NEWINGTON - A proposal to renovate the Newington Town Hall building and move the Mortenson Community Center to the Willard Avenue side of Mill Pond Park, at a cost of over $30.1 million--over $30.3 million if you count what has already been spent--made it past the Town Hall Project Building Committee and onto the Town Council for deliberation on Monday night.
The Committee voted unanimously to pass the proposal onto the Council, which will make its own suggestions regarding finances and project scope before considering putting it out for referendum.
“This is preliminary,” said Deputy Mayor and Town Hall Project Building Committee Chair Clarke Castelle during a discussion prior to the vote. “However, we have been sitting on preliminary plans and preliminary cost estimates for months now. I feel comfortable sending this on to the Town Council.”
The plans and costs, however, were not always clear. The Committee and its architects had to change the town hall schematic when it was discovered that renovating the existing building would cost almost twice as much as the $11.1 million budgeted for that portion. This would have raised the total project budget to over $32 million, but abandoning plans for a new front entrance off of Garfield Street, amongst other changes, has brought the projected figure down slightly.
The Council was hoping to keep the project’s total cost from exceeding $20 million before the overrun.
Committee and Councilmember Dan Dinunzio expressed concerns regarding the costs, and whether unexpected escalations such as the discovery of PCBs were accounted for, but the proposed budgeting was set with the possibility, although unlikely, with that in mind, said Mayor Stephen Woods.
The town hall renovation project’s $20.86 million total construction cost estimate carries a contingency of about 10 percent, or just over $1.9 million, which Ed Moriarty of Downes Construction has indicated will go down as things progress further.
But then there’s also the issue of soft costs, which a few weeks ago came in at just over $3.5 million, more than the $2 million cap the Council had originally hoped to not exceed in this area.
“I won’t lie, the increased costs have been a bitter pill to swallow,” Castelle said. “But even if we reach our cap of $30 million, that’s a very modest sum for a town that has $2.5 billion in CIP.”
The projected cost of the project can still change as the Council tinkers with the proposal. A final cost estimate does not have to be in place until the project goes to referendum, according to Town Manager John Salomone.
“With a referendum you can spend less, but you can’t spend more than the referendum allocates,” Salomone said.
The design, however, will not be finalized until it goes back to the Committee following the referendum, Salomone said.
The Council and voters will ultimately have to decide is what to prioritize, said committee member and Councilor Myra Cohen.
“We have a cap to our bonding debt and our annual capital improvements, so this project will not affect our mill rate,” Cohen said. “But what this will do is delay other projects. The town hall has been a priority for many years, which has itself been postponed for other projects.”
Residents will ultimately have the final say, and some showed up at the meeting to weigh in.
Rose Lyons asked the committee to look beyond just the town hall and community center.
“I’m hoping that there’s a master plan for the whole area,” Lyons said during the public comments segment at the end of the meeting. “I want to know what the library’s plan is, [and] what the bus garage will look like.”
During the public comments segment, Newington resident Mady Kenny submitted an extensive list of questions asking about the environmental ramifications of the new recreation center being so close to wetlands, maintenance costs of a new building, and parking overflow, amongst other issues. Castelle hopes to have responses to the questions by next week.