Palo Alto Weekly
News - September 16, 2011
Council irked by errors, rising costs at Mitchell Park Library
City agrees to add money, oversight for construction of $41 million library and community center
by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto's effort to rebuild Mitchell Park Library and Community Center — the centerpiece of the city's $76 million library bond package — is facing heavy scrutiny from city leaders because of escalating costs and possible errors by project architects.
The City Council was apprised Monday evening of the problems, and members expressed great frustration at the news and the fact that the city's Public Works department did not inform them earlier.
Nonetheless, the council agreed by a 7-0 vote to increase the construction and design contracts for the library project by $3.7 million. The project now has an estimated price tag of $41 million, though the Mitchell Park redevelopment remains on schedule and well within the budget.
The city's contractor, Flintco Pacific Construction, Inc., requested the change order from the city. Officials from Turner Construction Inc., the city's construction manager, told the council that some of the rising costs could be attributed to details that were missing from the plans at the time that Flintco entered its $24 million bid. The bid was about 25 percent below the city's expectations.
The design plans, created by Group 4 Architects (the firm tasked with designing all three libraries in the bond) specifically did not include any details about the steel that would be needed to support various elements of the building's exterior, including stone cladding and window openings, said Greg Smith, the field supervisor for the project.
"The steel needed is not shown on any plan and is not shown on structural drawings," Smith said.
After realizing that it would need more steel to finish the project, Flincto requested more money. Interim Public Works Director Mike Sartor told the council its approval would "keep the project moving on schedule and to avoid claims down the road."
During the council's hour-and-a-half discussion, Councilman Larry Klein said he's "not happy with where we are" and told Sartor that he should have approached the council earlier and that he should have been more candid.
"We have to be frank with ourselves," Klein said. "We're not doing as well as we expected on this deal."
The council also agreed to increase the "contingency costs" for the project — the costs that are tagged on to the price tag to account for unexpected developments and complications. Initially, the Mitchell Park project carried with it a contingency of 10 percent. The council agreed to raise the contingency cost to 20 percent, short of the 25 percent city staff requested.
City officials had expected the project to fall far below budget because of the tight construction climate. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd said she was "shocked" by the rising costs.
"Quite frankly, I've been a construction accountant for about 25 years, and I've never seen a 25 percent contingency factor in a construction project — especially of this size," Shepherd said. "I'm deeply concerned."
Meanwhile, the city attorney's office is mulling a claim against Group 4 because of the errors in the design plans. Klein, an attorney, said it seemed like "we have a very serious claim against Group 4." Sartor agreed. He said the firm has "accepted the fact that the plans have problems" and has added staff to address these problems as quickly as possible.
"Whether it's at the level of errors and omissions or not, we have not determined," Sartor told the council.
Group 4 did not return a request for comment.
In approving the change order, the council tacked on a series of conditions strengthening its oversight of the project. The council directed staff to provide monthly reports on all change orders and asked City Attorney Molly Stump to provide monthly reports regarding potential claims the city should file against Group 4 or other contractors working on the Mitchell Park project.
"We have to exercise a lot more oversight into what's going on to make sure the city is getting its money's worth and that we're being sufficiently aggressive," said Klein, who crafted the motion with the added oversight provisions. "If Flintco thought they'd be able to recoup their low bid just by putting in change orders, one of our answers will be that we won't let them do that unless where it's appropriate."
Stump told the Weekly Tuesday that her office is reviewing the roles of the various contractors to determine whether the city should file any claims.
Though errors in the design plans contributed to the rising cost, Flintco's low bid also played a part, Sartor said. The construction climate had prompted contractors to submit low bids and then look for ways to raise costs.
"This contractor and other contractors we've been working with in the last couple of years really squeezed every opportunity they can to identify potential changes," Sartor said.
The city has received about $4 million in change-order requests from contractors, Smith said, and has settled requests totaling about $1.25 million.
The explanation did not entirely satisfy Councilman Pat Burt, who said he's concerned whether "we've been gamed and how aggressively we're willing to push back on a contractor who it seems like they low-balled us and they're coming back with change orders that on a fixed bid shouldn't be that big."
Sartor assured the council that he does not expect any other major additions to the contract. Staff, he said, does not take the contract adjustments lightly. He told the council he was "freaked out" about the latest changes, but said he is confident the increased contingency would be sufficient to pay for the project and to complete the project by fall of 2012.
"There's a lot riding on this project, particularly considering future potential bond elections," Sartor said.
The Mitchell Park Library and Community Center is one of three library projects funded by a bond voters passed in 2008. The Downtown Library was renovated and reopened in July, while the renovation of the Main Library is scheduled to begin once the new Mitchell Park Library reopens.
SEE MORE ONLINE
View a live video feed of the construction at www.cityofpaloalto.org.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Viva la Biblioteca!,
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm
"Perhaps you are forgetting that Mike Sartor was formerly the Assistant Director of Public Works, hired by and reporting directly to former Director Roberts? As such he was in charge of the Engineering and capital projects division and had direct day to day responsiblity for the planning, design, cost estimating, and budgeting of the Library projects. He is the sole manager with continuity on the these projects given the departure of Roberts and former Library Director Dianne Jennings"
Folks, like someone said, above "the project is UNDER budget!! I have been up close and personal with this project, for some time. I am not a member of the city's bureaucracy. One thing for sure is that the kind of dickering and hand-wringing that is happening on this thread is of little or no importance to the VAST majority of people in Palo Alto. What the latter want is a new Mitchell Library/Community Center and the rest of the system updated. Period. The vote "for" was roughly 80-20, as I recall.
That said, on this thread I see artifacts from the years-old squabble by some to outright lie about the library, or meddle to a point where the entire process was slowed to a crawl. Just look at all the deception that went on re: opposition to the bond attempt prior to the one that just passed. That measure was put out there at a time when construction and material costs were much lower. A lot of people on this thread - in addition to a number of community gadflies - did everything they could to defeat the 2nd to last bond attempt; they succeeded. now they're complaining about "how this costs to much". Well, whose fault is that?! We could have had this done for a lot less several years ago. So, pay the piper, and let the people of Palo Alto enjoy their library, which will come in UNDER budget, or very close to budget, as originally stated.
As for the architect, yes, there could/should have been more diligence re: the surprise in construction cost, but *that's practically built into the vagaries of the bidding structure set by law*.
Bottom line: It's STILL under budget.
As for libraries not being useful any more. Baloney! Library use has *gone up* in the digital age. Education itself is becoming more distributed. If anything, we should be paying MORE attention to places where people can do group-based *ah hoc* learning, not less. That's a whole other thread.
Mike Sartor is a hard working guy, and the slip up caused by incomplete renderings are not his fault.
Frankly, I don't think one can really point a finger at any one person when things go wrong in Palo Alto. Sometimes that the case, but it's usually pointless. Why? Because decision-making is so horizontally distributed throughout the community - with every Tom, Dick, and Sue having a say about every little detail - that it's hard to know at what point a Black Swan actually occurred.
Ironically, and in fact, it's what I call the "congenital meddling nature" of policy-making in Palo Alto that leads to these problems. There is no "there, there", at the top.
Palo Alto has a City Manager, but the City Manager works at the pleasure of the City Council. Thus, the City Manager's job is primarily political. There is a built in conflict of interest. Are you *really* managing, when you don't have anywhere near complete authority to manage? Are you properly delegating when you know that one or another community group is breathing down your neck, and/or your staffer's neck, and using every trick in the book - including ad hoc lawsuits (look at the Park Ave fiasco as one of many examples) - to have their way? It's impossible to manage in an environment like that - manage in a near optimal way, that is.
City Council? All good people, but they, too, are stuck within the framework of a governance model that is out of step with the times. Legislative bodies, in times of stress, need to turn on a dime, and adapt. City Council has 9 elected representatives. That means a 5-person majority for policy making.
You tell me...how does *any* legislative (public, private, or otherwise) body that requires a 5-out-of-9 majority for decision making, where collaboration to build consensus is absolutely necessary, and where nearly *half* of that body turns over every 2 years, ever get to a place where it can build enough consensus to turn on a dime. It can't.
We had unanimous consensus on the Library, because the issue boiled up over almost a decade; it was an issue than became a part of the crazy-quilt fabric of Palo Alto, over more than a *decade*. Delay cost out community money, and created a boatload of dissension (with artifacts from that dissension still in play).
So, rather than point fingers at this or that City Council member, or this or that City Bureaucrat, I suggest looking at the *governance model* that Palo Alto operates under, for clues to why these "disappointments" keep happening (keeping in mind that many are not really "disappointments" by many other community standards - i.e. gadflies have a way of making everyone think that PA is going to hell in a handbasket...again, the Library project is still UNDER budget)
This all begs the question: Is the current PA governance model more conducive to crisp decision-making (after measured deliberation), collaboration, and adaptation to difficult times than a governance model that really puts someone *in charge*...."in charge" to the degree that that ONE person is responsible for the way things are run, and accomplishing goals - i.e. might a smaller policy-making body that doesn't turn over every two years, and maybe even an *elected* mayor - someone with the power to hire and fire a City Manager, and who is in the end responsible for vision being executed, or not?
I'm just raising the question. Palo Alto policy makers would have to buy into diligence on a change like this - or, the citizenry could vote in a charter change. In any case, it's something that bears looking into. Until we do, the Palo Alto Process and all its foibles will continue.
Last, if everyone is so darned concerned about Public Works, and the Palo Alto Process goes unquestioned, then City Council might consider forming a Public Works Commission. I feel sorry for the public works folks if that happens, but if you want oversight (and delay, to a faretheewell), that's one way to get it.
In any case ****Viva la biblioteca de Palo Alto!!!****. It's going to happen, and 90% of Palo Altans are going to LOVE it!