This week’s municipal complex update is a little bit different. Instead of showing you our new building, I’m taking you on a quick video tour of our old Town Hall now that all of the furniture is out.
“Why?” you may ask.
I realize there is some disagreement among some in our town about whether we needed a new municipal building, but the fact is, our town has grown in leaps and bounds in the past few decades and our old building simply could not accommodate it. There was one conference room to be shared by everyone; at least 14 boards and committees, seven-plus departments and other ad hoc groups or councils. The facilities dated back to near-caveman era (ok, @1930s to be exact), our police station could not fit six people comfortably, which required them to use a trailer indefinitely, many of the systems had broken down and the building was simply falling apart.
While I was not part of the planning going into the building of the municipal building, we have been overseeing the construction for the past two years – two very hard, stressful, frustrating years. Dealing with a developer who seems to have no interest in speeding up work, and with the Township having little to no legal stick to wield built into the contract to make the progress go faster, we’ve had to rely on our project management skills, our “no matter what it takes, get it done” attitude and sometimes even our charm. Coming up against more than $1 million in bad soil that continuously plagued the project (including an old car we dug up just a few months ago) – setting back deadlines and budgets – it was an uphill battle from the start. Perhaps at first the developer thought they could get off easy with two women at the helm (Mayor Devanney and myself), but they soon learned that not only was that not the case, but we have had a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to inefficiency, underwhelming workforce on site on any given day and any other…nonsense… that has come our way. Direct communication with the developer’s president and the construction manager president was required throughout the past two years to get things done.
What’s more, having Councilman Alvaro Medeiros and Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley, the latter of whom was involved in the project since inception, on our weekly calls was extremely helpful. Councilwoman Kingsley knew what was agreed to – and what was not – from the beginning, therefore enabling us to manage design and other aspects without losing rights to items already paid for. Councilman Medeiros’ management background has been extremely helpful when analyzing municipal complex budgets and in looking for ways to manage costs. Our building inspectors, Construction Official and Township engineer made sure no shortcuts were made in quality of materials or build. Our construction managers from Mast have diligently documented everything along the way while overseeing progress, and have challenged the developer on change orders, costs and subpar completion items. I also thank former Councilman Mike D’aquila, on whom I called several times to get feedback and expertise. Former Councilman and current Library Board mayoral liaison Kevin Hall also played an instrumental role with the library. This team was not going to let anyone on this project skate.
What’s more, we have some amazing people on our staff who stepped up to expedite things, particularly during the move, and to ensure resident services continued uninterrupted, even if behind the scenes in our offices, things were chaos. Municipal department heads were never meant to suddenly be construction managers, or experts in alarm and HVAC systems, ejector pits, stormwater runoff systems, cabling & wiring, contaminated dirt and all the environmental regulations that go along with getting rid of it, boiler and rooftop unit heat loads or other aspects of construction. But we quickly learned that we had to be to get this project done properly.
Special “Thank Yous” Go To…
- Mayor Devanney - who never hesitated to contact utilities, NJ Transit, company CEOs or others to expedite services or just plain get things done.
- Police Chief DiPasquale - for overseeing the entire police department build and ensuring security was buttoned up before the police move.
- Our Township Council – for giving the project what it has needed along the way to get completed, help pack up our offices and with many asking “how can we help?”
- Our part-time “IT guy,” Ajay, who made this project a full-time job the last few months and whose involvement led to drastic IT/AV cost reductions.
- Our CFO Eugenia, who made sure purchase orders were quickly expedited when needed and who has carefully tracked project budgets.
- Police Sgt. Billy Ives and my right-hand woman in Administration, Barbara Russo, for spending endless, mind-numbing hours working on transferring the phone lines.
- BH Construction Official Robin Greenwald, who has guided me on every aspect of construction and was never reluctant to call “BS” on the developer when needed; her proficiency in this field never ceases to amaze me.
- Our clerk office and finance staff, for keeping resident services going – whether it be through using the “Santa mailbox” to ensure residents had somewhere to drop off tax payments, to quickly setting up more online services while we were not only closed due to COVID but also in the middle of a gigantic move.
- Our DPW - who helped empty the old buildings on the fly to prepare for abatement and recycling old electronics, and pretty much did anything we asked of them.
- To our sewer department, who just kept doing their jobs and kept our biggest, most important critical infrastructure moving – one less thing to worry about.
- Our redevelopment attorney Matt Jessup, for always making himself available when we needed to yell, scream, or rage (there’s no crying in construction!), and who has guided us on the legal options all along the way.
- DPW Director Joe Graziano and Township Engineering Tom Solfaro, whose expertise we have frequently called upon and who have pitched in whenever needed, no matter what the issue.
- Simonik Moving & Storage - these guys have been so patient and simply amazing with many last-minute changes.
It was a true testament to the “A Team” mentality among our employees that I am so proud to witness and be a part of.
So Here’s Where We Are Now:
- Administration, Clerk, Tax Assessor, Finance, Engineering, Building, Zoning, and Police are all moved in. The old Town Hall is now empty.
- The new library furniture has all been installed, and books were moved out of storage and the temporary library on Roosevelt Avenue to the new building; library staff are working hard to unpack. Stay tuned for an open date.
- Our old building is currently being abated, with demo shortly to follow.
- After demolition, a new parking lot will be created with extra commuter spaces, as well as parking for library patrons and other municipal complex visitors.
- Our new building is still closed to the public; there are a few punchlist items being completed in the next week, but we are also closed due to COVID. An open date is yet-to-be-determined.
- Phone lines have now been completely transferred to the new building, so when you call our old number (908) 464-2700 and follow the prompts, you can actually get a human being on the line.
- Our Recreation Department has all of their equipment moved over; staff will be moving in shortly.
- We are awaiting word on when we can start Recreation programming in the new building, not only because we have to ensure we adhere to COVID guidelines and mandates, but also because we want to ensure our space is 100% set up for our little ones (and some bigger ones!) to utilize the space safely.
- We have saved all of the historical memorabilia and photos in the old town hall – including the weathervane from the top of the building and a huge old scale that used to be used to weigh goods coming to and from the Berkeley Heights rail station! – and will soon find a permanent home for them in the new building.
We now have a beautiful building that has plenty of space to accommodate our growing community, offer programming of a large variety to benefit our residents, facilities to accommodate our ever-popular Rec programs for residents from the very young to the senior citizens, a senior citizen office and programming space, a workplace employees actually want to come to.
Opening a new municipal complex that houses not only our municipal offices, but our Police Department and brand new library, during a global health pandemic, has been a huge challenge – at times perhaps, seeming insurmountable. But it got done before 2020 went out with a sad, pathetic bang. THIS was our crowning achievement in 2020, and everyone who had a hand in getting it done should be proud of their role.
Thank you for your patience with this project, Berkeley Heights. We are finally in, and we can’t wait to show it off to you!
[Here’s a quick video showing what the old Town Hall looks like now that everything is moved out]
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