HAVERHILL - It's been talked about for years - building a multilevel parking garage downtown to handle an expected influx of residents, workers, shoppers and diners.
Now it's time for action.
Starting as early as June, environmental cleanup crews will begin extracting pools of petroleum buried beneath the parking garage construction site in Railroad Square off Moulton Way, city officials said.
When the cleanup is finished, construction on the garage should begin between March and July of next year and last about 18 months, they said. The garage could open before Christmas 2010 - a boost to the city's ongoing downtown renaissance.
A lack of downtown parking is taking a toll on businesses and residents.
InstallerNet, a software development and installation company, was downtown at 88 Essex St. but moved to a location with ample parking in North Andover this month.
Employees were routinely 15 to 20 minutes late because they were looking for parking, and snowstorms made the situation even worse, said William Sheehan, InstallerNet's director of business development.
"The parking situation absolutely had something to do with the decision to get out," Sheehan said.
Linda Rill, who lives in a downtown condominium at 21 Wingate St., said the lack of a garage is discouraging people from moving to the city's center to fill empty apartments and condos.
"It's desperately needed and should be here already," Rill said of the garage.
The first step to build the garage is to clean pollutants from the site, the former home of Ted's Tires automotive supply company, said Andrew Herlihy, the mayor's chief of staff.
The city has a $200,000 federal grant to clean the Ted's Tires site, which is a parking lot, Herlihy said. Construction cannot start until the cleanup is completed.
"We don't want the cleanup to hold up the construction," Herlihy said. "So my goal ... is to have it cleaned up within 14 to 18 months. We need to get in there and do the cleanup."
The cleaning crew will probe beneath the parking lot to remove the petroleum pools without closing the lot to vehicles, Herlihy said. The petroleum is sitting on top of groundwater about 8 feet deep.
Meanwhile, final construction plans for the parking garage will be drafted and finalized in the next 14 to 18 months by the Merrimack Valley Regional Planning Authority, which is in charge of the project. Herlihy said the planning authority plans to hire an architect within weeks to draw affordable plans.
Most of the garage will be paid for with $7.1 million promised by the federal government, but the city has to cover 20 percent of the costs, or about $1.4 million. Funding for the project is being worked out, Herlihy said, because there is no time to waste. The promise of money from the federal government is good for just more than three years.
"Behind the scenes, things are moving," he said.
The garage is being built to help handle more than 800 new condominiums and apartments that have been built or are planned for downtown, and the influx of vehicles they will bring.
Preliminary estimates for the garage call for between 350 and 550 spaces in a structure standing 52 to 63 feet tall. It will be five or six levels and may cost up to $20,000 per space to build, estimates show.
Many of the new residents moving downtown will be living in two new apartment complexes - the 146-unit Cordovan campus on Walnut Street, which opened last year, and the 305-unit Forest City apartment project under construction on nearby Essex Street.
A city-owned parking garage already exists on Merrimack Street on the east side of downtown. Most of the new residential development is happening on the other side of downtown, west of Washington Square and Emerson Street.
BOX FOR JUMP PG
City's new parking garage
Spaces: Between 350 and 550
Height: 52 to 63 feet tall
Cost: Up to $20,000 a space
Location: Railroad Square in the former Ted's Tires lot
Timeline: To be completed in about three years