Pittsfield Buildings Need Significant Repair
Director of Building Maintenance Dennis Guyer presented an overview of the current conditions of schools, fire stations, the senior center, City Hall, and the library, most of which have long lists of work needed but few funds to do it. He is calling for a comprehensive review of all city-owned buildings to determine a future for each.
"For the past 30 years, the city of Pittsfield has made the decision to deprioritize and underfunded its building maintenance operations," Guyer said.
The story of the city's buildings can really be started in the 1950s and 1960s, following World War 2 when hundreds of soldiers were returning home and looking to raise families. General Electric was a massive employer and the baby boomer generation was spawned, neighborhoods were built, and the population swelled.
As the neighborhoods grew, the city built fire stations, schools, and others to accommodate it — and at the time there was little thought about the ongoing maintenance and costs because the economy was strong and so was the tax base.
When the 1980s hit, the school-age population began to decline as the baby boomers graduated. The city then closed or changed the use of six school buildings, opting to close the oldest schools and retain the new ones. The population decline continued into the '90s and the closure of General Electric brought an exodus of the population by some 10,000 by 2000. Other than Hibbard Alternative School, no other building was closed.
"The city of Pittsfield has not performed any redistricting of school lines in 20 years, shifting populations of students to lessen the burden on overpopulated buildings like Egremont School and has in contrary only approved renovation projects which have added more square-footage to the school's operation building inventory," Guyer said.
With help from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, eight schools were renovated — renovations that added to the square footage and required more maintenance.
"At the very same time, the city of Pittsfield added square footage and systems to these buildings, it was cutting or not increasing the very department tasked with their maintenance and care," Guyer said.
Guyer said three things happened over the last 20 or so years: operation maintenance budgets have not kept pace with inflation and has not been increased in a decade; the maintenance staff has been cut by 50 percent; and those in government have not provided a direction and vision for the future of the buildings in the face of demographic changes.
"During the decades when the city of Pittsfield should have been investing more money in terms of personnel, projects, and resources to maintain its buildings; it has instead been cutting or underfunding their maintenance. This costs the city in ways that are both calculable and incalculable," Guyer said.
Now the city owns more than 100 structures from as small as a pavilion at Burbank Park to the Berkshire Athenaeum. It operates a dozen schools, five fire houses, a senior center, police station, and City Hall itself among the larger buildings requiring maintenance.
And the city-owned buildings are just getting worse as they age.
Guyer outlined a number of the issues facing many of the buildings in a report to the City Council's Public Buildings and Maintenance subcommittee. At the end, he called on the mayor, the superintendent of schools, the City Council, and the School Committee to get working on a long-term plan, including closing and getting rid of some buildings to reduce the overhead.
"One of the challenges I have in my role here is that there has to be at some pointed conversations about what we are doing with these buildings over the next five, 10, 20 years," Guyer said.
He doesn't want to be sinking money into buildings when the future use is completely unknown. For example, right now he is putting energy into addressing environmental hazards in the basement of City Hall, which have just gotten worse since the inspections department was moved to a leased space at 100 North St. and other offices moved upstairs.
"My goal right now is to stop what is happening down there. It is to do what I can to stop that problem," Guyer said.
Guyer said water infiltration isn't the issue, though a few years ago a pipe had broken and flooded the basement, but it is damp and humid. Since no employees are down there, the air flow has since become more restricted causing mold and other issues. Guyer says he has been turning exhaust fans on, has placed industrial dehumidifiers, hiring a contractor for a deep cleaning, and installing doors that will allow greater air flow to help mitigate the dampness and mold.
The city councilors, however, wanted to know when employees could be moved back there. Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli said the city is spending money every year on rent at 100 North St. when repairs to the basement could allow them to go back.
"I know there are things being done at City Hall, I don't know what or how much. But we are paying X amount of dollars every year for half of City Hall to be elsewhere," Simonelli said.
But that decision is out of Guyer's hands.
"After we get through this first phase of changing the condition down there, the air condition, the air flow, and the dampness, if we got to a point where we all felt and air testing results proved there was no problem down there, then we could have a conversation about what is the next iteration," he said.
The basement is only one of the issues facing City Hall. Guyer said not all bathrooms are American with Disabilities Act compliant, bathrooms have old fixtures and flooring, there is insufficient electrical service on the second floor — so little that new air conditioning units installed don't have enough power and wiring has to be run down to lower levels — there is no central heating unit, the foundation has water issues, spaces are being used in ways that the building wasn't designed for, the elevator is 50 years old, there is only one boiler with no backup, the front steps are falling apart, the parking needs regarding, the Fenn Street and rear entrances have railings nearly breaking with outdated carpeting, many offices have no second egress, asbestos is throughout the building, security systems need to be upgraded, there are original doors needing replacement, and the flooring throughout needs to be repaired.
The list is long and there are funding challenges.
Some of the other problems with City Hall are that the city has tried to "shoehorn" operations into spaces they weren't designed for, Guyer said. For example, the information technology department, which didn't exist when the building was constructed in the early 1900s, is now operating in a room with insufficient air conditioning to keep the computers from overheating. That needs to be fixed.
Another issue is that because there is asbestos throughout the buildings, "this causes renovation projects to be more expensive" because hazardous material needs to be handled, typically on the weekends at a higher cost when nobody is in the building. Or that the ADA is triggered when a certain amount of renovations are done. So, the bathroom upstairs at City Hall hasn't been renovated at all because the toilets are mounted on marble — another costly project if the toilet or urinal needs to be raised or lowered to meet ADA standards.
Meanwhile, at the Froio Senior Center, another host of problems awaits the maintenance department. The heating and ventilation system is breaking down and in the next capital budget, Guyer says he'll be asking for money to replace that. The historic marquee out front of the former movie theater is also facing structural issues.
"The historic neon lighting down there needs a lot of work. There are some small structural issues going on with that marquee that needs help," Guyer said.
"Some of the previous electrical work that had been done in the building when the systems were put in were not done correctly. We are currently going through the building and identifying those areas and repairing them," Guyer said.
He added that just recently the elevator broke, costing the city $18,000 to repair.
At the Fire Department's Central Station on Columbus Avenue, there is very little clearance between the trucks and the ceiling. The new fire apparatus are now bigger and heavier, so it is lucky that the newest vehicles can be stored there. That extra weight has been shown in a bowing at the Somerset Avenue Fire Station, which serves as the maintenance garage.
"A new home for that maintenance garage needs to be found. It is that simple," Guyer said.
Most of the fire stations face similar issues. There are no separate shower areas for female firefighters, the heating systems are failing, the windows need replacement, air conditioning is rare, and there is structural damage to the exterior. Further, Guyer said he is worried about the sewer and drain lines running from the stations to the city's sewer system because he believes that piping is original.
"Over time you get a lot of things built up in these pipes, a lot of corrosion can happen," Guyer said.
When Guyer went to Engine 1 station on West Housatonic Street, he immediately launched a short renovation project because of what he found.
"There were actual socks stuffed into cracks in the wall and window frame ... These are buildings that people live in. It is not the same person every day but these buildings are lived in 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Guyer said. "We went in there and did a lot of work in a short period of time and tried to improve their living area as much as we could."
All of the fire stations were built around the same time, so all are coming of age at around the same time. Even the training structure at the Peck's Road Fire Station is in need of repair. Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell suggested that the city start taking blighted properly through the court system and use those structures for training instead — which is done in other towns.
The city's schools are also in poor condition. Pittsfield High School has a long list of repairs but the least of Guyer's concerns there are the three boilers that are actual locomotive engines. Guyer said the school was essentially built around the coal-burning locomotive engines as the boiler system — so any replacement would be a enormous undertaking. Later the boilers were converted to gas.
"These three boilers at PHS run like champions," Guyer said.
"We've tried to address some of the more imminent, obvious things that could cause trouble or cause an injury but so far we are not even scratching the surface of what we need to do out there," Guyer said.
In a courtyard sits large original oil tanks. They aren't being used but the only way to remove them would be to use a crane to lift them out. Throughout the buildings windows leak, slam, or are inoperable. The radiators are built into the walls in some places, meaning to fix the 150-pound pieces of equipment requires pulling apart the wall and then putting it back when a u-vent would be much easier.
"It is at the point where simple repairs, simple fixes just don't cut it anymore," Guyer said.
The showers were removed years ago, but the exhaust vents have caused structural damage. A renovation in the 1970s added plenty of corridor space but didn't address asbestos concerns, instead hiding it from view.
"It didn't really do anything to address any long-term, actual building operating systems," Guyer said. "This larger renovation in the '70s didn't do anything about the more serious issues we face at PHS."
He continued to say bathrooms need repair, the elevator needs to be replaced, there is original plumbing throughout, the flooring is worn, and the dome needs painting. Guyer said a project just a few years ago to repair the dome left out money to paint the white portion of it. Councilors said most likely the project had started as gilding and painting but then structural issues were found, which raised the price of the project and there wasn't enough money to paint as well as fix the structure.
"The building, it is never going to fall down. But it is built so well that it is hard to maintain it," Guyer said.
In 2015, the City Council did allocate funding to repair leaking vent tubes and to make structural repairs in the basement, which is expected to start in late 2016 or early 2017. Guyer said a new electrical feed line was replaced with a new transformer this year, and another $25,000 was spent on repairing walkways at both PHS and Egremont Elementary School.
Crosby Elementary School is the next building with a lengthy list of needed repairs. From the heating system, to the electrical system, to windows, to auditorium seating, every single system in the school is original to the 1962 structure. There has been no renovation of the school. Guyer showed pictures of ceiling tiles caked with grime and dirt, which he said are difficult to clean.
"A lot of this carpeting is original and it smells that way," he said.
Over at Conte, there is another list of eight items Guyer says is needed. Another nine items at Morningside Community School. Herberg needs a new hot water tank and at Reid, there are sections of the roof that are expected to fail in the next three to five years.
"It is getting near the end of its life cycle and we need to repair it," Guyer said. "We've seen an increase in work orders for roof repairs at Reid, which indicates there might be some failure that we need to address."
The rest of the elementary schools, however, Guyer said are in "very good" condition. But, all of them were renovated at the same time, so what he hopes is to avoid having everything go wrong with those buildings at once and instead be ahead of the work.
However, the principals who work in the schools can add plenty more to Guyer's list — and have outlined their own concerns to the School Committee earlier this year.
Guyer says he has a five-year capital plan for all of the buildings but beyond just keeping them as is, he doesn't have a good enough sense of their future uses. He said he could easily find $50 million worth of work at PHS alone but he wouldn't ask to commit that money unless he knew what the future use would be, and the design would reflect that.
"There has not been a strategy as to what to do with these buildings in 30 years," Guyer said.
At-Large Councilor Kathleen Amuso wants to see a prioritized list with cost estimates to guide capital and maintenance work over the next handful of years. She said if the city doesn't invest more in upkeep, then the problem will just get worse.
"I really do think we need to support our buildings and I would like to see this prioritize," Amuso said.
The committee agreed, saying it isn't enough to just talk about redistricting or determining long-range plans for the buildings but to actually do it. The group wants to bring in other departments and try to come up with a long-term strategy for all city buildings.
"Somebody has got to say this is what we have to do and move forward," Connell said.
Other buildings not discussed included Taconic High School, which will be razed once the new one under construction is completed, the Police Station, for which a feasibility study was done, and Hibbard School, which was studied two years ago and resulted in putting on a new roof.
The last, Hibbard, is mostly vacant with just three employees, three refrigerators for food storage, and paper storage — so an easy building to vacate, Guyer said.
However, a newer building could be easier to sell and that money could be used to renovate older ones. That is why Guyer said he needs an inclusive plan with the city's leadership.
Tags: building committee, maintenance, municipal property, public buildings,
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