A rendering of the Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper Schools Project and its solar canopy. (Image: City of Cambridge)

Another $49 million in borrowing was approved Monday by city councillors for what will now be a Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper Schools Project totaling $299 million.

While the money will have to be finalized at a later meeting, likely at the end of June, the vote gives city staff the ability to sign a contract locking in a “guaranteed maximum price” – meaning no further surprises on the price tag “unless there’s something that will happen in the future that is beyond any of our control,” assistant city manager for finance David Kale said.

The additional request for funds follows just that: a pandemic that launched a global supply chain crisis and overlapped with a shortage of workers in construction and other industries.

The schools’ expected opening date in the fall of 2025 would be a challenge, but the additional expenditure should keep the complex project on track, Kale said.

The West Cambridge site near Fresh Pond will include a 359,100-square-foot building and underground parking garage for the two schools, a 539-seat auditorium, the Department of Human Service Programs Preschool and After School Programs as well as Special Start and full-immersion Autism Spectrum Disorder programs.

The project already got an appropriation of $237 million in June 2020, which itself followed $13 million provided to begin design and bidding on the project. Even at the $250 million stage, some councillors questioned the expense.

Rejecting comparisons

The sharpest questions have come from councillor Patty Nolan, who had new ones as well as some pointed comparisons to make despite promising a vote in support of the project. She said she was “stunned” by the increase.

“Watertown just built two new schools for more students – 1,175 students combined in two separate schools, net zero [for greenhouse gas emissions] also – for $170 million over three years, as opposed to our expectation of $300 million over four years,” Nolan said. “Saugus High Middle School has a 1,360-student school done in 27 months, platinum LEED, with a 750-seat auditorium, maker spaces and tech shops and just as complex in programming as our project, and also far, far less than ours at $162 million. I know we do great things, but other districts do too.”

Nolan urged staff to do all it could to open the campus early or seize other opportunities to decrease costs, but returned to her tone of skepticism: “With all due respect, having toured several of these schools … their programs are as complex if not more complex than ours,” she said.

While city staff such as Department of Public Works commissioner Owen O’Riordan recognized the “extraordinary amount of money” being asked, they said they also saw no way around it – and City Manager Louis A. DePasquale gave an often-repeated answer to Nolan’s often-repeated comparisons: that he didn’t want to talk about other cities’ projects.

“They’re not similar, because we take it to a different level,” DePasquale said. “What we’ve come up with costs a lot of money, but it was a lot of work to get everything that everybody wanted in that facility,” including its open space. This was “the right number to make sure that the residents get what they deserve and what they expect.”

Eyeing other projects

A few councillors worried that the expense of the Tobin and Vassal project would make it impossible to improve other badly aging schools around the city, with Dennis Carlone citing Graham & Parks as one needing a refresh.

Before the Tobin and Vassal schools, it was a $72 million eight-fire-station improvement project that saw a dramatic increase, councillor Burhan Azeem said. On June 6, an additional $37 million was given just for the Fire Station Headquarters at 491 Broadway, a project upgraded from an “alteration” to a complete rehab with a new data center for emergency communications, solar panels and geothermal wells and a substation to accommodate the energy requirements for an all-electric building with large-vehicle charging stations, among other things.

Azeem asked for a more detailed accounting of increases at the Tobin and Vassal project, a call that was seconded by councillor Paul Toner and quickly agreed to by city staff.

One vote against

The most skeptical councillor on the new costs was Quinton Zondervan, who wound up being the Monday loan approval’s only “no” vote, as he was in 2020 for the initial $250 million price tag. He pursued Kale and other staff in a back-and-forth over what guarantee was offered that prices wouldn’t go up yet again after this 20 percent hike.

The loan appropriation was to lock in subcontractor bid prices. “If that doesn’t happen, we might be back to you for additional funds” if we miss the deadline to lock in the quoted bids, Kale said.

While unhappy to be approving another $49 million, Toner said he acknowledged that an inflationary economy, supply chain issues and industrywide shortage of construction workers had the city “over a barrel.”

“If we vote no, it just means we have a big pile of dirt at the Tobin field … unless you want to put some grass out and call it open space,” Toner said. “It’s not like we can wait this out and hope that some miracle comes along.”