Editor’s note: Please see the bottom of this post for renderings and info boxes about the four different plans for the replacement of the Waterbury state office complex.
A feasibility study on the flooded Waterbury state office complex was unveiled in Montpelier on Friday, swamping state officials with 500 pages of extensive analysis, a PowerPoint presentation, dollar signs galore and a mind-numbing array of data figures and potential options.
The quick takeaway at the briefing for 35 state officials, legislators and a horde of media was equal parts sticker shock, and shock at how many moving parts there are.
But that was leavened by a favorable sense that the detailed report by Burlington architects Freeman French Freeman and partner Goody Clancy gives the state a good sense of its options on the historic 100-acre red-brick complex, which has 50 buildings, some of which date back to the 1890s.
“With a few days of reflection, I think people will see a path forward, “ said Jeb Spaulding, the secretary of administration and a former state treasurer with an eye for numbers.
Spaulding noted it will take time to “assimilate” the report’s detailed analyses of costs, timelines and the four options outlined.
“There’s an amazing amount of good work that has been done here,” he said. “It gives us real food for thought,” he said later, adding the administration expected to work collaboratively with lawmakers to reach consensus and give state office workers displaced by tropical storm Irene on Aug. 29 some sense of what the future holds.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has consistently said he wants state workers to return to the complex but that a lot will depend on the costs involved in what has often been described as one of the most monumental decisions ever to face state government.
The report gave the governor’s office and lawmakers some monumental figures to work with, which is where Spaulding and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said they had “sticker shock.”
The costs in the report ranged from $108 million to $142 million, which is what Freeman French Freeman estimated as the potential range for four different options on where to house the roughly 1,200 state employees formerly at Waterbury who are now scattered around in temporary offices around the state.
In sum, the study found complete restoration and reuse of the complex was the most expensive option at $142.7 million; partial reuse and building a new office at Waterbury, dubbed the “old-and-new hybrid,” would cost $134.3 million; a new offsite office complex in Montpelier where the Vermont Department of Labor is currently located near Montpelier High School would cost $118.6 million; and a comparative “benchmark option” of a new offsite building, if land were available, would be $108 million.
The state expects some of the expense of reinventing the office complex or building a new one to be reimbursed by insurance and FEMA, though just how much depends on the option the state choses, Spaulding said.
While the study was detailed and extensive, Beck framed it simply.
“We were hired to not make a recommendation or decision, but to deliver the facts,” he said, noting more than 40 experts participated in the study.
One key fact importantly concluded that flood mitigation at Waterbury was feasible through a combination of floodproofing methods and excavating and lowering the parking areas nearer the Winooski River as a “floodway” that would allow water room to flow through.
Beck several times cautioned about “comparing costs,” explaining that all the projections need to viewed in a broad context of many variables.”
That would protect the site from damage even with a 500-year flood event, which Irene approached, he said, calling it an “extraordinary event.” Beck, who said 47 of 48 buildings at the complex “got wet” in Irene, said his team did extensive survey of the floodplain to reach its conclusion.
Both the total reuse and hybrid plans call for demolition of some buildings that have been added at the complex over the decades closer to the river, such as the power house, old laundry, maintenance building and carpenters building.
The hybrid plan would essentially restore the original elegant “spine” of the 19th century former state asylum and demolish a number of other damaged or more decrepit buildings, totaling 310,349 square feet, prone to flooding. These include the agricultural and environmental lab building, Dale, Osgood and “A” building and “core” building behind the main oval, where a new 115,000-square foot, 3-story office building for 600 workers with parking underneath for 140 cars would then be built facing the river, easing “erosion of the vision” for the site that occurred over the years, according to Jean Carroon of Goody Clancy, which specializes in historic restorations.
A new modern, $16 million biomass power plant would be built at the complex in one of two locations. The preferred site is where the agricultural building is now located.
The Montpelier complex envisions a 5-story, 227,760 square foot building with geothermal heat shaped somewhat like a “W” that would house 1,168 employees. While its overall cost is lower, the report notes that unlike Waterbury, it would not be eligible for FEMA dollars, an important factor in any comparative estimates.
All four options propose photovoltaic solar arrays and all the new construction would be highly energy efficient and offer a national model for 21st century office space, and would use Vermont building materials such as wood, granite, marble and slate that are the state’s hallmark.
“We do have some of the best material in the world,” said Beck, who noted use of stone also lowers maintenance costs.
Beck several times cautioned about “comparing costs,” explaining that all the projections need to viewed in a broad context of many variables as well as social judgments that can affect the total picture and estimates.
These range from annual operating costs, time to go through permitting, traffic and parking issues, issues of sprawl, flood mitigation and historic preservation, as well as the design of the buildings and the construction materials. At the Montpelier site, Beck said the cost of parking and transportation to an already crowded capital downtown also needs to be factored in, which he called “a real eye-opener.”
The report noted that building in Montpelier would require more extensive permits and variances, as well roadway improvements and possibly purchase of the adjacent Green Mountain Power building.
Beck noted another major issue is that any new construction outside of Waterbury still leaves the state with ownership of the historic Waterbury complex and its maintenance, which must be factored in if it is “mothballed” or until the buildings are sold. The report estimated a $3 million cost for “mothballing” the complex.
The study dashed any hopes that state office workers, many of whom have been facing life upheaval with longer commutes to work sites in Chittenden and Washington County, can expect a return to the Waterbury region soon.
According to Beck, the earliest realistic timeline for any of the options would be the summer of 2015. The two major agencies affected were Human Services and Natural Resources.
State officials such as Lt. Gov. Scott made it clear from their comments that they consider the options outlined Friday, designated A, B and C1 and C2, as starting points more than definitive answers. Beck agreed, noting that “there are a lot of variables and these options can be adjusted.”
Beck said if the scope of renovations on the old buildings at the complex are scaled back and the “energy bar is lowered a little bit” the state could save $9 million.
“There’s a lot of decision points, “ he said, adding that making buildings smaller and changing construction materials are other areas where money could be saved.
“I thought it was a good day for Waterbury,” Rep. Stevens said.
The study explored an intriguing option that has gotten little discussion in the Legislature, which is housing additional employees at the National Life complex in Montpelier. The study found that a recent internal reorganization at the National Life complex has opened up additional space and the 384 employees in the Agency of Natural Resources could be housed there.
National Life already houses 670 employees in the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and Agency of Transportation. Moving ANR there as well may be appealing because state officials have praised the efficiencies and coordination that resulted post-Irene by having the two agencies work together.
The report said FFF will work on a cost estimate for “expanded government use” of the National Life space, which will become available this summer.
Rep. Tom Stevens, a Democrat who represents Waterbury, asked about the concept of “mothballing” Waterbury and what use the buildings might have. Beck said the market analysis showed a “stressed” real estate market at this time. He said some of the smaller buildings on the compound are “very prime” for sale but for the main complex, affordable and work force housing appears to be a prime use.
Two of the key legislators who will play a role with the administration in deciding a course of action attended, listening intently. Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, who heads the House Institutions Committee and has worked closely her senate counterpart, Democrat Robert Hartwell, said the report was full of “many moving pieces.” But she called the feasibility study “very helpful” and said she was optimistic lawmakers will be able to grapple with all the options and come to some consensus before expected adjournment next month.
“I think we can agree on a direction,” she said.
According to Emmons, her panel and the senate panel will provide that direction via the annual capital construction bill working its way through the Legislature. She said the House committee planned to meet next week with Beck and try and reach some decisions the week of March 19.
Spaulding said he felt confident the administration and Legislature could move quickly and collaboratively.
Rep. Stevens is optimistic the hybrid plan for the complex is the path chosen and may offer some hope to his hometown, which took a double hit from the flooding and the loss of business from all the state workers who were forced to leave.
“I thought it was a good day for Waterbury,” he said. “We’ll see what happens with it all.”