Cafeteria rebuild at Darien High has early, possibly costly, issues

Part of the capital budget approved for the current school year included a renovation of the cafeteria at Darien High School. Seriously undersized and constantly overcrowded, students were frequently left to each lunch in stairwells, hallways, or while sharing one chair with another student. The approved project saw pushback from some members of the community and RTM Education Committee, who felt that the project, which would cost about $1.3 million, was far to expensive, and could be done for less. Now that the project is underway, an issue with an underground power line could add another $200,000 to the price tag.

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The DHS Cafeteria Building Committee met on April 6 to talk about potential changes due to safety and electrical issues. It was the electrical that proved to be the largest problem. Part of the plan for the cafeteria was to expand it out towards the stadium field, adding seats in the process. A power line runs underground there, and the board and others were aware of this when the project was approved. What they were not aware of was a concrete casing that surrounds the power line.

Typically, these concrete casings are around about four to six inches wide from the center of the conduit. The casing around the powerline that runs underground outside the cafeteria is about 32 inches wide. The size of the casing means that it is in the way of footings for the expansion of the cafeteria.

Two options are available. First, builders could work with Eversource to relocate the line further away from the building. The line runs down under the bleachers as well, and it would have to be moved for the entire length it runs. The cost of doing this was estimated at around $200,000.

The second option would be to not expand the cafeteria as far as planned, removing about 18 inches of space from the edge. Doing so would reduce the capacity of the cafeteria by five seats.

The current capacity of the cafeteria is about 330 students. Sixty-two seats were to be added in the expanded part of the cafeteria, and after shrinking it slightly because of the power line, that number would drop to 57, with 35 more seats being added elsewhere in the cafeteria.

Committee members asked a variety of questions to try and figure out the best course of action. It was unclear if engineers would be able to pin their footing to where the line is, how much space would need to be left if they move the edge of the building in, and what the full extent of the concrete casing was. The expansion has already been reduced in size once, leaving committee members apprehensive about reducing it again. Should it be reduced again, the project will have lost 350 of a proposed 1500 square feet.

Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman said that the committee has been tracking this problem, and that the power line was known to them. With that in mind, there was discussion about whether the cost of $200,000 was worthwhile, as in the event that any sort of building there in coming years, whether it be near the cafeteria, stadium, or bleachers, could likely be impacted by this power line. The work would have to be done in concert with Eversource, as it is their work. There was brief discussion surround the fact that Eversource put the line under the bleachers, the line should not be there, so it may be Eversource’s responsibility to move it, and not Darien’s.

Contractors will be on site Monday to do additional digging to see the full extent of the casing. This will shed more light on the impact a project like moving the line might have on the area.

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