Saturday, June 22, 2024

Cambridge’s Fire Station Headquarters Building is undergoing $77 million renovations at 491 Broadway. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The $77 million expense of modernizing Cambridge’s Fire Station Headquarters Building – up from $25 million secured in 2019 and an increase in 2022 – was defended Monday by city staff as it asked for $15 million to address “challenges related to the complexity of this project.” The extremely tight urban site, they said, was forcing work to go in phases.

The request drew overall support as well as concern from some city councillors that preventable overruns would sap money from other projects or if there’s just a better, more predictable way to budget.

“This project is really important to communications not only within the department, but within the region. So having it move forward is very important,” councillor Joan Pickett said. “The issue to me is three bites at the apple – for a substantial increase, some of which is beyond our control.”

The upgrades are for the brick building at 491 Broadway, built in 1932 with a basement and two aboveground stories at a peculiar junction with Cambridge Street, which means there is traffic whipping past on each side as cars head east from Harvard Square or pass by on the way to North Cambridge. Its 24,670 square feet houses the fire department’s Engine 1, Ladder 1 and Rescue 1, as well as administrative offices, the city’s fire prevention bureau and technical services division. (During construction, fire staff have relocated to temporary structures nearby at Cambridge Street and Hovey Avenue.)

Unique site and old structure

The planned “alteration” approved May 20, 2019, didn’t just hit a patch of Covid complications. When the fire station emerged in June 6, 2022, another $37 million was asked to cover the “significant construction escalation and schedule delays” but also the cost of the temporary station, a new data center for emergency communications and going net-zero on carbon emissions, with energy-producing solar panels and 17 geothermal wells and a power substation to support an all-electric building including charging stations for all-electric vehicles. The new appropriations will add a system to decontaminate gear from hazardous materials at a fire.

“I’m not minimizing how the costs have escalated, but it is such a unique project,” acting fire chief Thomas Cahill said. “It’s such an old building that really hasn’t been touched in literally 100 years,” he noted, while it also serves as “where everything happens – this is where the other firehouses report to. It’s somewhat of the brains of the operation.”

“Every single project”

The most critical councillor was Patty Nolan, who co-chairs the Finance Committee with Pickett and has talked frequently over the years about the high cost of projects in Cambridge compared with similar ones in other communities. Nolan referred to a “massive redo” of a 1926 fire headquarters in Newton that opened in 2017, completed for around $24 million. 

If the unique properties of 491 Broadway added to the costs of getting firefighters the headquarters they need, she said, maybe the site itself wasn’t practical, and a station should be relocated permanently. But it was “really, really, really not good management in practice to have a project that goes from $25 million to $75 million,” Nolan said. “We run up against this on every single project we do, it seems.”

As the city spends $299 million on the combined Tobin and Darby Vassall school campus and $77 million on fire headquarters, “What else does our city need to do?“ councillor Ayesha Wilson asked. “There’s a lot of projects before us and a lot of things happening that are costing multimillions of dollars. We want to make sure that this doesn’t stop us from being able to do other projects.”

Even simple jobs

Despite the concerns, there was also a council understanding of the kind of ballooning costs encountered by anyone calling in contractors. Even simple home construction work can soar in cost, some said, and often does.

That’s especially true of older facilities, even as the city relies on assessments by its hired architects and engineers that might try to take that into account, deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan said. He sounded notes similar to Cahill’s about 491 Broadway being a unique site, and a structure in which issues have built up over a century.

“Our ability to better estimate the costs of aspects of these projects is improving, but obviously not adequate at this point in time to to be able to be exact,” O’Riordan said. As work progresses, “things come to light.”

Also, the first look was about rehab of an existing facility, he said. “We came back once we realized that there was a lot more involved,” he said, and the $15 million asked now should be considered against the 2022 total, not the original estimate from 2019. 

“It was a very different project when we’re looking at $25 million rehab of the existing facility,” O’Riordan said.