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Rethinking a hospital site

New ideas raised on how to reuse Medfield State as 80-acre cleanup nears end

John Thompson, chairman of an environmental review panel, says it is crucial to keep contaminants out of the Charles River and town water supply. John Thompson, chairman of an environmental review panel, says it is crucial to keep contaminants out of the Charles River and town water supply. (Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe)
By James O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / July 7, 2011

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What to do with Medfield State Hospital?

Six years after an environmental cleanup began at the closed institution for mentally ill patients, 80 acres that are slated for redevelopment, about a third of the grounds, should be clear of contaminants this summer.

But state and local officials still do not agree on what should go there.

Some people suggest housing, others favor medical or research facilities. There are some who would like to see a college or university, and others who want nothing more than a riverside park there.

While new leadership at the state Division of Capital Asset Management has brought fresh energy to the process - a meeting with Medfield officials is scheduled at the State House next Monday - the future of the hospital grounds is still uncertain.

“What I’ve said to the selectmen is, let’s kind of start over and take a fresh look,’’ said Carole Cornelison, who took over as commissioner in March. “Let’s take a fresh look at what all of the possible options are, together. This is not a push-down, and it’s not a them-versus-us scenario.’’

The hospital, which housed up to 2,200 patients with mental illnesses, closed in 2003. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, its grounds (but not its buildings) are currently open to the public during daylight hours, and it was one of the primary locations for Martin Scorsese’s 2010 motion picture, “Shutter Island.’’

About 106 acres have already been set aside as state conservation land, and 39 acres are slated for town ownership. The plan for the remaining 80 acres, as generally conceived by Medfield and state officials about five years ago, had been to build a 440-unit housing development, including senior and low-income residences.

That seems to have changed since the national economic crisis, however.

Michael Sullivan, Medfield’s town administrator, says selectmen and other officials are ready to go back to the table.

“We’re there to listen,’’ he said of next week’s meeting. “The housing market is not what it used to be five or 10 years ago, so maybe they have to take a fresh look.’’

A fresh look, according to Cornelison, includes reconsidering ideas that were set aside in past conversations with the state.

In the past, for example, the property’s distance from major highways and public transportation was considered a hindrance to business development. Now, Cornelison said, the division’s consultants will consider whether the site could attract light-industrial tenants such as medical companies or research and development.“At this point,’’ said Cornelison, “I guess, in very general terms, that the option that would be attractive to me would be one that had something to do with job creation.’’

That idea also appeals to Osler Peterson, a Medfield selectman.

“If you could find a business use that could go in there, that might be best for the town, in that it could reap the tax revenue generated,’’ Peterson said. “I think everybody would be very willing to look at that again.’’

Another idea getting a fresh look is siting a college or university campus at the location.

Cornelison said developers have recently talked to officials at the Division of Capital Asset Management about the site as a candidate for classroom facilities. She declined to name the school interested in the location, saying the discussion is in the early stages.

However, Sullivan expressed doubts about the idea. “We tried that before,’’ he said. “I’m not sure, given all the college campuses there are today, whether a new college campus is a viable thing. But who knows?’’

Meanwhile, both Sullivan and Peterson said they have heard from residents who worry that redevelopment of the state hospital grounds could come at an unwanted price. Among the concerns are a fear that housing could bring new children who would strain the town’s schools, and worry that the potential for new tax revenue could be lost if a college or university were to move in.

“A vast majority of people here would probably like to see it just get turned into a forest or a riverside park,’’ Sullivan said.

Cornelison acknowledged their concerns.

“I understand where they’re coming from,’’ she said. “I don’t know if that will mean a percentage of the parcel gets left as open space, but these are things that you have to look at critically when this kind of opportunity is put on the table.’’

As officials work toward a plan for reusing the property, the state is also some $10 million and five years into the task of isolating and removing hazardous materials still in the soil, some of it near the Charles River.

Over its 111-year history, Medfield State Hospital generated pollutants such as oil, pesticides, volatile organic chemicals such as dry-cleaning fluids, and ash and incinerator debris.

Luckily for the redevelopment effort, the most challenging contamination is located in areas other than the 80 acres slated for reuse.

But the contamination is close to more than one body of water, said John Thompson, chairman of Medfield’s State Hospital Environmental Review Committee.

“My group is concerned because the Charles River is there, as a receptor, and you have the town’s public drinking water supply as well,’’ Thompson said. The state “has agreed to take samples from our water supply well on a monthly basis to make sure none of the volatile organic chemicals get into the water supply.’’

Already, state crews have taken away asbestos and other solid waste. Work is expected to be complete on one oil-spill site within the redevelopment parcel this summer. But complete removal of oil and perchloroethylene dry-cleaning chemicals from other parts of the hospital grounds could take years, even decades.

The Environmental Review Committee is slated to meet with state officials today to discuss further steps in the hospital cleanup.

“We’re continuing to determine the extent of any additional contamination,’’ Cornelison said. “We’re due to have a report by the end of this summer that will give a kind of assessment and direction for that process, the total process of dealing with those environmental hazards.’’