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Feature Story - April 2007

Public-Private Twist

Unique Deal Results in New Upstate School and Development

by Natalie Keith

A unique design-build agreement is primed to both usher in a new development along a prominent waterfront stretch in Rensselaer, N.Y., and provide the city with a new $65 million, K-12 public school.

The innovative arrangement grew out of constraints faced by the public school district in Rensselaer, a city across the Hudson River from Albany that wanted to update or replace its aging facilities. School officials and developers understood the value of a waterfront property on which one of the district’s existing schools is located, and they used that leverage to essentially trade the valuable site for construction of the new school.

U.W. Marx of Troy, N.Y., the general contactor and developer, is building the new school on another site. The district will pay U.W. Marx roughly $60 million and transfer ownership of the waterfront property, valued at around $5 million, to compensate for the construction effort.  The firm will get title to the 20-acre Hudson River property, which it plans to redevelop, upon issuance of the certificate of occupancy for the school.

From the school district’s perspective, the most beneficial twist to the project is that U.W. Marx will initially finance and own the school. The school district has already sold bonds for its eventual purchase of the facility, which broke ground in June and is set for completion by the end of the year.

In the end, the school district will have a new 278,000-sq-ft school, the contractor will have a valuable property to develop, and the city of Rensselaer, with a population of about 7,700 in the last Census, will have a new mixed-use development contributing to the tax base.

“It’s been a beautiful situation for everybody,” says Gordon Reynolds, the Rensselaer superintendent of schools.

Though the redevelopment project is still in its planning stages, U.W. Marx expects to construct a 1-million-sq-ft, mixed-use complex around a waterfront harbor that will serve both sides of the Hudson River. The contractor is working with Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects of New York on the design.

The early plan calls for extending Rensselaer’s main street, Broadway, directly to the waterfront to reconnect the city to the river. It also would create “Broadway Square” as a waterfront centerpiece and include a “Blue Loop” public promenade and trail that connects both sides of the river and becomes the central riverfront park for the entire area. The site offers great views of downtown Albany.

The new school, meanwhile, will replace two existing schools – the one currently on the waterfront plot and another at an in-town location, which is on the market and will be sold separately. U.W. Marx is interested in the other building as well, says Jeffrey West, the firm’s project manager.

“We’re actively pursuing tenants to go into that building and will make a bid for that property if we strike a deal,” he adds.

The deal’s origins came circuitously out of a $23 million renovation project the district had begun to plan for the two schools, a signal to developers that it planned to remain at the existing sites.
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“Over the years, we’ve had a lot of developers approach us about the property,” Reynolds says. “We told them that we were more than willing to move from the site, but we wanted to move all the district schools to one site.”

When U.W. Marx contacted school officials about a potential deal, the district identified several sites that could accommodate construction of a single school for pre-K through grade 12. They eventually chose a 47-acre parcel in an adjacent town called North Greenbush and worked out a deal with the property owner and local officials that allowed U.W. Marx to acquire the land and the city of Rensselaer to annex it.

“For approximately the same money as the renovations, we told school officials that we could build a new school,” West says. “Debt service on renovations can only be stretched out for 15 years, but debt service on new construction can be stretched out over 30 years.”

The agreement to allow U.W. Marx to build and sell the school and receive the riverfront property required special legislation in 2004 from the New York State Legislature, which also authorized the firm to use a design-build contract. The firm hired Clark Patterson Associates of Rochester as architectural subconsultant.

The plans moved forward quickly, with two major factors – the broad programmatic needs and the need to build the school quickly – influencing the design phase, says Dan Pieters, lead architect on the project for Clark Patterson.

The school design calls for one building with five wings. 

“It’s almost like a hand,” Pieters says.

The primary, middle and high schools are each located on a separate wing, while the remaining two wings house gymnasiums, cafeterias and an auditorium. Each school has its own gymnasium and cafeteria, but all three share the auditorium.

“The building was designed so that there was enough separation and minimal interaction between the primary, middle, and high schools,” Pieters says.

Once construction began, the team faced a hilly, remote site.

“The only access was from another community on a dirt road,” West says.

The state funded a separate project to build a new, $5 million road to the site, which required importing 130,000 cu yd of material and filling two ravines. The remote location also required extensive connections to existing utilities, which are a half mile away.

Pieters says the site’s hilly nature meant that designing a flat school structure and flat recreational fields next to it was like “putting pancakes on top of a mountain.”

The building was topped out last year and the project team was installing utilities over the winter. To speed construction, the school was designed with a prestressed plank concrete system, whereby precast panels are constructed offsite and put into place using a crane.

 West says another partner in the project’s success is the state’s Department of Education, which approved various untested aspects of the arrangement.

“State education could have squashed this thing in a heartbeat,” he says. “But they were helpful and open to suggestions. They said, ‘We’ll see where this takes us.’” 

Tom Stabile contributed to this report.

Key Players

Developer-Contractor: U.W. Marx, Troy, N.Y.

Owner: Rensselaer City School District, Rensselaer, N.Y.

Architect: Clark Patterson Associates, Rochester

Foundation: Colonie Masonry, Schenectady, N.Y.

Electrical: LaCorte Companies, Troy

Masonry: MTP Construction, Albany

Precast Plank: Oldcastle Precast, Auburn, Wash.

Structural Steel: Stone Bridge Iron, Gansevoort, N.Y.

HVAC: T Lemme Mechanical, Albany

 

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