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Company looking to revitalize Axe Factory site begins application process

Wetlands submittal is first step toward
regulatory approvals needed
for site remediation
and 'horizontal' infrastructure work

Posted April 26, 2024


By John Fitts Staff Writer

In addition to a mix of uses, the plan to revitalize the axe factory complex includes "improved connections from Main Street, through the site, and to the Farmington River with a series of stairs and accessible ramps, new green space, and new paths to the water.”

COLLINSVILLE ­– A company with close ties to the current owners of the Collins Co. Axe Factory site is looking to revitalize the historic riverfront property with a mix of commercial, residential, retail, restaurant, office and light industrial uses.


That entity, Collinsville Redevelopment Company (CRC), has filed a permit application to the town’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency (IWWA), one of the approvals needed to begin extensive site work that would include soil remediation, grading, and utility installation at the property.


That work – and much more – would come prior to rehabilitation of existing buildings, new infrastructure and additional residential spaces.


The IWWA will likely receive the application the evening of May 9. There could be some discussion of it that evening and the Press will add more details as they become available.


At the helm of CRC are Lisa and Merritt Tilney. Their father, Rusty Tilney, is principal of At Collinsville, LLC, which has owned the 19.3-acre complex since 2002. CRC has an option to purchase the property when approvals are secured.


“Collinsville is a special place,” said Lisa Tilney. “We deeply care about the historic character of the factory and the town, and we believe that a renewed, thriving complex will enhance what is already here. Our hope is that a clean site, new roads and utilities and renovated buildings will support commerce, the arts and create new tax revenue for the town.”


Dozens of small businesses currently operate at the complex, home to the world-famous Collins Co. from 1826 to 1966. Some structures on site, however, are vacant and last year, three buildings were razed following citations from the town. The application notes several concerns surrounding aging infrastructure and structures. Redevelopment has been a long-time and elusive goal for many in town, although residents have varying – and often extremely passionate – opinions about how that should look.


“Our intent is to keep as much of the existing fabric as possible while enhancing the site with new infrastructure and (eventually) renovated buildings,” Merritt Tilney said. “We are hopeful about what this project can do to enrich the experience of our tenants and support the community. Our emphasis is on improved connections from Main Street, through the site, and to the Farmington River with a series of stairs and accessible ramps, new green space, and new paths to the water.”

 

“CRC is proposing to renovate many of the existing buildings and waterways, and to add new residential units, offering upgraded space to existing and new tenants while enhancing the extraordinary character of the site,” the company’s web site states. “We hope to keep many of our current tenants and to attract new businesses with a mix of retail, office, restaurant, cultural and light industrial uses.”

 

 


A formal site plan application to the Planning and Zoning Commission would come later in the process. This concept plan, included in the application, does show the general uses that are being considered.


The big picture

The company estimates that the initial permitting process could take 12 to 15 months – if all goes well – before remediation and other site work could begin. Plan completion would take years at considerable expense (The company said an overall price tag had not yet been yet fully developed and vetted).


But despite the challenges, Collinsville Redevelopment Company does have a vision for the site. Its web site notes that the revitalization plans include:


• Renovation of approximately 155,000 square feet of historic buildings including brick, clapboard, corrugated metal and stone buildings


• Repair of approximate 2,000 linear feet of waterworks that include canals, culverts, tailraces and more


• Construction of three new residential buildings with 224 apartments and 48 condominiums with parking below the buildings. Additionally, plans include 16 condominium units for the circa 1843 granite building.


While a specific site plan application to the Planning and Zoning Commission would come later in the process – an “overall site plan,” envisions commercial and light industrial uses on the western portion of the property and residential on the eastern portion.  


The concept plan involve uses such as commercial and retail nearest to the Main Street area, uses such as a coffee shop and gallery east of there with concepts like a brewery and light industry and some office space closer to the middle of the property.


Residential uses – including three new buildings – would be on the eastern portion of the site. The concept plans also show the possibilities such as a new town green near Main Street in front of the Canton Historical Museum, as well as green space, walking paths and a public amphitheater on the eastern portion of the property.


Lisa and Merritt Tilney also emphasized that they want to minimize disruptions for current business owners.


“Our tenants are extremely import to us – they are a huge part of the character of Collinsville,” the two said in a response to a question from the Valley Press. “Our intent is to phase the site work to cause as little disruption as possible and new roads, more efficient parking and better services will benefit everyone. In the long run, we hope to retain existing tenants and attract new tenants that will add to the dynamic character of the town.”


CRC also plans to revamp and add supporting infrastructure while emphasizing aspects such as a percentage of affordable dwellings, a mix of public and private financing, and green initiatives.


“The construction industry and the human-made ‘built environment’ contribute to climate change, and we feel it’s important to be part of the solution,” the two partners stated in response to the Valley Press. “Our site plan calls for rain gardens that will reduce the amount of impervious surface that is currently on site – there are a number of slabs still present from buildings that were destroyed during the 1955 flood. Rain gardens can hold excess water during flooding events. In terms of the actual buildings (phases further in the future) we will be targeting Eversource incentives to make the buildings energy efficient. We feel that the fact that the site is walkable to town and has direct access to The Rails-to-Trails is important for the wellbeing of the people who work, live or visit here as well.”

 

The wetlands application binder.

Wetlands application

On April 25, CRC, via its agent – Landscape Architectural Design Associates – formally applied for a permit from the Canton Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency, one of just many state and local approvals that will be needed as the project moves forward. In addition to wetlands, the company would need approvals from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, the Office of State Traffic Administration, as well as subsequent building permits and more.


The initial permit applications will focus on steps that are required prior to building rehabilitation and construction. The work that needs to be done is extensive and includes – as detailed in the wetlands application:


• Repair and Restoration of the on-site canals


• Removal of contaminated soils


• Installation of utilities and roadways (known as horizontal infrastructure)


• Regrading of the site


• Excavation of 820 linear feet of foundations for new residential buildings


• Paving for driveways and parking


• Removal of invasive plantings


• Replacement and Expansion of an existing bridge over the canal


• Installation of new plants and ground cover


The application, of course, goes into much detail on those points and the erosion and sedimentation controls, stormwater management and species protection that will be employed at each step.

 

Some of the details include:


Waterways

Per a report from Soil/Wetland Scientist Ian Cole a Collinsville Forebay dam on the western edge of the site impounds a .94-acre pond where water feeds into a series of conduits, raceways and 800-foot long and 45-foot wide canal to former turbine sites and then into the Farmington River. Site runoff drains into the water structures or to the river through piped conduits or land flows, the report states. While much of the waterwork infrastructure has failed, water from the canal is pumped to a fire suppression cistern.


While the waterways would largely be unnecessary with modern infrastructure the application proposes their restoration due to their historical and cultural significance.

The repair and restoration of the waterways on site are under the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) and CRC plans to apply for a dam safety permit, according to the wetlands application.


As far as those activities regulated by the Canton IWWA, no work is proposed in wetlands, according to the application, which does seek the permit for work in the Upland Review Area of the Farmington River and the man-made waterways on site.


Cole’s report, which also details ecological conditions, soil types proposed, control measures and more, contends the plan would result in much healthier conditions for the river and other systems.


“Restoration of the site as proposed will result in environmental remediation and stabilization of the environmental conditions of the site, a significant improvement over existing conditions. The proposed utilization of the site accords with the vision of the Canton Zoning Regulations, which create a special zone with specific rules to encourage this type of proposal and development.”

 

Contaminated soils

Contamination in the ground and in building materials is present on what is officially a state Brownfield site – defined as “any abandoned or underutilized site where redevelopment, reuse or expansion has not occurred due to the presence or potential presence of pollution in the buildings, soil or groundwater that requires investigation or remediation before or in conjunction with the restoration, redevelopment, reuse and expansion of the property.”


Removal of contaminated soils is one major focus of the wetlands application. While there have been several site investigations over the years, some of the most recent reports come as part the Phase III Environmental Site Assessments from GZA Environmental. The work was done for the town and funded by state Department of Economic Community Development (DECD) Brownfield Grant.


According to a GZA report, soil contaminants requiring remediation include lead, arsenic, Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). A cost estimate in that draft estimates cleanup of those materials between $2.2 and $3.4 million. While that includes a 25 percent contingency and a 5 percent fuel inflation contingency, the report acknowledges the price tag could change based on a final redevelopment plan.


According to a March 15 letter from Tetra Tech, included in the application, “the primary sources of the contamination observed at the site result from lead-based paint flaking off buildings, former underground and above ground storage tanks and activities conducted during past manufacturing activities. Site groundwater is not significantly impacted and presently complies with applicable state of Connecticut criteria presented in the Remediation Standard Regulations (RSRs).”


The wetlands application goes into specifics such as: the deeper deposits of contaminated soils will be excavated and removed from the site by CTDEEP licensed contractors: GZA estimated 2,115 cubic yards of deeper soils may need to be removed from the property.

The applications states that erosion control and testing safeguards will be implemented, and clean fill will follow the excavation.


The application also states that shallower areas of contaminated soil – less than 2 feet deep - will also be excavated but could remain on site in inaccessible or isolated areas. The plans “anticipate” that approximately 4,000 cubic yards on site could be isolated and placed below building of four feet of clean fill, with the rest being removed from the site.


The application also states that “Most remediation will be completed before general site construction begins. Phased general work may be possible if approved by the Licensed Environmental Professional supervising the remediation activities.”

 

Horizontal Infrastructure

Utilities and roadways, called “Horizontal infrastructure” will follow removal of the contaminated soils, according to the local application.


“The building and improvements at the property were constructed over a period of 150 years, at a time when building codes, if they existed, were vastly different than today. For example, to the east of the existing Farmington Canal Heritage Canal Bike Path, virtually no sanitary sewer exists, and water service is minimal. Throughout the site utility service lines are old and fragile. Before new building construction commences, or the renovation of older existing buildings, modern potable and fire protection water must be installed along with sanitary sewer, natural gas, electric and communications.”

 

Regrading and excavation

Regrading will take place “in parallel” to utility installation, according to the application. To replace stormwater discharges that goes into the waterways or the river, the applicant has proposed that it be “collected and treated by rain gardens and hydrodynamic separators prior to discharge.”


The grading portion also notes that despite a disturbed area of 12.38 acres on site and a projected total cut and fill of some 17,800 cubic yards, “the proposed site grades are quite close to the existing grades because the redevelopment plan must function within the confines of the existing buildings, walls and slopes. Most existing paving and slabs will be removed and replaced with new paving and/or topsoil.”


Grades for the 820 linear feet of foundations for the new residential buildings will also be similar to those existing on site, according to the application.


When it comes to paving work, the application states that the main road into the site will be graded, paved and a sidewalk added. Stairs and accessible ramps will provide a connection from the buildings near downtown at “Main Street level” to the interior of the site (canal level).

 

Paving

Around several building, existing concrete slabs will be removed to make way for new sidewalks and parking areas, the application states. Impervious surface will be reduced by 4 % overall, the applications states.


This area of the application also gives more detail about the reuse of buildings.


Rehabilitation of existing buildings will be done in phases and will primarily involve commercial uses.


East of the Farmington Heritage Canal Bicycle Trail, new residential buildings will be constructed. The new residential buildings will have interior parking below the buildings.


In addition to the current access road, the application also proposes to realign and use the overgrown and deteriorated driveway off Spring Street for controlled card access holders.

As for runoff below that driveway, the application also proposes to redirect runoff that collects below that driveway and divert it into the drainage discharge system.

 

Invasive plant removal

Invasive plants are prevalent on site and include Japanese Honeysuckle, Multiflora Rose, Autumn Olive, Japanese Barberry, Japanese Knotweed and Oriental Bittersweet. The application asserts, “The non-native invasive species have prevented native trees and shrubs from developing, which limits the use of the site by many native insects and animals.”


The application proposes to remove invasive plants from the construction activity areas using recommended steps from CT DEEP, the University of Connecticut and All Habitat Services, LLC.


The application goes into detail about the removal of the species and does note than AHS does recommend that non-native Black Locust Trees do remain along the Farmington River since their roots are stabilizing riverbanks in that area.

 

Balancing Native plantings with historical legacy 

When it comes to new plants and ground cover, the application notes a plan to plant native species while balancing the industrial history of the site.


“Nineteenth century industrial sites did not typically include trees and shrubs. … Accordingly, new plant material placement is carefully chosen to respect the heritage of the site yet to provide some green intrusion and visual softening.”


The application also proposed small caliper native trees along steep banks on the site to minimize disturbance and add a stabilizing effect.


It further notes that people will be living on site, rain gardens will provide green spaces and that a tree shaded park and siting area is proposed near the east boundary, as well as a path to the river for fishing access.

 

'Alternatives'

The application also reviews alternatives to development. A no-build scenario would result in further deterioration, the absence of remediation, increasingly degraded systems, rising insurance costs, and more, the application contends. Essentially, inaction will eventually lead to loss of a historically significant site, according to the application

 

It also addresses the sometimes-mentioned idea of elimination of the internal waterways, contending such a plan would have significant historical impacts and regulation challenges that make it “neither feasible nor prudent.”

 

As for the “Redevelopment as proposed,” the application asserts, “the reconstruction and redevelopment of the Collins Axe Factory in accordance with the plans and materials submitted will result in the restoration of an historic property of nationwide significance, the installation of modern stormwater renovation and quality features that protect the Farmington River, and the elimination and remediation of decades of environmental contamination. Redevelopment as proposed represents the most prudent and feasible approach to the future use of this property.”

 

Additional background

Lisa and Merritt Tilney have been working on the project since February of 2023.


Lisa Tilney began her career on Wall Street, has worked at several architectural firms and spent 10 years as a project manager. She is currently Managing Director at New York based Sterling Project Development.  She received a Masters of Architecture from the Yale School of Architecture and a Bachelor of Arts with a degree in History from Yale University.

 

Merritt Tilney runs AMT Coaching, a leadership advisory consulting firm. She has held numerous roles over 20 years in marketing, strategy, operations and finance before launching her own company.. Many of those years were spent as a management consultant for several high-profile companies. She has a Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude in Economics from Yale University and a Master of Business Administration from Stanford University. She completed her coaching accreditation through Columbia University's Coaching Certification Program.

 

The two initially estimate that the project will take at least 6 to 8 years. CRC has an option to purchase the property when approvals are secured. To help them get there, they are tapping into their professional backgrounds, knowledge of the property, and the help of several well-known professionals in the areas of architecture, landscape design, soil science, environment, structural and civil engineering, and historical preservation.  


Firms helping with the project include:


• LADA, Landscape Architect and Site Planner


• Haley Ward, Civil Engineer

• Macchi Engineering, Structural Engineer


• Tetra Tech, Environmental Consulting


• Ian Cole, Soil Scientist and Wetlands Expert


• Heritage Consultants, Historical and Cultural Expert


• Moriarty, Paetzold, & Sherwood, Land Use Attorney


• All Habitat Services, Invasive Species Consultant

 

Lisa and Merritt Tilney say the project is meaningful.


“This is a personal project for us; we grew up in the area and we are excited by the opportunity to realize our father’s original vision for revitalization of the factory,” the two noted in a statement to the Valley Press. “We are eager to rehabilitate the historic buildings for the long term, support economic development and implement creative environmental solutions. We hope this can be a beacon for other projects, as it strengthens a local ecosystem that already has an incredible mix of history, culture and character.”


See more about the project at https://www.cvll-redev.com/



 

Light industrial uses are common in this area of the complex and that would continue under the plan. However, building renovation, new parking areas and modern utilities would be added.

 


Residential uses are envisioned east of the Farmington River Trail. Condominium units could be developed in the granite building shown here. Three new buildings, with parking underneath them, are also envisioned as is additional public space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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