MWRA 'still open' to talks on odor facility

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority this week said it is still open to negotiations on a tense standoff over the design of an "odor control" facility on Columbia Point, but Joseph J. Corcoran - whose company plans a billion-dollar development next door - is sticking to his guns, saying Corcoran Jennison Cos. should not have to pay an extra dime to make sure the neighborhood isn't impacted by fumes.

"The authority has been able to complete an awful lot because we have been able to maintain community and neighborhood support," said Fred Laskey, executive director of the MWRA board. "So if we can come to some sort of agreement and make Mr. Corcoran happy, we think that's a good investment."

The disagreement is a classic case of "not in my back yard" - or at least not like that - save that the closest back yard is owned by a single developer who has submitted plans to the city for a billion dollar development that would create several entire blocks of new retail, office and residential space, including new roads and other infrastructure on the site of the Bayside Expo Center. All of which could bring in significant revenue for the city and the state.

To build all that, Joe J. Corcoran said this week that he cannot have even the possibility of a stink ruining a meal at an al fresco restaurant come May 2011 when the odor control facility is set to be finished. That unknown factor would not sell well to prospective tenants.

The odor control facility will sit atop an 18-million gallon tunnel that extends 2.1 miles to near Castle Island. The tunnel is part of a vast court-ordered project to capture stormwater - that combines with raw sewage in Boston's old sewer system during heavy rains - and send it out to Deer Island for treatment.

When finished, it may make Carson Beach one of the nations' cleanest urban beaches.

Rain events that would trigger combined stormwater-sewage outflow would occur an average of 20-times a year, according to the MWRA. And Corcoran's odor engineer is worried about heavier, peak rain events, which are less frequent.

If the facility goes forward as planned, Corcoran said, he would be forced to drastically change the nature of Bayside on the Point, taking out the outdoor shopping aspects and perhaps focusing on an office park or indoor shopping.

And, according to Tech Environmental's Michael Lannan, a consultant to Corcoran, during peak rain events a wide swath of Dorchester and South Boston could be affected if the MWRA is wrong.

"This isn't a Corcoran and MWRA dispute," said Corcoran. "This is the MWRA and the community. We've done everything we can do with the MWRA. The community has to step in and take it from here because we don't think those plans will work."

Catherine O'Neill, communications director at Corcoran Jennison, plans to take the issue to civic associations and others in the neighborhood in the coming weeks.

"That's all I'm going to be doing," she said.

Laskey says that the MWRA is still open to negotiations and counter-offers, but he added that each day the window for compromise gets smaller. In order to meet court-ordered deadlines, the MWRA figures the design for the facility would have to be complete by April. And an underground design, which Corcoran is pressing for, would take longer to draw up.

The odor control facility, as the MWRA proposed it, uses activated carbon filters to treat the stinky air, which is pushed out of the tunnel by incoming stormwater and released from a 40-foot-high stack. Lannan contends that the wind blowing in from the ocean would flow over the 35-foot high brick building next to the stack that houses two giant fans, carrying the smells from the 40-foot high stack down to the ground on the other side, where neighbor's noses might be.

If it was underground, he said, that "downwash" effect would be eliminated.

"Our argument is we're so far below the level that is noticeable that it doesn't matter if there's a downwash," Laskey said this week.

"Why not build in an extra redundancy?" said Corcoran. "They should be very conservative in how they approach this."

The two sides have been negotiating and studying the design behind closed doors since November 2006, when the MWRA first notified Corcoran of the easement onto their property. The MWRA offered to split the $3 million extra that the agency says it would cost to sink the facility, but Corcoran balked.

Corcoran suggested the MWRA commandeer some of the money the company will have to pay the Boston Water and Sewer Commission to build new plumbing for the new Bayside on the Point, but the MWRA refused.

So last month, the MWRA board voted to move forward with their original design, a 35-foot vent house with a 40-foot stack.

As the Reporter first reported on Nov. 20, Corcoran then promptly informed the city that he would have to halt his project. Corcoran contends it would cost only $1 million extra if the machinery were designed on a smaller footprint, his company wouldn't have control over costs, and he is adamant he will not pay a dime for it anyway.

"That's the principal of it: 'Why does a private guy have to pay for something that's done right?'" said Corcoran. "I'm not suggesting they do anything extra, I'm suggesting they do it the right way."

Members of nearby civic associations are not exactly scrambling to tackle the issue, and strong feelings on either side are hard to find.

"This is a tough one," said Millie Rooney from the McCormack Civic Association (also the wife of Jim Rooney, who oversees the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center). "Maybe somebody needs to come in besides the MWRA and Corcoran to tell people: 'Yes, this should go underground,' some kind of MIT professor or something. If I got that I'd be willing to go the extra bucks."

"We decided we're going to proceed with caution," said Deirdre Habershaw, president of the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association. "We need to have a few more discussions internally."

Both will have representatives at a meeting of the Columbia Point Master Planning Task Force, 5 p.m. on Dec. 18 at BC High School, where the MWRA is expected to present their design. Earlier coverage Odor facility clouds future of Bayside project - Nov. 20, 2008 Odor control facility raises new questions on Columbia Point- Feb. 21, 2008