Shallow blasting to start at future STEM academy site in Reading

Aug. 17—A contractor for the Reading School District's planned science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, academy will use a form of blasting to prepare for construction.

The process is scheduled to begin Friday morning at the site in the 800 block of North Ninth Street and continue for about two weeks.

Project manager James Lynch of D'Huy Engineering Inc., Bethlehem, said crews encountered about 300 cubic yards of limestone bedrock in the Ninth and Windsor streets corner of the parcel.

"After hammering on it for a good two weeks, we got to a point where we were breaking the hammers on the machines," Lynch said. "And so as a last resort, a decision was made to try to employ blasting as a method to remove this rock."

But don't get excited, he cautioned Wednesday while speaking at the Reading School Board's committee of the whole meeting.

"The most exciting part of blasting is probably the word 'blasting,' " Lynch said. "Please don't think that there is going to be any type of explosion down there at North Ninth Street."

Without going into technical detail, Lynch described the process as resembling gastric distress. Due to the proximity of utility lines and surrounding houses, only a very small charge can be used, he said.

"There is not a very large explosion," he said, noting a blanketing method will be used to muffle the noise and a warning siren will sound before each shallow blast.

All the required permits have been obtained, he said, and the state Department of Environmental Protection will be on the site during the blasting.

The blasts will be measured using seismographs to ensure they conform to state regulations, he said.

"We're expecting probably up to two weeks of blasts," Lynch said. "There's a drilling and blasting process. You have to drill holes and insert the explosives to do the blast."

The broken rock is then taken out and the process repeated until enough rock has been removed, he said.

Bilingual notices were sent to residents of the surrounding homes to alert them, he said, and a blasting survey of the area was completed.

The unexpected difficulty removing the rock likely will delay the foundation laying, which was planned for the end of the month, he said.

Estimated at $73 million, including site acquisition costs, the STEM academy's construction will be funded by federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds and should have no impact on costs to city taxpayers, district officials said last year.

Plans call for a 145,000 square-foot building with four floors to accommodate 700 to 1,000 students. A 72-space indoor parking garage and an 80-space surface lot that can be used by the general public outside school hours also are planned.

Remediation and preparation of the site, including removal of the remains of a factory complex demolished in 2018, began last year.

The project is expected to be completed in 2025.

Lynch said the crews found a lot of interesting old building foundations on the 2.42-acre site, previously home to now-demolished Reading Outlet Center, formerly Nolde and Horst knitting mill.

Layers of foundation uncovered along North Ninth Street consist of a wall built on previously laid stone atop gravel over pinnacles of rock, he said.

"So lots of variation there," Lynch said.

That does not surprise George M. Meiser IX, coauthor with his wife, Gloria Jean, of the Passing Scene series of books on Berks County history.

Meiser said a brickworks occupied much of the site along Moss Street in the 1880s before hosiery manufacturers Jacob Nolde and George Horst bought it in 1892.

The partners, who had gone into business in 1888 on Cedar Street, moved their operation to the four-story brick factory in the 800 block of Moss Street, Meiser said.

They enlarged that building in 1896, but it was destroyed by fire just three years later, he said. The partners rebuilt and continued expanding until their factory encompassed most of the block.

The exception was the southeast corner of Ninth and Windsor streets where an elementary school had been built sometime after 1884. Nolde and Horst bought the school in 1919, Meiser said, and razed it to allow further enlargement of the factory.

The hosiery mill closed about 1954, he said.