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School of Arts and Sciences

Optimizing Redevelopment

Monday, August 15, 2016

Summer Scholar Miranda Willson, '17, explores the local impact of a Woburn plant closing

Ninian Stein and Miranda Wilson

Miranda Willson (left) and Ninian Stein (right) outside the Kraft Heinz plant with Paul McLaughlin Sr., a former plant worker. (Photo by Chris McNary)

by Greta Jochem, '17

Nine miles outside of Boston in the city of Woburn, the practically century-old Kraft Heinz plant that most recently produced gelatin and other product ingredients, is ceasing operations. The closing of the 57-acre plant has raised questions about how the site will be redeveloped and its impact on the community.

Rising senior Miranda Willson is studying the plant and its redevelopment as part of the Tufts Summer Scholars program, which funds undergraduates pursuing ten-week independent research projects under the guidance of Tufts faculty.

After completing an environmental policy course with Ninian Stein, a lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program, Willson was interested in pursing research that combined her interests as a double major in environmental studies and urban policy and development, a course of study she designed through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Stein, who currently studies industrial reuse and bioregional urbanism, suggested Willson focus her research on industrial redevelopment—the process of converting potentially environmentally-hazardous, former industry sites into new buildings, parks, or mixed-use spaces that benefit the surrounding community. Stein also agreed to act as her faculty advisor for the project.

After researching many potential local sites, Willson chose Kraft Heinz, a large plant that employed hundreds of people. "The site is huge and it's been an important part of the community for many years" she explains. "I'm interested in what this plant has meant for Woburn, a city with a strong industrial and complicated environmental past."

Willson is studying the historical significance of the plant in the community and how it will redevelop, using a combination of academic and journalistic tools to create a narrative piece. Her summer has been spent interviewing local residents and reading about industrial redevelopment and Woburn's history. Willson favors a journalistic approach: she spent last summer working as an environmental reporter at a community newspaper and aspires to become an environmental journalist.

She is keenly interested in the plant's history as a major employer in the area. "Woburn is working class, with a small but growing minority population, and it's impressive how Woburn has kept this working class base and remained affordable while many comparable Boston suburbs have not," says Willson. "I hope this development project does not cause gentrification and brings good jobs for people of different classes to Woburn." Willson hopes the redevelopment project will be able to employ some of the people who were laid off, and that these jobs will be well-paying, unionized, and with benefits.

The creation of reasonably priced housing is also a critical issue for Willson. While the state requires that 10% of the city's housing be considered affordable, only 7% of Woburn's housing is currently deemed affordable. "Given the demographics of the city, they really need more than 10% affordable housing," she says. "Communities often don't know about existing financial incentives, and don't choose to prioritize sustainability and justice issues like affordable housing."

She has contacted the city's redevelopment authority, an engineer employed by the city, and members of the Woburn Historical Society for interviews and hopes to meet with the city's historical commission, concerned community members, and former plant workers. "It's the first time I've undertaken such a large project independently, incorporating many different sources, including historical readings, primary source and government documents, interviews, as well as my knowledge of environmental science," she says.

(From Left) Ninian Stein and Miranda Willson in a forested area of the former Kraft Heinz plant site. (Photo by Chris McNary)

Another priority is examining sustainability and the economic and social needs of the community, including the past environmental impact on the community. "The plant has been fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for spills, and residents have complained about the site's noxious odors for decades," she explains. "The city has had two extremely polluted sites, one of which led to unusually high cancer rates among members of the community and a serious health crisis, so I will strongly consider environmental health concerns when contemplating what the Heinz Kraft site could become," she says.

According to Willson, Kraft Heinz will likely sell the property to a Boston-based developer Leggat McCall, which has been meeting with the city to create a project they can both agree on. "The city wants the plant to become a mixed-use development that offers a limited number of retail services and a limited number of housing units, with the focus being on office space for biotech firms, advanced manufacturing firms, and possibly some city services like day care centers," she explains. "The developer likes this idea, but wants significantly more retail units, double the number of housing units, and a reduction in office space."

Willson was disappointed to learn that the developer is not planning to reuse the existing plant structure. "The city says that it is more cost-effective to demolish the existing buildings and rebuild, although it creates waste and uses resources and energy," says Willson. "Using existing buildings would be making a much more sustainable decision." In addition, the forested areas on the site will also be developed.

Stein, who has wanted to incorporate forest history into her industrial reuse curriculum, has learned much from her work as an advisor on the project. "This is the first time I have closely tracked a modern industrial site that included many acres of undeveloped woodland in the real estate parcel," says Stein, who plans to include suggested readings for understanding forested landscapes and industrial sites in her curriculum.

Drawing from her research, interviews, and studies at Tufts, Willson plans to offer alternative visions for redeveloping the site in her final paper. "I'm learning about the decisions the city has made and is making, but also what factors go into city planning and development projects, including different approaches cities could take toward development," she adds.

The project will culminate in a long-form written piece that she will present at the Summer Scholars poster session in August. She will incorporate her research into her senior thesis, and hopes it will be published in an academic journal or other outlet.

While Stein admits that the fate of the Kraft Heinz site ultimately rests in the hands of the developers, she holds out hope for the positive impact of Willson's project and recommendations. "One can always be optimistic that a perhaps compelling story about a former industrial site might change its trajectory," says Stein.