Durham County

See why DPS is rethinking plan to build new Northern High on existing site

Part of the new Northern High School would be built on school’s baseball field (left), which was once a pond.
Part of the new Northern High School would be built on school’s baseball field (left), which was once a pond. gchildress@heraldsun.com

Poor soil, wetlands and steep slopes on the site of the proposed $51.2 million Northern High School has school officials rethinking plans to build the new school on existing grounds.

Officials are also concerned about rising construction costs, which could lead to a big increase in the final price of the new school and that of several other projects included in a $90 million school bond package approved by voters in 2016.

Exactly how much higher construction prices will drive up the cost of the projects won’t be known for several months.

But school officials already know that it’ll cost up to $4 million to make the site improvements needed to build the school on the existing site.

Plans call for the new Northern to be built on 34-acres on the existing site while more than 1,500 students continue to attend the old Northern for two years.

The big move-in for students to the new building has been scheduled for fall 2020, but the total project — which would include tearing down the old building and tasks associated with that — would not be completed until fall 2021.

Jon Long, the school district’s executive director of construction and capital planning, said the problem is that at some point in the 1970s, the school’s baseball field was constructed on the site of a pond.

Long said the pond was drained and filled and the ballfield built on top. A portion of the new school building would be built where the baseball field now sits.

“The only place we have to build in is really the worst part of the site in terms of what’s in the ground,” Long told school board members at a recent work session. “That’s not to say we can’t do it, it’s just a premium to do it.”

Long said it could cost up to $4 million to mitigate the site, including addressing soil and wetland issues and grade changes.

About $1.2 million of the $4 million would go toward a retaining wall and another chunk of it would go to driving piles through the bad soil to create a post-like foundation for parts of the school, essentially putting the school on a stilt support system.

“When they built the school originally, they put it on the best ground,” Long said. “Any time you come back and do a school on the same piece of property, you’re going to always be going in the hole.”

Instead of tackling such a tough site and shouldering the extra expense, school board member Natalie Beyer said it might be worth considering building on another site.

“I love Northern, but I don’t want us to build it on a bad site,” Beyer said. “I’d be interested in working with City-County Planning to see if there are some north Durham parcels that might be more suitable than building on that wetlands piece of that site.”

Long said deciding to build on another site could delay the move-in date by a year, but wouldn’t affect the project’s completion date.

He said the board would need to weigh the cost of moving to another site against the cost of building on the proposed site with the problems that have been identified.

Long said if DPS considered another site with enough acreage, at least 80 acres with 60 acres or more of developable land, the community could come back later and build a stadium.

Plans do not call for a football stadium at the new school on the existing site. Northern currently uses Durham County Stadium for football games.

“People who come after us, in time, could do other things with that site and they would have more flexibility,” Long said. “In 20 years from now, 15 years from now, if they decide the community wants a stadium on that campus, we would have much more ability to do that than in the current condition.”

Rising construction costs

DPS officials pointed to other area projects to illustrate how much construction costs have risen.

“I’m not trying to bring our peers into this but if a $34 million building at Central [N.C.Central University] now cost $47 million, we have to be extremely sensitive to knowing what we may have to anticipate with this project and adding the complexities on top of it,” Beaulieu said.

The building Beaulieu referred to is the new student union planned for the NCCU campus.

Durham architectural firm O’Brien/Atkins, “determined the original construction cost estimates were too low” because of inflationary pressures in the local construction market.

Long anticipates those same local “inflationary pressures” coupled with competition for subcontractors as a long list of construction projects get started in 2018 will have a big impact on the cost of DPS’ bond projects.

“I do think there’s going to be a significant impact to the budget,” Long said. “I’m not sure how many of our projects will be impacted next year but I’m compelled to raise the flag up the pole right now as far as I can and say I think we’re going to have an issue. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) officials were recently stung by increased construction costs when bids for the district’s Lincoln Center project came in $10 million over its $22.6 million budget.

The steep increase has forced the district to re-evaluate plans for a central preschool and more seats for students.

The project was part of a $75 million bond referendum approved by voters last year.

CHCCS has identified $160 million in needed work at 10 campuses, but planned to start with renovations at Chapel Hill High School and the Lincoln Center campus.

Aaron Beaulieu, DPS’ chief finance officer who is serving as interim superintendent, said it’s important for the Durham school board to understand the complexity, potential risks and the unexpected additional costs associated with the Northern project as it moved into the design phase.

Beaulieu said the district should know more in February about what to expect in terms of costs. In the meantime, he said the administration will consider options, including relocating Northern to a different site.

“We want everyone to understand, this is a rocky road we’re going down,” Beaulieu said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645