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Haverhill

Flood wall repairs to begin soon in Haverhill

The din of construction crews will add to the bustle in downtown Haverhill in the coming months as workers repair the city’s failing flood wall and raise the structure by at least two feet.

City officials earlier this month signed a contract with DeFelice Corp. to complete a $5.4 million project designed to protect Haverhill’s commercial area if the Merrimack River floods. The project area is bounded by the Comeau Bridge on the western side of downtown and the Basiliere Bridge just east of the central business district.

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Of the nine bids submitted to the city, DeFelice was the lowest, with a construction bid of $4.6 million, according to Robert E. Ward, deputy director of the city’s Department of Public Works. An additional $800,000 has been set aside for engineering costs and contingencies, he said.

The project includes several key components. In addition to restoring and raising the flood wall, workers will be repairing the pump station by the Washington Square post office and renovating and cleaning the Little River conduit, which runs underground and connects the smaller waterway to the Merrimack River; the conduit is partially blocked by debris. The city is also buying three mobile pumps.

“The design and engineering work is done, so we expect construction to begin in May or June,” said Mayor James J. Fiorentini. The project, he said, will benefit both the city and many downtown property owners by protecting their homes and businesses.

The 76-year-old wall, built after the devastating flood of 1936 left Haverhill’s downtown under several feet of water, is about 30 feet high, though it appears lower because portions of it are under the riverbed. The Army Corps of Engineers flagged the structure for noncompliance after it failed several inspections.

Under federal law, communities must certify flood walls and flood-control systems in order to be eligible for aid in the event of a natural disaster. Noncompliance with federal standards could result in decertification, which would also cause insurance premiums to soar for both businesses and homeowners.

‘Unless you build the flood wall to their specifica-­­tions, they assume the wall isn’t there at all.’

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“Unless you build the flood wall to their specifications, they assume the wall isn’t there at all,” said Fiorentini. “With the feds, there’s only two categories: With a wall and without a wall.”

Noting that “any future growth in the downtown area is going to be mixed use, with businesses on the ground floor and residential units on the upper levels,” Sven Amirian, president of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, said the project would protect such investments in the downtown and address an issue that has been “a huge concern to the chamber.”

The City Council earlier this month cleared the project’s last hurdle by approving easement agreements that ensure workers will have access to the areas in need of work.

The city will pay $4,000 for the permanent right to access the west wing of the flood wall, behind the parking garage at the Riverside Place condominiums and a $1,000 licensing fee to the MBTA for a stretch of railroad track near Little River. The city also secured temporary construction easements for two other parcels to access the Little River conduit; there was no cost to the city for those agreements.

The council in November had approved Fiorentini’s request to borrow as much as $6 million for the flood wall improvements and related work on the flood protection system.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection recently approved Haverhill’s loan request; the money will come through the state’s low-interest revolving fund, according to Ward, and would be repaid over 20 years. However, the city hopes to secure state aid, in the form of forgiveness of a portion of the loan, to help cover the cost of the project.

Fiorentini hopes the flood wall improvements will help to spur the extension of the downtown boardwalk. The two-foot addition to the height of the flood wall has been designed in a way that would support the boardwalk, the mayor said. That would be a separate project.

According to Fiorentini, the city will apply this spring for a grant through the US Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. If Haverhill secures federal funding, the city would start construction of some portions of the boardwalk, he said.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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