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Cambridge City Council Examines Capital Spending as Cambridge Fire Department Renovations Top $77 Million

The Cambridge Fire Station Headquarters Building is located on a triangle of land sandwiched between Harvard buildings and the Cambridge and Broadway Street underpass.
The Cambridge Fire Station Headquarters Building is located on a triangle of land sandwiched between Harvard buildings and the Cambridge and Broadway Street underpass. By Elyse C. Goncalves
By Elyse C. Goncalves and Tilly R. Robinson, Crimson Staff Writers

The Cambridge City Council asked City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 on Monday to provide an updated cost estimate for capital projects after the renovation of the Cambridge Fire Station Headquarters reached a total cost of $77 million.

The Council’s policy order reflects growing concern that other capital projects could face a similar budget creep even as the council acknowledged the need to renovate the building.

The expected cost of the project has more than tripled since its initial proposal. But Fire Chief Thomas F. Cahill Jr. and construction program manager Brendan Roy said the funds are being used to address serious issues at a complex construction site.

The council initially approved $22 million to fund improvements to the nearly 100-year-old station in 2019, but the project was delayed during the pandemic. The city later undertook a major reevaluation of the site, opting to conduct a gut rehab of the station instead of surface-level renovations.

In 2022, then-City Manager Louis A. DePasquale requested an additional $37 million for the project, citing the costs of “significant construction escalation, schedule delays and temporary facility siting” as well as new amenities.

Additions include a new data center to handle emergency communications and onsite renewable energy technologies — including 17 geothermal wells, solar photovoltaic panels, and a substation to accommodate the building’s new electrical requirements.

Roy said the construction plans were adjusted in order to comply with the city’s Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance, which requires the new facility to reach net zero emissions by 2050, along with other municipal buildings larger than 10,000 square feet.

Earlier this year, Huang asked for another $15 million for the renovation. In a memo to the Council, he attributed the cost increase to the headquarter’s location — on a triangle of land sandwiched between Harvard buildings and the Cambridge and Broadway Street underpass — which complicated the installation of energy facilities and required the construction to be conducted in phases.

The headquarters, located at 491 Broadway Street, is usually home to three fire trucks and their crews, as well as multiple administrative offices.

On Jan. 16, the firefighters based at the station temporarily relocated to a modular facility at 15 Hovey Avenue, and on Feb. 1, administrators moved to offices at 23 Bay State Road.

Cahill said existing issues with the building didn’t affect the department’s operations, but did affect officers’ quality of life. The biggest improvement, he said, might be to make the building watertight — a process that will include installing new windows and a new slate roof.

Despite the price tag, however, Cahill described the renovations themselves as “modest.”

“I think that even if they had invested $20 million, it just would have been a $20 million band-aid on top of a serious wound,” he said.

Part of the cost increase, according to Roy, had to do with larger trends following the Covid-19 pandemic. He added that similar projects have seen a comparable hike in costs.

“You see it in other projects and other towns, the price you paid in 2019, is just totally different than the price you’re paying in 2022, or three or four now,” Roy said.

The fire station’s rising price tag has spurred the Council to worry that its other capital projects might also face higher-than-anticipated costs — whether because of new climate resiliency standards, pandemic-related supply chain complications, or unidentified renovation needs.

Cambridge City Council member Patty M. Nolan ’80 told the Cambridge Day last month that the ballooning budget was “really, really, really not good management in practice.”

“We run up against this on every single project we do, it seems,” she said.

Monday’s policy order asks the city manager to provide updated cost estimates for the city’s ongoing capital projects — including the 43 buildings identified in the city’s 13-year Municipal Facilities Improvement Plan — to determine whether costs have increased since assessments for the plan concluded in 2018.

The policy order comes as Cambridge — whose fiscal year 2025 operating budget totaled nearly $1 billion — anticipates a budget crunch. Several Council members have signaled that they expect the city will need to tighten its belt in coming years as the growth of biotech lab space, a major source of tax revenue, begins to slow.

Councilor Joan F. Pickett, who was the policy order’s lead sponsor, described the fire station upgrades as “very necessary” in an interview, but she said the project’s rising costs had taken the Council by surprise.

“The jump from ‘We’re just going to do a little fix-up’ to ‘Oh, I think we need to have a comprehensive renovation’ is one of the triggers for me to say, what else don't we know about the condition of our municipal facilities?” Pickett said. “And shouldn’t we know that?”

—Staff writer Elyse C. Goncalves can be reached at elyse.goncalves@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @e1ysegoncalves or on Threads @elyse.goncalves.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

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