The Longfellow Elementary School on Stevens Avenue in Portland Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Three renovation projects at Portland schools are facing around $1.4 million in additional costs and a lengthier construction timeline because of delays in getting the necessary building permits.

The projects at Longfellow, Reiche and Presumpscot elementary schools were approved by voters with a $64 million bond in 2017 along with a fourth school, Lyseth, where a ribbon cutting was held last week to celebrate the recent completion of renovations.

Construction on the remaining projects is being delayed, however, due to a lack of building permits that officials say has already added additional costs and will likely extend disruptions to education.

“We submitted the building permit for Longfellow in May and it’s almost November,” said school board Chair Emily Figdor. “We have been eager to meet the city’s needs at every step and yet we’re still here six months in without the building permits. School construction projects are different than other construction projects because in this case we’re disrupting kids’ education in addition to the $1.5 million it’s cost us so far.”

In addition to the Longfellow building permit, applications were submitted for permits at Reiche in June and at Presumpscot in July and are still pending.

There isn’t any one thing that has led to the permitting process taking longer than anticipated and the three projects are complex, in part because they are renovations of existing structures and not new standalone construction, said Mark Lee, principal at Harriman, the project architect, in an email.

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“Harriman has worked diligently with the City and its Permitting and Inspections Department to develop a code compliant project, while giving careful consideration to the School District’s construction budget,” Lee said. “It is customary to receive comments from regulatory bodies reviewing applications for approval for building permits in jurisdictions at the state and municipal level.

“This project is no different, and Harriman has provided timely and comprehensive responses to the comments received during the application review. As with most renovation projects, there can be different interpretations on which portions of the applicable building code apply, and in turn, what is required.”

Lee said his firm has enjoyed a “thoughtful and constructive” dialogue with the city reviewers as they seek to find common understanding of code interpretation and application. “In the end, the children of Portland are going to benefit immensely from these projects, and we at Harriman are thrilled to be a part of it,” he said.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin, meanwhile, said the reason for the permitting delays is that the designs submitted have not been code-compliant. “We have gone above and beyond on these projects in terms of trying to expedite the review process, and the delays are not on our end,” Grondin said.

One of the outstanding issues cited by the city is that the Longfellow plans are not meeting plumbing code for the correct number of bathroom facilities needed, according to an email city Director of Permitting and Inspections Jessica Blais Hanscombe sent to Superintendent Xavier Botana on Friday. Hanscombe said she met with the senior state plumbing inspector Thursday and it could be a week or two before the city hears back from him regarding an exemption the project architect requested on the plumbing issue.

Reiche and Presumpscot are facing similar issues around plumbing fixture counts, while Presumpscot has also been impacted by new energy conservation code requirements that took effect July 1, according to presentations Harriman made to school building committees last week.

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In an email Friday, Botana said he finds it unproductive to pass around blame for the delays and said the district is working toward a resolution collaboratively with the city permitting department.

“We are aware that the City believes we have not provided code-compliant designs,” Botana said. “We rely on the expertise of our contracted architectural firm (Harriman Associates) with strong project management support from our contracted owner’s representative (CHA). … They are in a better position to discuss the challenges that they have faced with City permitting.”

For the Lyseth project, which was similar in scope and complexity to the other three, the permit was received within 30 days after it was applied for, Lee said.

Time frames for permitting can vary depending on factors such as personnel, the amount of time needed to review individual projects, and what each municipality or jurisdiction requires as part of the application submission. And while anticipated time frames are often achieved, Lee said it is also not uncommon for the review process to take longer.

“Harriman is continuing to work diligently with the City on the remaining projects, and are hopeful that the permits will be received shortly,” he said.

The delays mean students could face additional time in portable classrooms. Construction at Reiche could be pushed into the fall of 2023, whereas the bulk of construction was previously estimated to be completed by June 2023. Construction was originally estimated to be completed in August 2022 at Presumpscot and could now be pushed to October. At Longfellow, construction is expected to take an additional 12 weeks beyond the anticipated completion date of summer 2023.

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The costs associated with the delays are currently around $1.4 million, Botana said.

The costs include meeting code requirements; paying contractors and subcontractors who cannot fully engage in the work yet; expenses associated with accelerating the schedule, such as paying for weekend and evening work; and the cost of tempering conditions to keep work going through winter months. The current estimates also assume the district can get the permits and start construction this week, Figdor said.

While there are contingency funds in the overall bond package and for each school project, she said the permitting delays have raised questions about whether adjustments need to be made to the scope of the projects, as well as added to the frustrations of students and staff.

“Amid COVID and all the precautions and changes and the day-to-day reality of operating school in a pandemic, to on top of that manage a construction project and see those projects come to a standstill is really frustrating,” Figdor said.

The district has moved ahead with holding groundbreaking ceremonies for the three projects, though some school board members questioned that decision at a recent District Advisory Building Committee meeting.

“It’s really hard for us to be hosting these celebrations,” said board member Aura Russell-Bedder. “I want to be happy and celebratory, but I don’t feel like our communities know … we really are in this stuck place. That’s really difficult. We really are in a bind right now.”

“The groundbreaking is a symbolic, ‘We’re doing this,’ and we are doing it,” Botana said in response. “We’re not doing it as fast or as well as we wanted to, but we are doing it.”


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