Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Fab Four

The Facilities Advisory Board (FAB) meeting was held tonight to discuss the four active Trenton projects being undertaken by the NJSDA. There was a crowd of 15 residents (+/-) plus district representatives.

The big news continues to be that the district has apparently won a $250,000,000.00 prize courtesy of NJ taxpayers. The other big news is that the SDA has put a gun to the head of our collective city.

As reported in our papers, the NJSDA has told the district that the allocated funds will not be enough for the previously developed plans for both The Roebling School and the TCHS project. They have thrown out big numbers in the past that Roebling would now cost $130,000,000 and the high school could be anywhere between $200 and $300 million. Therefore, the SDA advised the district that it needs to develop a new baseline- a new set of parameters for these schools so that it can now look at developing new-construction designs for both projects, and that apparently the High School will serve less than half of the High School student population. Added to this mix is the fact that while the State only approved the money last week, the SDA needs Trenton to submit a new program model to DOE ASAP or else we may either loose our place in the priority line or loose the funding altogether.

That puts our district in the unenviable role of rushing a decision that will ultimately affect our students for at least the next 30 years. To their credit, I think the district is trying to do the right thing, and that the SDA has put them in a politically impossible position whereby they will face criticism no matter what decision is made. After all, if they go through a lengthy public-input process, or engage in additional analysis, then the district runs the risk of losing the funding and the projects. That’s a possibility the district cannot face, and it was clear in the meeting that the district has decided to push for all-new buildings at both Roebling and TCHS, and that, conversely, the existing Roebling and TCHS buildings will eventually be demolished. The Board of Education will vote on the 28th to begin this process- and I doubt that any public outcry will sway the board.

My main concern is the following: we are about to throw away the $30 million invested in Roebling and TCHS because the SDA has said that the old plans are too expensive to build. The pressure is on to make a decision, but the State has also not publicly provided the back-up information that proves their assertion that a comparable new facility is cheaper than an adaptive re-use of the existing facility. When we start over with a clean slate, we also start the approvals process all over again (new consultant contracts and negotiations, DOE approvals, SDA review and approvals, Construction Managers’ input and approvals, local municipal oversight and approvals, code review, DEP review etc.). The SDA schedule has a BEST CASE scenario whereby the High School and Roebling both have documents ready to bid on in 2 years- and that is an aggressive schedule since we will effectively start over from scratch. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Construction prices continue to rise at RECORD levels, inflation continues, and our two big projects are still on paper for at least two years. We all run the risk that by the time Roebling and TCHS go out to bid, both reincarnated schools are just as off-budget as they are today! It’s a realistic projection, and is consistent with what I’ve seen in private practice.

Furthermore, we are being led down a path without any facts, without any numbers or detailed explanation from the SDA on how these two huge projects have exceeded industry-standard escalation and have effectively more than doubled in price within a four year period. I find it curious that detailed facts and figures on these schools are absent from discussions that have gone on for over 8 months now- that no bona-fide construction cost estimates have been presented to the public detailing how much more or less expensive each option is in 2009-10 dollars (or midpoint of construction). Consultant Architects and Construction Managers have NEVER said in public what their recommendations are for the best or cheapest facility. Likewise, the scope of both Roebling and the TCHS projects are so vast that its surprising that value-engineering was not considered or was not made public. Did the State try to cut some “fat” off these projects, or are they so unwieldy that the analysis would take too long now? With all of these facts noticeably absent from the decision-making process, how can we possibly look Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey in the eye and tell them that we are spending money wisely and making the best decisions? Is it really ok to throw away $30 million in preconstruction expenses because there is, maybe, a cost benefit analysis somewhere, out there, maybe? Can you possibly expect the public to buy in to that and continue to support SDA projects into the future? And the most important consideration of all is that by starting over, we are delaying the delivery of these facilities to the people who need them the most: our students.

Without the estimates, without cold hard facts, its impossible to judge whether one alternative is better than the other. We are all just talking about opinions, gut reactions, and guesstimates- and when $250,000,000 is at stake, that level of discussion seems utterly irresponsible.

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About Me

In 1998, I packed up an old Civic with all of my belongings and made a drive from Lubbock, TX to New Jersey. The second day in Jersey, someone at Princeton told me: "hey- you're an architect? Check out Trenton sometime". I found a dilapidated house in Mill Hill and renovated it with my wife for a couple of years. We were blessed with a baby girl four years ago who has helped us to experience the city in wholly new ways! I'm an architect with a specialization in master planning, and am currently a member of the Trenton Planning Board.