Vacant land where the Procopio Companies plans to build a large housing complex

Vacant land that runs along the Merrimack River in Bradford and is across from the MBTA train station is where the Procopio Companies plan to build a large housing complex.

HAVERHILL — After more than 20 years of trying to find a buyer, the city has finally sold the former Ornsteen Heel property on the Bradford side of the Merrimack River to the Procopio Companies of Lynnfield for $1 million.

Mayor James Fiorentini said the company recently paid the city its asking price and plans to create a sweeping housing project along the banks of the river and across from the MBTA train station.

In June, the city council approved selling the blighted parcel of city-owned land near the Comeau Bridge for $1 million to the Procopio Companies.

The project ran into a snag recently when the state Department of Environmental Protection appealed the city’s Conservation Commission’s issuance of a permit to the Procopio Companies noting the company had met all environmental concerns.

But in a letter from DEP dated Nov. 5, the state agency said the project does not meet performance standards for Bordering Land Subject to Flooding, which requires “compensatory flood storage to have an unrestricted hydraulic connection to the same waterway or waterbody.”

“From what I understand they’ve already redesigned the project,” Fiorentini said “They will work this out and if it does delay the project, it won’t be my much.”

City Conservation Technician Rob Moore said the project’s design calls for flood water to enter a massive gallery of concrete drainage chambers under the building’s garage floor.

“DEP would like to take a closer look at this design to see if, in its opinion, this is an “unrestricted” flow path,” he said.

Conservation Commission member and spokesman Ralph Basiliere said the commission expected DEP to exercise superseding authority and is working with all parties on a resolution to that agency’s concerns.

“I do expect a site visit from DEP,” he said. “This is an important issue that needs to be resolved but will likely not cause significant delays to the project as all parties are acting in good faith.”

Fiorentini said the city had issued four requests for proposals (RFPs) over 20 years for the land at 31-35 Railroad Ave. and that the Procopio Companies came forward with the best proposal for putting this vacant commercial property back into productive use.

He said the Ornsteen family had sold the land decades ago and after the subsequent owner failed to pay their property taxes, the city acquired the 4.8 acre property.

“We’ve been trying to sell this land going back to the (James) Rurak administration,” Fiorentini said. “I have to give him a lot of credit as he first proposed selling it, knowing it would be very valuable in the future.”

The site is called the Ornsteen Heel property because decades ago it was the home of a company by the same name that was part of Haverhill’s shoe manufacturing community.

The complex is projected to generate just over $19.2 million for the city over 20 years, including the purchase price ($1 million), permit fees ($900,000) and tax revenue ($17.3 million), Fiorentini said. According to the developers, the project will provide 280 temporary construction jobs and 20 to 30 permanent retail and restaurant jobs once the complex opens. Haverhill residents will be given priority, they said.

According to the proposal, the Procopio firm would build up to 290 upscale waterfront apartments; 10,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; 33,000 square feet of public parks and playgrounds and extensive public walking paths and trails. The mayor said the site where a gas station once operated is owned by a trust set up by the city to create a park.

A proposal to build a boat dock for watercraft such as kayaks plus a walking path leading to that dock has been set aside out of concerns for disruption to the riverbank and to a sturgeon spawning area in that stretch of the river, city conservation officials said.

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