Long before a task force of 28 elected officials unanimously decided to raze and rebuild Sandy Hook School roughly on the site of the existing facility, a “tech team” consisting of town officials and volunteer professionals fanned out across Newtown reviewing 40 possible sites under consideration for the new school.
Working side by side with town land use officials were volunteers James Fielding, John Mancini, and Scott Pellman from BL Companies in Meriden; Todd Perry of Cherry Hill Construction in North Branford; Phil Clark of Newtown's Claris Construction; Michael Galante of Fairfield's Frederick P. Clark Associates, Inc; along with Michael DiNallo, Chris Smith, Kevin King, and Susan M. Scholler of Turner Construction Company in Milford.
On the day the first round of building project's RFQ (Request For Qualification) packages were due, Mr Clark, Mr DiNallo and Mr Mancini looked back at their team's mission, and talked about how they worked under tremendous time pressure to deliver appropriate recommendations to the task force.
Mr Clark remembers the day in January when First Selectman Pat Llodra approached him and several other Newtown residents to form a technical task force whose charge was to evaluate any available locations in Sandy Hook or close to Sandy Hook for siting a new school.
“The four included Mike, two professionals from Turner Construction and myself,” Mr Clark said. “We were also instructed to evaluate the existing site and determine if we could renovate the building or rebuild.”
Mr Clark said land use officials Rob Sibley and George Benson were assigned to the group by Mrs Llodra, and were invaluable assets to the volunteers. Near the end of the task force's process Mr Benson publicly acknowledged that the tech team had an incredible amount of work to do in a very tight time frame, and he never heard anyone complain about working weekends or completing an assigned task.
Sometimes referred to as “the quarterback,” Mr DiNallo said he fell into place as the team leader, along with his Newtown co-workers at Turner who were tasked with handling the more than three dozen site reviews during some of the coldest weeks of winter.
“But lending this kind of expertise is what we do,” Mr DiNallo said about the trio. “And I have to say that everybody in this group overachieved every step of the way. We completed a process in 10 weeks that normally could take a year. And we weren't motivated by dollars – I guess we really proved it could be done.”
Mr Clark said the team was following about a dozen site evaluation criteria that included proximity to bus routes, availability of utilities, traffic concerns, site ownership, and location in the Sandy Hook district.
“We ended up bringing on a number of experts to help us with our task besides additional personnel from Turner Construction,” Mr Clark said. “We worked with All Star Bus Company management, a traffic consultant, and a number of safety consultants.
Mr Mancini and his associates from BL Companies served as site engineers. He pointed to traffic engineering as a significant factor in the final site selection.
“Besides having all the utilities required for this kind of a project, the existing site was fully accessible by local roads,” Mr Mancini said. “The minute you looked at a site that had some proximity to a state road, you're talking about prolonged reviews and permitting from several state agencies.
“Since this site is on a town-owned road, all the (required) improvements can be done locally,” he added. “No other site had that combination of utilities and localized traffic flow.”
He said many other sites, especially the Tier 2 and 3 level locations, would have also required complicated and expensive retaining walls to be built, along with complex stormwater mitigation systems. While the existing site requires no retaining walls and is topographically appropriate for off site storm water management.
Mr Mancini described the existing site as a “slam-dunk,” compared to even the other Tier 1 sites.
“No one will ever deny it was the site of that horrible tragedy,” Mr Mancini said. “But once it is done, it will look so different.”
Mr Clark said during the technical committee’s work, the volunteers, all who work as architects or contractors in the area, concluded that the experts in their group should be the ones to actually design and build the new building.
“No one is going to have the passion or commitment to see this project through as we would - as town residents,” Mr Clark said.
Having completed dozens of school projects in Connecticut, Turner Construction decided to submit their qualifications to the town. And a group of Newtown architects, landscape architects and design professionals formed the Newtown Architects Collaborative to pursue the Design RFQ also due back to the town this week.
The RFQs are required by the town to qualify what architectural and construction companies will complete design and construction of the new school.
“There will be many well-known architectural firms, possibly throughout the country, chasing this project because of its notoriety,” Mr Clark said. “Our goal would be to keep the design and construction of our school with local experts who are more than capable of completing this noble project.
“We understand that it is the obligation of the town to search for the most qualified firms, and we believe no outside firm is going to give their hearts and souls to the project the way the professionals here in Newtown will,” Mr Clark added. “We’re all in, whatever it takes.”
Working Pro Bono
The Newtown Architects Collaborative has pledged to work pro bono. And the group is partnering with BL Companies, which Mr Mancini said has designed numerous school projects in Connecticut communities just like Newtown.
Mr Mancini noted that the state's approval of up to $50 million in bonding to rebuild the school validated how well the tech team performed in their preliminary work to secure and recommend the final sites.
“The work of the tech team and task force gave legislators and their advisors the confidence along with the technical back-up they needed to fund the project,” Mr Mancini said.
At the same time, Mr DiNallo said the team had to do its due diligence to all other possible sites out of respect for community members who came out after 12/14 saying they could never return to the original site, never mind the original Sandy Hook School building.
“The bottom line is there's lots of reasons why a school was on that site,” he said. “Eighty to 90 percent of the infrastructure is already in place. And beyond it's technical qualifications, we heard later how much of an economic driver the school is for the local merchants, so in that respect it was a grand slam to finally select it after all this work.”