Maria Kopicki: Diverse perspectives are the key to success for DPW project

  • The Amherst Department of Public Works building in 2016. Town of Amherst powerpoint

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The reconstruction or replacement of the Department of Public Works facility is one of the four major capital projects that will be determined entirely by the town itself.

In the case of the DPW project, there will be no granting agency to offer funds or to attach strings. The project will also need to be completely re-envisioned, as the town has only recently indicated that it will be subject to a budget cap of $20 million, about half of the original estimated cost.

Five years ago, the DPW/Fire Station Advisory Committee produced a plan for a public works facility with a $39 million price tag. This predated the town’s net-zero bylaw so it did not consider net-zero construction. This committee, like previous ones that have produced controversial and expensive building plans, involved a group of people dreaming big and working in a silo. We can and must take a fresh approach this time, with no preconceptions or assumptions about many key issues, including:

■What will need to be given up to get to a budget half the size of the last proposal, as town financial planners have indicated is necessary? Is that even possible?

■How many of the roughly 100 vehicles the DPW currently owns are critical to maintain? If the town reduces the fleet, what savings can it realize in facility construction and vehicle maintenance?

■What additional possibilities does that open up in terms of the site size needed for the project?

■What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of different locations, and consolidated versus dispersed facilities?

■What other plots of land could be offered or purchased for either the DPW or fire station?

■Given all we have learned during this past year of COVID-19, can some of the administrative functions of the DPW be conducted remotely?

■How will we approach net-zero building and minimization of energy consumption?

■Are there “model” DPW facility concepts that might sufficiently serve our needs and not require an expensive custom design (now estimated to cost almost $2 million)?

■How have comparable municipalities approached this issue with a similar fiscal and climate lens?

There are no doubt many other important questions that will need to be studied in depth.

As with other big projects, such as the elementary school and Jones Library, this project will involve some potentially controversial decisions: site, size, scope and renovation versus new construction, among them.

The time to hash out our differences should be during the process. That means people who disagree with each other should be included on the building committee, with seats at the table and equal footing, finding compromises and solutions together. This will be very different from the current practice where critical voices are relegated to three-minute public comments or emails to town councilors after plans are set in stone.

This project must also be approached within the larger context of all the town’s fiscal and facility needs. The narrative that there are four major capital projects is incorrect — there are many others. Crocker Farm is in need of significant repair and even expansion if it is to be the second of two elementary schools.

Recommendations have been made to expand not only the hours and ages served but also the facilities for children 0-5 years of age.

The middle school is in need of a new roof as well as safety and security improvements. The regional athletic track and fields require significant work.

The Community Safety Working Group has recommended a BIPOC-led Youth Center and a BIPOC Cultural Center. An Amherst Senior Center is another project that has been on hold for many years. The cost of the Centennial water treatment plant project has now risen to nearly $14 million.

This partial list doesn’t even include the chronic backlog of repairs to the roads and sidewalks that the DPW itself maintains.

The concept of making clear-eyed distinctions between what we want and what we need, and building to what we can afford, is a new, but welcome, concept in Amherst planning. I confess that I am skeptical that the town can provide sufficient detailed oversight of the planning and building of multiple simultaneous major projects — they will need all the help they can get.

Let’s embrace and empower diverse viewpoints from the outset and produce a thoroughly vetted plan that doesn’t need a professional marketing firm to sell it to the community. It will be a better product and a unifying experience for a community deeply in need of a group win.

Maria Kopicki lives in Amherst and has served on Town Meeting, the Fort River School Building Committee, the Crocker Farm Expansion study, and the Regional Master Facility Use study of ARPS middle and high schools.