A year after expecting to open a new center for disengaged and homeless youth, city officials offered explanations for a series of mishaps and delays — and asked for another $200,000 to complete the job.
It was supposed to open by January 2016. Then March 2016. It still needs lots of work.
During the second hour of a six-hour city budget hearing held at City Hall on Wednesday night, members of the Board of Alders Finance Committee interrogated Youth Services Director Jason Bartlett and Architectural Capital Projects Coordinator William MacMullen about expected and unexpected difficulties they have encountered while preparing the three-story building at 654 Orchard St., the former Community Outreach Center on the ground of Community Baptist Church.
The city has already spent $350,000 to $400,000 on the building, according to City Engineer Giovanni Zinn. The Youth Services Department has now requested an additional $200,000 in the mayor’s FY 17 – 18 capital budget to help remedy structural problems that continue to beleaguer the prospective teen center. This $200,000 ask is part of Youth Services’ capital budget request, as opposed to its general funds budget, which is status quo.
When the city first announced the project in September 2015, its goal was to open The Escape by January 2016. At a Board of Zoning Appeals hearing in December 2015, that hoped-for open date was pushed to the following March. One year later, Bartlett and MacMullen said that they expect The Escape to open in late July or August 2017.
The reasons for the delay, they said, were the various challenges they have encountered while repairing the building, which is owned by Bethel AME Church (which is donating much of its congregation’s time to helping launch the project). Last year the city signed a 15-year lease with the church, renting the building’s 30,000 square feet for $4,000-per-month. Bartlett said that the lease allows for the net rent to be reduced once the city hits a certain capital investment mark, though he did not have details with him on Wednesday night.
“The HVAC units were awful,” MacMullen said in an interview with the Independent after his testimony before the alders. He explained that two of the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units both stopped working as soon as winter began.
“When you change those things out, you also have to look at the fire alarm systems and at a number of other issues. All of this stuff is interconnected. If you have one thing go down, it affects many other parts of the building as well.”
Problems with the HVAC were not totally unexpected, however.
Westville Alder Adam Marchand observed that this project had experienced an unusual number of hurdles and that the city should have conducted a more thorough inspection of the building before the project began. MacMullen and Bartlett noted that they had hired the engineering company DTC to review and evaluate the building before they had started doing any work on it. They said DTC told them the plumbing was in great shape, the electrical system had to be updated, and that the HVAC was in serious trouble.
MacMullen said the city took a gamble on trying to retain and repair the HVAC system already in place instead of swapping it out for something new. Unfortunately, that gamble did not pay off, and the city had to replace the two failed systems with one new, larger one this past winter.
As for unexpected obstacles, MacMullen said that a series of leaks revealed a roof seriously neglected by the current owners.
“We found that nobody had ever taken care of the roof,” he said. “There were five different kinds of roof materials on it. And there were many, many leaks. After we redid the whole roof, there were still leaks, and we didn’t know what was going on.”
He learned that the roof drain system was an interior drain, which collects water and brings it inside of the building instead of pushing it off of the roof. Every time parts of the drain corroded, water leaked into the building.
“We had to tear things out that we had just put in,” he continued. “We didn’t know where the [corrosions and leaks] were, because a lot of them were covered up by the people who own the building. They thought they were doing maintenance by just covering it up and hoping it would go away.”
He said that he also had to make sure that the carpets were covered in tarp so that they would not be destroyed by water as the roof was being worked on. He said that the carpets were indeed protected by the tarp and have not been ruined.
The city is currently taking a hiatus on doing any more repairs to the building until Engineer Zinn and his department can complete a comprehensive review of the building. They are going to put together a budget and a plan for how much more work the building needs before the teen center can open.
“My involvement with this project started a few weeks back,” Zinn told the alders. “We’re taking a pause. We’re looking at the renovation and structure of the building. It’s time to get our design professionals in, come up with a set of drawings of everything we would do, and get estimates. I would love to have those estimates in front of you right now, but design work takes time. The [$200,000] number that you see in the capital budget is our best guess. I don’t think it’s going to go up, and if it goes down, we’ll let you know right away.”
Bartlett said that he would be happy to give the alders a tour of the building to show what work has already been completed, including the reconfiguration of the main hall, the repairs to the kitchen, the extensive roof work, and the partitioned entrances for the youth and the seniors at the adjacent senior services home. But, he noted, there were still some serious repairs that had to be done before the center could open.
“Right now, we don’t have a budget in front of us from which to say, here’s the dollars, and this is what it’s going to pay for,” Annex Alder Al Paolillo, Jr. said with frustration. After hearing Zinn’s testimony, he made sure to request that Youth Services and the City Engineering department check in with the alders as soon as possible, considering that they need to approve the city budget by June.
“When you come back, the expectation is that you’re going to do an entire review of the building. Even though we’ve done $100,000 worth of work, we need you to come back with a budget and a plan for the completion of phases 1 and 2 of this project.”