New Developments in a Small Town with Big Ideas
Town of Needham Public Facilities Department
Eighteen miles outside Boston, big makeovers are bringing a small town’s police station and firehouse up-to-date in safety and function. Charming Needham, incorporated in 1711 and with a present-day population of about 31,000, boasts historic buildings, winding roads, friendly neighbors and green space – and far-sighted residents.
Over the past two decades, Needham has invested in multi-million-dollar public works and school projects. A history of fiscally conservative governance has enabled high bond ratings for projects and, best of all, the progressive residents are happy to pitch in extra tax dollars to see their town upgraded with state-of-the-art public facilities.
Needham’s seven-member Permanent Public Building Committee was established in 1996 to oversee building projects in excess of half a million dollars. A few years ago the committee began looking at the future of the existing Public Safety Building, which houses both fire and police department headquarters as well as Fire Station #2.
Ken Sargent, Senior Project Manager of Needham’s Building Design and Construction Department (BDCD), explains: “The headquarter fire station dates to 1938; Fire Station #2 dates sometime to the mid to late 40s.”
The BDCD, with extensive experience overseeing projects such as renovation and addition of its historic Town Hall, a new senior’s center, a new recreational complex, a new field house, and renovations and rebuilds of area schools, was tasked with implementing the Building Committee’s plans.
The Public Safety Building and Fire Station #2 weren’t just in need of updating; they were also in need of expansion. Fire station employees, for example, had doubled in numbers since the last renovation.
“Both have gone through renovations, but the last ones were twenty years ago or more and can’t handle new fire equipment,” says Sargent.
The facilities were “woefully undersized if you look at the number of calls they had 20 years ago versus the number of calls they respond to now,” Ken Sargent says, “so there was a crying need to get the building rebuilt and brought into the 21st century.”
In 1960, around the time of the last renovations, twenty-seven firefighters responded to around 600 calls. By 2015, operating from the same space, Needham had sixty-four firefighters and answered 3,915 calls.
When the buildings were first constructed, fire trucks were much smaller, too. So their huge increase in size and volume since the 1940s presented logistical and health concerns. And the clogged bays aroused safety concerns around carcinogens released while cleaning.
People near a fire – even if not burnt – face the danger of inhaling carcinogens in the form of smoke, ash and other gases. But that’s not all. When firefighters return from duty, their equipment, outfits and trucks are covered in these carcinogenic substances. Ensuring firefighters’ long term safety while they cleaned their equipment had become a challenge in the inadequate space.
Steve Popper, Director of the Building Design and Construction Department says: “The size and capability of the firefighting-apparatus bays have come around to the point that there was a need for a larger facility.”
“We needed a safe environment for the first responders, particularly the firefighters, and [to improve] their ability to overcome some of the health risks that are involved in that occupation by having those systems available in this new facility,” Popper said.
Furthermore, office space, and firefighter support such as bunk rooms, showers and toilets, had become inadequate.
The Permanent Public Building Committee decided to address these issues. But to keep the Public Safety Building central, the city would need to acquire a building and some parcels of land immediately adjacent.
Should the town acquire the adjacent lots, or should it relocate its own buildings further from the downtown core? Some in town talked about repurposing the downtown headquarters into commercial projects. A lengthy consultation process ensued.
Popper was an advocate for building downtown: “The best location for the facility was downtown because the response time to outlying areas was most optimum in the location where it already was.”
Keeping the facilities downtown had financial benefits as well. “We determined that the cost of relocating or finding land was prohibitive elsewhere,” says Popper. The Town could realize savings of millions of dollars.
The townspeople listened. “Roughly 80 percent of the voters approved it,” Popper said. “At a Town Meeting the decision to approve the projects was totally unanimous.”
The BDCD was then tasked with organizing the nearly seventy million-dollar build, which, it is estimated, will take three years to complete.
The BDCD typically uses two types of project delivery: Direct Low-Bid, and Construction Manager at Risk. The latter is what Needham selected for these projects because it offers several advantages for a project of this scope.
Builders, designers, public servants and concerned others are brought together during the planning phase to collaborate on building schedules, on identifying bottlenecks and defining resource needs, and on honing strategy. ‘Construction Manager At Risk’ allows for better collaboration, and while it has higher up-front costs, in the long term the collaborative effort saves time and money as it minimizes the unforeseen costs typical of large building projects.
A primary concern, together with expanding the footprint of the headquarters, was updating the technology to improve overall services. Many of the telecommunications lines in Needham use copper wiring, an old technology being phased out by Verizon throughout the northeastern United States. This left some areas in Needham with lesser communication capabilities for emergency responders.
In response to this, the town of Needham determined that installing its own systems for its public safety workers was the best way forward.
The BDCD will oversee the construction of “a four-tower closed loop network of microwaves and omni-directional antennas to get better coverage in the town and complete coverage in the town,” Sargent says. Replacing the old system will generate department-wide improvements, bringing faster response times into the system.
With close to ninety-five percent of contracts signed, the BDCD’s current job is to ensure that the work done is of the best possible quality. Most of the unsigned contracts are technology based. These are being purposely saved until the end of the project to ensure Needham gets the latest and greatest technology.
“A lot of the equipment that we haven’t bought yet is things like IT and telecommunications equipment,” Sargent explains, “because a few years from now, technology can change so drastically that anything we buy now will not be cutting edge.”
The first shovels went into the ground in February 2019. The three-year project requires an interim location for the facilities. Needham Police Department will be relocated to vacated Hillside School. The town plans to build temporary facilities for the fire department – for both bay apparatus and staff – in the parking lot of Hillside School and renovate existing interior space for police department operations.
Students from Hillside School will be moved to a newly constructed school, the Sunita L Williams Elementary School, another project of the BDCD.
“Concurrently with this [downtown] project, we’re building a $60-million school project, the Sunita L Williams Elementary School, named after the female astronaut that went to the Hillside school,” says Popper.
The people of Needham have supported continual improvements to their public infrastructure. A response that fills Popper, Sargent, and the BDCD with pride and purpose.
“I think the commitment the town has made to supporting this infrastructure, its schools, and its buildings is really commendable,” Popper says. “Not every town looks at the needs for replacement and wants to open up their pocketbooks.”
Sargent remarks that the project will be a major accomplishment shared by everyone in Needham. “We have the shovels in the ground, and are on our way to building what will not only enhance the first responders’ ability to do their job and do their job well, but will also be something that the town is proud of. For many years people will be saying, ‘we did this together.’”