Concrete, PVC and a Cyclone Fence


A Cautionary Tale

CarolinaFireJournal - By Jim McClure
By Jim McClure
11/07/2017 -

This issue we start in Japan. A very famous Japanese movie director, Akira Kurosawa, made a movie called “Rashomon.” It is a story of six people; all telling different versions of the murder of a samurai, including the samurai himself through the use of the medium. The story I will share with you has the same elements; multiple people talking about the same firehouse but they all tell the story differently.

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This photo represents the foundation and underground work of a five bay, drive through volunteer fire station with banquet hall and social hall.

I have driven past this site multiple times in my travels. Finally my curiosity got the best of me. I stopped in this town and asked someone what was that site supposed to be. I was shocked to hear it was a firehouse. I immediately took photos of the site. The last two times I drove through here I stopped and started asking questions. That’s the beauty of being a firefighter, you can walk into any firehouse, introduce yourself and the conversation flows. I also went to city hall. Online resources gave me access to the quotes and timeline. I was unable to talk to anyone from the construction management company in time for this issue.

There are multiple volunteer fire companies in this town. This new building was meant to replace one of them. They had outgrown their old firehouse. The agency had surplus land, which they sold to the city for almost $1 million. But I am ahead of myself in the story.

The fire department’s original plan was to sell the same acreage to a developer who would build a bunch of houses and make enough money to also build a multi-million dollar firehouse. The old firehouse would be repurposed for social good. The majority of the acreage had been used as athletic fields and public gatherings.

So how did we get from a multimillion dollar firehouse to one that could only cost $1 million and finally to a fenced off foundation?

The city refused to give a permit for the high density housing on the property. Without the high density housing the developer could not afford to pay for the firehouse. The city council was afraid the extra density would change the character of the neighborhood. There were also concerns that the new firehouse wouldn’t have enough parking for people who would use the banquet hall. (It is amazing the information you can find online.) Various parties in the room use the words victim and insulted and mock trial. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to decide which side of the dais the words came from.

Three days later the city received a letter with a single sentence from the fire company stating the “use of their additional acreage would no longer be permitted.” The council used words such as validity and outrage in response.

Several weeks later the fire company sent another letter to the city. In it they stated that they would open up the property if the city would start good faith negotiations with the goal of reaching a binding agreement to purchase the acreage they originally intended to develop. The letter additionally stated that they had been hearing through the grapevine the city was talking about condemning the property through eminent domain. The following two sentences are from the letter.

“Plus, you have already taken the unusual step of spot-zoning our property — an act which we believe to be illegal — in what we can only consider to be yet another attempt at squashing a deal which is most financially and functionally attractive to us.” “If the above stated act of compromise is not agreeable to city council than the Board of Directors of the Fire Company regrettably will need to continue to preserve our private property rights.”

The fire company’s letter to the city ends with a couple of veiled threats. In movie parlance this would be considered foreshadowing.

“If the above stated act of compromise is not agreeable to city council than the Board of Directors of the Fire Company regrettably will need to continue to preserve our private property rights,” states the letter.

“Additionally, we must use this letter to notify you that based upon the condition of our existing building, our financial status and the projected future increased demands upon our services, should city council engage in an action that removes from our ownership the only feasible parcel of land upon which we can build a new fire station, then the continued longevity of our providing emergency service to the community, and specifically to the residents of the Uptown district, may well be seriously jeopardized.”

These guys play hardball. Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.

Obviously the fire company’s threat was successful. This story started with the million-dollar purchase of the surplus land. But the devil is in the details as they say. From the negative vote on the original plan to the agreement to purchase the property by the city took eight months. The actual sale took another year and one half before money and property changed hands.

Now the fire company has almost $1 million to design and build the firehouse. They hired a local architect and started the design process. I spoke to the architect the day I wrote this article. He could shed no light on the fact that they were planning a 20,000 square feet building that was originally estimated to cost $2.4 million with only $1 million in the checking account. I really didn’t expect any other answer. It is not the architect’s job to monitor the client’s finances. Their only fiscal responsibility is the design and construction budget. They have to design to the budget they are given by the client. If they are hired to manage the construction process they are also responsible for the construction budget.

The contradiction here is that the fire company’s predecessors were so forward thinking they bought the land so long ago nobody I talked to could remember how long they had it. Several people remembered the fields associated with the fire company when they were kids 50 years ago.

Six months go by and now it’s NIMBY time. As the plans were refined and made public, the neighbors, some of whom probably grew up in the homes sitting right across the street from this long predicted and hoped-for future firehouse, realized that the fire trucks were coming right at them every time they exited the station. According to city meeting minutes their displeasure was vocal. The city’s planning department first heard the issue. The commission reminded the city that they had to follow their own rules as enforced by the planning commission. “Our interpretation is that the Borough has to go through the same procedure as everybody else.” I’m sure many of you reading this have had experiences similar to mine when dealing with other city bureaucracies. They ask questions which to us have obvious answers. You have to remind yourself not to fault someone for something they do not know. In response to the neighbor’s complaints they asked why fire trucks could not go out on the side street. The simple fact was it was too narrow.

As a side note I would have recommended rotating the firehouse and widening the smaller street. The far side of the narrower street was unimproved bare dirt and would not cost too much. It is safer to respond out onto a quieter street and then turning onto the busier street at the intersection. The firefighters and the architect believed that their preferred orientation lead to a faster response. That may be true but the other orientation would have been safer. The vehicles would have been more visible sooner and blind spots would have been eliminated. One of the residents across the street had a more definitive suggestion, “ Don’t turn it, move it.”

The commission deferred to the city’s traffic engineers saying that they were the planning department not traffic engineers and there should be a professional opinion regarding this topic. Things got more interesting when it went before the city council. Of course the same neighbors across the street spoke against having the driveway face them. A councilperson from another district within town agreed with them. The attorney for the fire company spoke on their behalf. It’s a good thing he did. Apparently some of the fire company board tended to express themselves rather freely.

Because the council was deciding the firehouse and the use of the rest of the property as sports fields under their jurisdiction it was a combined motion on the table. The ruling had to do with a workaround so the entire council wouldn’t have to recuse themselves because of a perceived conflict of interest. Once that was cleared up, the council approved the joint motion with one abstention. The councilperson for the district where the firehouse is located recused himself. The neighbors did lose their battle and what you see of the firehouse in the photos shows the front of the building facing their homes across the street.

At this point in our movie another nine months of pages fly off the calendar. It’s groundbreaking day. The plan at this point was to sell the original firehouse, get the money up front but not turn over possession of the old firehouse until they moved into the new one. I guess that could work. The optimism of this group amazes me. They were definitely optimistic about cash flow. And apparently they were overly optimistic about the construction schedule. Two quotes at the groundbreaking are below.

“We’re hoping that at the nine month mark, we’ll have the trucks inside the new building,” he said. “Once they get the concrete going and the steel up, it’ll be a matter of time.”

“The guys have been pushing for the groundbreaking and getting this building started. We’re looking forward to seeing the heavy equipment to get up there to get this going. This has been very exciting for all of us. All of the firefighters are really into this. We’ll have more room in our new firehouse. We’re looking forward to the future.”

I find it hard to understand the idea that the construction of a 20,000 square foot firehouse would meet a Beneficial Use date in less than a year.

So the firehouse has sat like this since 2009. If you have been paying any attention at all to my wandering writings you would be able to recognize things in the photos. The trench drain at the base of the front apron still stands above grade. The footings for the apparatus bay door footings are visible if the weeds are low. A cluster of grey plastic pipe tells you where the electrical room might be.

Something else happened along the way — consolidation. The three fire companies that respond to this little city decided to combine forces. In 2010 an 18-month process started involving all three, plus the local government. The result was re-organized responses and responsibilities. One company is primarily the Medic response. The second is the ladder truck response but they maintain an engine also. The third and the focus of our story is a specialized water rescue company. This negated their need for more space since they no longer needed bays for an engine or a truck.

Do you think they would have continued even if they didn’t need the space? I could not penetrate the last layer of the story. I do believe they would have based on a single conversation I had with someone who was closely involved. But like the movie “Rashomon,” it depended on whom you spoke with.

The story didn’t end there. In 2016, in a three party action, a private developer bought the unfinished firehouse site and swapped that for city property. They will be building housing on the city’s site. The firehouse site looks the same.

 

 

Jim McClure is the owner of Firehouse Design and Construction (FD&C). The mission of FD&C is “to help firefighters, architects and government agencies design and build maintainable, durable, and most importantly, functional firehouses.” McClure’s career in public safety spans almost 29 years. For more information visit, www.firehousedesignandconstruction.com, call 408-603-4417 or email [email protected].
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Issue 33.4 | Spring 2019

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