Fumes, deteriorating buildings and a space crunch documented at DPW facility
NORTHAMPTON – While city councilors consider spending $800,000 to fund architectural services needed to modernize and expand the Department of Public Works buildings at 125 Locust Street, many workers there labor in conditions that are substandard.
The distinct odor of diesel engines, gasoline and oil assaulted the senses of reporters during a recent tour of the vehicle maintenance and storage building, a huge converted trolley barn built in the late 1800s. Broken windows, crumbling brick walls, inadequate bath- and dressing-rooms, water-stained ceiling tiles, poor lighting and a lack of sufficient heat were among the most egregious conditions.
Under the concrete floor of the vehicle maintenance building, pools of water collect, tainted with motor oil and other material. Out in the 11-acre DPW yard, the roof and walls of the original wooden salt-and-sand shed is falling down, precariously sheltering two trucks loaded with the fine sand that must stay dry before it is used to make mortar at sewer and storm-drain work sites.
The concrete pad on which the citywide fueling station sits is cracked and eroding, while the ancient pumps are open to the weather and rusting; inside the cramped control shack there, a portable electric heater provides the only warmth in winter. Another outbuilding, where several DPW divisions store essential materials, has collapsing walls and steps, a leaky roof, resident birds and feral cats.
Meanwhile, expensive vehicles are left outside year-round for lack of interior storage space. When heavy trucks that plow and sand streets are housed in the barn and all start up together, DPW staff said, the exhaust fumes are choking; to compensate, garage doors are opened, letting escape what little heat there is.
Interviewed this week, Mayor Mary Clare Higgins referred to “bad working conditions” inside the DPW barns. “It’s not a good situation to be working in,” she said.
Getting in the funding queue
The City Council is expected to vote Thursday, June 17 on an appropriation measure to design an upgraded DPW facility. The measure passed on first reading June 3, with only two councilors – Ward 3′s Angela Plassmann and Ward 7′s Gene Tacy – voting no.
If approved, the $800,000 would pay for architectural and design services for a phased capital project that would upgrade work areas, expand the main offices and city fueling station, add two new buildings and relocate the water and sewer departments from the old Water Department Building at 237 Prospect St. Officials hope that when this building is vacated the property can be sold for $500,000 to help pay for the move to Locust Street.
The end result, say Higgins and Huntley, would be to centralize and consolidate functions that serve various departments spread across the city.
The master plan includes moving the refuse and recycling transfer station, now located within the DPW’s Locust Street yard, just down the hill onto a parcel owned by the state Department of Transportation. Huntley said the state would keep a small piece of land, and the city – for a reasonable remuneration – would own and use the rest.
Even if the $800,000 is approved by the City Council and the plans are finalized late this year or in early 2011, the council must vote again in the future to borrow about $7 million to pay for construction, which could take 18 months if done all at once, or longer if done in phases.
Despite the case for upgrading the DPW facility, however, supporters don’t talk about pushing the construction timetable, especially since another building project is currently in the spotlight: the new police station. That project is designed and almost ready to go, and the mayor has asked the City Council to place on the Nov. 2 ballot a $10 million debt-exclusion override to pay about 60 percent of construction costs. The remainder would be borrowed.
“We’re hoping the project moves forward,” Huntley said about the DPW’s modernization plan. “We’ll see what the City Council says and see what happens with the police station – that’s priority one with the city at this point. Like I said, we’re just trying to develop this to be in the queue to be ready when the funding becomes available.”
Higgins said the convergence of the two huge projects – building a new police station and designing a new DPW facility – is not ideal. “Do I wish the two capital projects were coming down the pike a little further apart?” asked Higgins rhetorically last week. “Yes, I do.”
But the request for DPW design plans, Higgins said, fits in nicely with space now available under the city’s 2.6-percent debt cap reserved for capital projects within the general budget. New borrowing is possible because past building projects, such as the Northampton High School expansion, are being paid off.
Plus, officials say, upgrading DPW facilities has been a long-identified need that should have been addressed years ago. The evidence is in the deteriorated buildings on-site and in a 2002 report entitled “New DPW Facilities Complex; Update Report” by Gannett Fleming Inc. consultants of Braintree, Mass. The detailed document, updated and revised in 2008, was written after extensive interviews with DPW management and staff about their current and future needs.
The Survival Center and 2 miles of road repairs
In recent months, the scheme has been revised again to accommodate the Northampton Survival Center, which is currently leasing part of another city-owned building at 265 Prospect Street. The non-profit agency has launched an $850,000 capital campaign to expand its offices and food pantry there, which will require that the city move its School Department grounds crew equipment and staff, which takes up the back half of the building.
David S. Pomerantz, the city’s director of Central Services, said the plan is to eventually consolidate motorized equipment storage at the new DPW facility, along with work areas for mechanics. “It makes sense,” he said this week. He said the Survival Center will pay the city a one-time sum of $75,000 for the expanded space, defraying some of the costs.
Back at Locust Street, at the 1973 Peter J. McNulty Engineering Building, Huntley points to cramped offices for his staff, to a broken window, water spots on many ceiling tiles from a leaky roof that was replaced last year, and to the small conference room with the 37-year-old rug and a leaky air conditioner. The master plan includes expanding the office building by about half to make room for the two engineers and two planners moving over from the 1917 Water Department building, providing adequate document storage and meeting rooms, and converting the building from inefficient electric heat.
Higgins said the planned upgrades will give the DPW the wherewithal to tackle the critical tasks it faces day in and day out. “I don’t think it’s extravagant,” said Higgins. “And we need to move ahead.”
As now proposed, the DPW project would renovate the employee bathroom and locker area on the west end of the barn, and add a new Water Department office and vehicle maintenance area. Inside the barns, new equipment would be added – several more mechanical lifts to allow vehicle repairs, exhaust fans, new lighting and efficient new work areas for mechanics, and new electrical, plumbing and heating systems. The expansive yard would see new asphalt and curbing, the fuel depot would be modernized and repaired, and a free-standing building for vehicle storage would be constructed.
Higgins said some critics have asked why the DPW facility project is moving ahead now, when city finances are still reeling from job and wage freezes last year and the schools are facing possible cutbacks.
For instance, the mayor said, more than one person has said the $800,000 should be used to pay for road repairs, especially since the backlog of roads needing rebuilding or resurfacing tops $24 million and grows yearly.
At current costs, said Higgins, the $800,000 would pay for only about 2 miles of road rebuilding. Instead, she said, the DPW needs to provide adequate shelter for the heavy trucks and other equipment it uses to get the work done on city streets and athletic fields, sewer and water systems, parks and cemeteries.
While he waits patiently for the long-awaited upgrade of the DPW facility, Huntley said he couldn’t be more proud of his workforce, which makes do with the substandard conditions.
The five staff mechanics, he said, work full-time on approximately 180 pieces of “rolling stock,” including trucks, tractors and other wheeled equipment, school buses, some police cruisers and other assorted city vehicles and equipment.
“These guys are great. They weld, they build, they do stuff from scratch,” said Huntley. “We can repair anything.”
Sometimes the frustration builds up, though. Not long ago, in a vehicle repair bay, a tractor engine caught fire. About the same time, a truck ready for the road was trapped for nine days behind a broken piece of equipment that couldn’t be moved until a new part arrived.
Although one DPW union officer avoided speaking with reporters, another longtime worker paused from repairing a power saw chain to comment on the proposed facility upgrade.
“It’s definitely needed,” said the guy, his hands and blue work shirt smeared with grease. “Too bad it wasn’t done a few years ago, but I’ll take it.”