What can $77 million get you in Cambridge? A fixed-up fire station, apparently.




The Boston Globe

What can  million get you in Cambridge? A fixed-up fire station, apparently.
Cambridge is renovating this old building. It will cost $77 million. LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

What follows is part of the Globe’s weekly Camberville & beyond newsletter, which explores the latest from Cambridge and Somerville. You can read the June 6th edition here.

Last month, while scouring the internet for interesting Camberville happenings, I saw that the price tag for renovating the old Cambridge firehouse near Harvard Square — originally around $25 million — had risen to $77 million.

Even by our inflation era’s standards, and even given the significant disrepair of the nearly century-old building that houses firefighters and department brass, that seemed like a lot.

But capital construction expert, I am not. So I made some calls.

Newton recently renovated a historic fire station/headquarters of its own. In 2017, the city finished turning the Newton Centre building into a sparkling new facility with emergency operations and dispatch centers, fire department administration, a five-bay firehouse, and more. A city spokesperson said the cost was $20.5 million.

In Brooklyn, the city of New York constructed a new, eco-friendly building that is at once a firehouse and top-notch training facility, able to house a team and its trucks, and allow them to fine-tune their rescue chops. It opened in 2019 for $32 million.

In Dorchester, Boston is building a new neighborhood firehouse with energy-efficient features. It’s set to cost the city about $30 million.

Cambridge firefighters responded to a building fire. LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

As a Camberville resident, I chat from time to time with the firefighters who work at the firehouse being renovated. Love those folks. Now in a temporary station, they deserve the best facilities to help keep the dense city of 120,000 people safe.

But is that what all $77 million of this project is giving them?

In emails and on a video call this week, several Cambridge officials outlined how the project’s price tag climbed and climbed and climbed, and argued that no other renovation or new firehouse is really comparable.

They said the building, ill-maintained for decades, is in much rougher shape than originally known, so the fixes are massive: everything from restoring the foundation to replacing the slate roof — all while carefully preserving historic details.

They said the parcel’s location, sandwiched between busy Broadway and Cambridge Street, complicates logistics and adds to costs.

And they emphasized again and again that because the work on the municipal building is a gut rehab, city ordinance requires it to be what they called “net-zero ready.”

In plain language, that led the city to design a super-eco-friendly all-electric building. It will have its own substation, solar panels, and nearly 20 geothermal wells for its heat and air-conditioning system. I asked about those wells — which use the steady temperature underground to heat or cool — because I imagined drilling them on the half-acre parcel across from Harvard’s Memorial Hall is pricey.

Brendon Roy, the director of the city’s capital building projects department, said Cambridge evaluated several other heating and cooling systems, and found geothermal wells the “most advantageous” for the city.

Was “most advantageous” least expensive?

”I don’t think it was the least expensive, but,” he said, “ordinances are what they are.”

Acting fire chief Thomas F. Cahill Jr. told me “there’s nothing extravagant” about what firefighters are getting in the renovation, and the wells “are what we needed to do to meet the requirements that the City Council put in place years ago.”

The firehouse in question. LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

Given that money for capital projects is limited — even in Cambridge — I wondered who had done the grappling, the cost-benefit analysis about whether spending so much on one firehouse was worth it; who had thought through how millions of dollars could have otherwise been spent if the project, now underway, were done for less.

Deputy City Manager Owen O’Riordan said it was a legitimate question. And couched in municipal argot, he offered what sounded to me like a note of penitence.

”In hindsight,” he said, “perhaps, if we were to look at this differently, there may have been another project that might have been more value-added in terms of a net-zero facility.”

Earlier in our conversation, he put it in a more philosophical way: “If today were yesterday, maybe we would relook at that again.”





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