Saturday February 23, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- When it was built in Pittsfield more than 60 years ago, the General Electric Co.'s high voltage laboratory was touted as the "world's largest man-made lightning center."

When the structure opened in June 1949, GE proved that the hype was more than just talk. In front of 50 spectators during the plant's first day of operation, GE engineers sent a 15-million volt bolt of lightning 50 feet between two huge generators. It was the longest distance ever spanned by man-made lightning up to that time.

But the spark went out of the high voltage laboratory a long time ago. GE stopped using the building 10 years ago, and soon it will become just another memory of the corporate giant's presence in Pittsfield.

The high voltage laboratory -- also known as Building 9 and located between Merrill Road and the Tyler Street Extension -- is being prepared for demolition that will occur this spring and take approximately four weeks to complete, according to GE spokeswoman Lindsay Lorraine.

The huge structure -- it stands 94-by-169 feet at the base and is 86 feet high -- has been wrapped and placed in scaffolding to prepare it for demolition, Lorraine said.

GE for years was the city's largest employer. The company's decision to close its power transformer division in 1986 shook Pittsfield to its core. But longtime GE employees recovered from those emotional aftershocks a long time ago. Seeing the high voltage laboratory come down doesn't mean much to them anymore.

"Not at this point," said Alfred Shogry, the former president of the Berkshire Central Labor Council, who worked at GE from 1951 to 1992. "It would have meant something a while ago."

The high voltage lab is the last of seven structures that GE is planning to demolish in an area known as "the nines," which is bordered by New York Avenue, Tyler Street Extension and Merrill Road, said Corydon Thurston, the executive director of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, which manages the nearby William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires.

General Electric Co.’s high voltage research laboratory is the last of the buildings to be demolished in an area known as ‘the nines.’
General Electric Co.’s high voltage research laboratory is the last of the buildings to be demolished in an area known as ‘the nines.’ Six other structures have already been razed. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

GE began the entire demolition project last fall. The six other structures -- buildings 9B, 9D, 9E, 9F, 9G and 10 -- have already been taken down. Lorraine said the area where those buildings were located should be cleared of debris within the next two or three weeks, weather permitting. The company hasn't announced plans for the land once demolition work is complete.

In 1998, GE and the Environmental Protection Agency reached an agreement, commonly known as the "consent decree," that required the company to clean up PCB contamination in the Berkshires. As part of that agreement, 52 of the former power transformer facility's 245 acres were conveyed to PEDA to become the Stanley Business Park. The high voltage facility and the six other buildings are located on an additional 23-acre parcel.

The EPA approved the environmental remediation of the soil on that 23-acre lot in January 2012, at the same time it granted approval for the remediation of the final 16-acre parcel that GE would convey to PEDA for the Stanley Business Park, according to the agency's project coordinator, Dean Tagliaferro.

"We still have to look at the ground water," Tagliaferro said, referring to the 23-acre lot. "We do those separately."

According to Lorraine, the 23-acre parcel will remain under GE's control.

GE still owns about 200 acres in Pittsfield, including its former polymer processing development center on East Street, which it leases to Sabic Innovative Plastics. Of the 43 parcels that GE still owns around the city, all but two are taxable. Thirteen of those lots still have buildings on them.

The total value of GE's taxable parcels, including both the buildings and the land, is $21.4 million, according to the city assessor's office. The total value of the buildings on those 13 parcels is $14.7 million.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com
(413) 496-6224.