelopment here.”
When asked for a timeline for the project, Pouliot said the city will likely take six to eight months to review the submitted proposals before eventually choosing a preferred developer. That developer will then need time to secure the various forms of financing that will be needed, he said, adding that it will likely be two to four years before work actually commences.
View to the Future
Returning to that project that he and a few of his classmates took on at Cornell, Pouliot said that, while creating that development plan — one that in many ways mirrored the one crafted by the city — he and the others involved worked to get a “feel for the community’s relationship with this property, its context within the city, and what they wanted to see.
“And one of the big takeaways, even for me, having grown up in this city, was just how many families had someone who worked at this property throughout history,” he went on. “So many people could tie themselves back to a sports league or working there, or the shift changes — we heard so many stories about how loud and noisy Chicopee Falls was when that plant was operating, and the volume of people.”
For the better part of 40 years now, most all talk concerning Uniroyal has been in the past tense. But if the request for proposals yields the imaginative concepts that city officials are hoping for, that will soon change — and people will start talking about what’s happening there now, not what happened a half-century or more ago.
As Pouliot noted, it’s odd in some ways to be at this point in the process. But it’s also quite rewarding. There’s plenty of work left to do, but a milestone has been reached.