Sunday, June 16, 2024

A Spauldlng Hospital parking lot in Mid-Cambridge will host a temporary fire station for the next three years. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Mid-Cambridge is getting a brand-new fire station, then losing it roughly three years later – because it’s a temporary facility meant to house vehicles and crew while the fire department’s headquarters at 491 Broadway are renovated. That’s expected to start in late 2023.

The temporary station would go on an 80-by-280-foot parking lot at 1591 Cambridge St., between the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and a Spaulding Hospital campus. It would be made of two prefabricated modules trucked into town for assembly, said Brendan Roy, the city’s construction program manager. One would house four emergency vehicles; the other would be a dorm for on-call firefighters with lockers, a kitchen and fitness center.

Each would come from different manufacturers – Vesta in Michigan and Extreme in Calgary, Canada – and be connected with a custom fiber cement board 20-by-20-foot box like an airlock. The parts would be driven in at night on “very large, extended-length trucks – maybe 100 feet long” staggered over a week or so, then assembled by company contractors, Roy said.

“It really is wild stuff,” if in a slightly “geeky” way, Roy said in a phone interview after a May 1 meeting of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District at which the plans were discussed. “This has only been done a few places in the Midwest. Cambridge is one of the first urban areas to use” this approach.

A rendering of the modules proposed as a temporary fire station in Mid-Cambridge. (Image: City of Cambridge)

Other cities have used tents and trailers for temporary worker housing that leave the people inside dealing with rodents and at the mercy of the weather, Roy said. Cambridge instead worked with its architects on the firehouse project – The Galante Architecture Firm in Harvard Square – and found a way to use the prefab modules. “Right out of the package, these will meet our needs,” Roy said.

The site, leased from Spaulding Hospital, was decided on after staff – with consultation from Gerard Mahoney, who retired in August as acting fire chief – looked at more than 40 locations, Roy said. None were as viable in terms of being able to hold the needed equipment and close to parts of town protected by headquarters. The Spaulding site still must be flattened and wired for power, but the two modules will rest on skids instead of a foundation for minimal impact on land that goes back to Spaulding in a few years.

This will still be “cheaper than what other towns may go through,” Roy said, and has the virtue of speed: “We’ve been able to expedite this. The modules are coming to us in just a couple months.”

The expected cost for the plan: $3 million. At the end of the three years, the modules could be reused within the city, sold back to the manufacturers or shipped to another city that is planning major construction. “There could be big demand,” Roy said.

The logistics of getting the modules to Cambridge are being worked on and could be presented at a community meeting planned for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Roy said.

The firefighters’ living-quarters module will be set back on Hovey Avenue; the garage will be closer to Cambridge Street in city plans but have bay doors facing Hovey. Some of the design is meant to spare trees, but the placement also means “safety for pedestrians and drivers and emergency responders, who can pause, look and then drive out,” architect Ted Galante told conservation district board members. “We were playing a little bit of geometry, maneuvering things back and forth.”

Big spending, big changes

Cambridge has eight fire stations throughout the city, most of them many decades old, and several have been getting renovations. The brick headquarters, on an island between Cambridge Street and Broadway beyond which are Harvard Yard and Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, was built in 1932. It has never been renovated, aside from some very minor alterations in the 1990s, and now “is in very difficult shape” and needs a gut renovation, Galante said.

Though final plans and cost information weren’t available from Roy in May, the City Council has appropriated funding in two major chunks in the past few years: after $3 million on Dec. 10, 2018, for designs and to begin work came $25 million in the 2019 fiscal year budget that took the approach of making an “alteration” to the building. There was an additional $37 million approved June 6 for borrowing because, according to the City Manager’s office, “as the project proceeded it became clear that a larger scope was required as part of a complete rehabilitation.”

The money means a new data center for emergency communications and a substation to accommodate heavy-duty vehicle charging stations and other energy requirements for an all-electric building. Headquarters will become a net-zero emissions building with energy-producing solar panels and geothermal wells.

Limited prefab options

On the modular replacements, meanwhile, the city and its architects are forced to be creative with what the prefab manufacturers can provide.

“It’s almost impossible to get these these buildings built and and ordered and shipped, so the systems are what the systems are. We’re not really able to make many adjustments,” Galante said. “It’s unfortunate, because from a modular perspective, I can think of many things to do with preengineered structures that would be quite interesting – none of which the manufacturers are interested in entertaining.”

Roy was clearly excited by the challenge, and said he expected the feat to be “a marvel.”

“There could be a TV show on this,” Roy said.