The Money Pit Cost Overruns Plague Sta’s Plaza Three Years Ago, Price Was $12 Million, Now It’s $20 Million
An indoor waterfall, glinting beneath a sprawling sunroof, cascades to a pool surrounded by Italian tiles and 26-foottall bamboo trees.
A museum or an aquarium?
Try a bus station.
When finished this summer, the Spokane Transit Authority’s downtown Plaza will be elegant and inviting.
But not without a heavy price on a meter that’s still running.
Mistakes and site problems have plagued construction, raising taxpayer costs to nearly $20 million, including $4 million to buy the land at Riverside and Wall.
In 1992, STA said the total cost would be $12 million.
While STA managers blame architects for most of the $2 million in recent construction overruns, internal documents trace many problems back to the public agency itself.
The STA project manager ordered last-minute design changes and haggled for months with consultants over interior color schemes.
After receiving only two bids on building construction, both way over budget, STA board members forged ahead with the Plaza instead of ordering a customary redesign and rebid.
The agency also vetoed an easy-toinstall flooring material and chose a more delicate and higher-priced Italian tile. That led to problems with the concrete floor.
“I’ve built skyscrapers easier than this,” one project consultant said.
STA executives defend the project, saying a redesign would have been costly and not lured lower bids. But they concede the building is a magnet for glitches.
A review of 1,500 pages of construction and design documents, and interviews with project officials and industry experts indicate the bus station was destined for trouble.
Instead of hiring an independent construction manager to coordinate the project, as public agencies commonly do, STA used its own architect.
The architect, Project Manager Art Thoma, admits he’d never built anything like the Plaza.
The construction contract included an unusual clause that prohibited builders from using arbitration to settle conflicts, a common practice.
Although it chased away bidders, such clauses protect project owners from frivolous claims filed by contractors, owners generally say.
Only two of seven general contractors interested in the building portion of the project actually bid on it, and they wanted $500,000 more than STA planned to spend. Shea Construction Inc. won the bid.
The Washington state attorney general’s office is investigating possible violations of antitrust laws in the bidding process. Investigators want to know if the contractors were in collusion and conspired not to bid.
The STA board composed of elected public officials - was determined to bid the project before the November 1993 elections. They didn’t want to risk getting new board members who might be unfriendly to the project, insiders said.
STA Executive Director Allen Schweim said politics was not a factor. “Elections come and go anyway,” he said.
A few days before the project was scheduled to go out for bids in the fall of 1993, Thoma ordered Tan Boyle Heyamoto Architects of Spokane to make substantial design revisions.
Thirty-five of 58 drawings had to be changed in two weeks, instead of the four weeks requested by the firm.
“We actually needed two months,” said lead architect Mike Boyle, who recently left the project and firm for family reasons.
His replacement as lead architect, Lori Kaczka, resigned Friday from Tan Boyle Heyamoto for “professional reasons.”
The 31-year-old designer was recruited from Seattle and had offers from virtually every Spokane architectural firm. She lasted 2 years.
The resignations are another snag in project continuity.
Since construction began, STA has approved 129 “change orders” to correct design problems, 72 since late October. Change orders will number nearly 200 by the time the transit center opens this summer, Thoma said.
Some change orders were unavoidable - rising steel prices and unexpected ground conditions.
Architects admit making their share of mistakes, like underestimating the cost of two skywalks and inadvertently leaving some items off drawings.
Many change orders resulted from the rushed redesign job and from STA indecision, Boyle said. He warned STA of that 16 months ago in a prophetic memorandum to Project Manager Thoma.
Thoma quibbled with architects over the color of tile, wall paint and aluminum window finish. Four months and about 10 color presentations later, a dispute resolution committee made up of City Councilwoman Bev Numbers, then-County Commissioner Pat Mummey and Schweim decided to go with the architect’s recommendation, except on the window finish.
The lengthy color dispute kept the architects from concentrating on other project details, which resulted in change orders, Boyle said.
The original floor was a durable, embossed concrete with a stamp pattern. STA chose the same pattern but decided on the more elegant Fiandre porcelain tile at $3.43 a square foot, wholesale.
The transit center has 34,464 square feet to tile. Counting the contractors’ profit, the tile cost an estimated $135,000, or about $60,000 more than the embossed concrete.
The decision to use tile also caused a domino effect of delays and overruns.
Custom Tile of Spokane won’t guarantee installation because the concrete topping slabs on both floors are cracking and curling. Tile has to be laid on a near-perfect flat surface.
STA and the architects agree that concrete typically curls and, in this case, was dried too rapidly by the subcontractor.
Embossed concrete likely would not have caused the floor problems because the upper layer would have bonded to the main slab, architect Boyle said.
This week, crews will begin ripping out the second floor to pour the topping slab again, a cost of $80,000.
The ground level is a 4-inch slab that needs work but is expected to be acceptable for tile.
“We’re not lily white in this,” Boyle said. “But we’re not the major party responsible for the cost overruns” - $2 million over a 60-day period late last year.
STA funded by fares, advertising revenues from its buses and a variety of local, state and federal tax sources - is paying for the bus station from a healthy reserve account that now totals about $30 million.
Ron Tan, founding partner of Tan Boyle Heyamoto, refused to discuss Thoma’s directives but said his firm’s reputation is unfairly tarnished.
Tan’s company is still on the STA payroll and will receive about $900,000 for the transit center job. One-third of that will be paid out to engineering subcontractors.
“The mistakes, the overruns, cannot always be attributed to the architect. There were owner-directed changes and problems with site condition,” said Tan, who refused to elaborate.
Construction crews hit some underground utilities and encountered other unexpected conditions, such as a jagged foundation on the adjacent Peyton Building.
Tan promised the building will be an architectural “knockout” and the source of pride for generations.
Numbers, who represents the City Council on the STA Plaza Steering Committee, said mistakes were made, items left off architects’ drawings, and STA managers were overwhelmed with design complexities.
Numbers, who has publicly bashed the architects, said last week they did a “good job” and called Thoma’s work “admirable.”
“There is no way to justify what has happened,” she said, “but you can’t stop building a building that’s half done. You have to keep going.
“We thought this was a pretty straightforward building, not one with a lot of intricacies,” she said.
The transit center was envisioned two decades ago as a joint venture with a private developer.
The original plan was for a 23-story transit, office and retail center that would tower over Spokane’s other buildings.
After years of studies, public hearings and efforts to appease neighbors, the project has been reduced to a bus hub designed to keep waiting passengers out of the weather.
Upstairs will include retail space, possibly restaurants. Downstairs will house a city police substation and a spacious public gathering place.
STA last fall hired Goodale & Barbieri Real Estate Management to recruit retail tenants.
Normally, a property manager is hired up front so retail space can be designed to fit clients’ needs. The bus station’s retail space still hasn’t been designed, which will cause more change orders.
STA managers caused other delay by flip-flopping over whether to install heat coils in the sidewalks to melt snow.
They originally budgeted $220,000 for such a system, but dropped it on the architects’ recommendation.
An analysis showed $220,000 would buy a snow-shoveling crew for 20 days a year, for 26 years.
Put simply, shovels are far cheaper than high-tech sidewalks.
But at the urging of Goodale & Barbieri, which was concerned about people slipping and falling, STA proposed a scaled-down, $123,000 snow-melting system.
It was dropped two weeks ago when the architects could not finish the blueprints and get the system priced in time to suit STA.
Telephone calls to Shea Construction’s project manager, Dick Lopes, and Goodale & Barbieri were not returned.
Thoma, who calls criticisms of the project “hindsight,” initially said he couldn’t recall disputes over color and flooring material.
Later, he agreed “he didn’t like that particular green” tile recommended by the architects.
The tile pattern is also black, white and red.
“The colors are a very important issue,” said Thoma, who oversaw construction of STA’s Boone Street building and Valley Transit Center.
The Fiandre tile “is the Cadillac of the line,” said a Unique Distributors employee who sold it to STA.
The Spokane firm guaranteed the tile for 100 years. It requires only a damp mop to maintain.
“I didn’t want something that would stain and look like a bus depot,” Thoma said.
Thoma, instead, pushed a color scheme that featured a blue swirly marble pattern.
Architect Boyle said the pattern was fine for a bank or government building, but too pretentious for a pedestrian mall with a park-like theme. Marble floors also would create bad public relations, he said.
The indoor waterfall is not an amenity, project officials said. State law requires all public agencies to spend one-half of 1 percent of new construction costs on artwork.
The stream will plunge between two escalators, surrounded by six bamboo trees at $1,500 each.
“Public buildings should be utilitarian and inviting and not elitist,” Boyle said, adding that the indoor park design meshes Spokane’s natural character with its downtown core.
As for last-minute design revisions, Thoma said he couldn’t recall ordering them. When pressed with specifics, he refused to answer other questions and ended the interview.
A Sept. 28, 1993, memo from Boyle to Thoma states that Thoma’s design changes would require substantial alterations on most of the 30-inch-by42-inch drawings.
The revisions would trigger a spiral of problems and delays, Boyle predicted.
Among the changes Thoma ordered was in the exterior masonry. He wanted the bricks stacked side by side instead of the industry standard of interlocking them.
Thoma’s masonry design would have caused hair-line fractures because it’s less stable, Boyle wrote.
STA rejected Thoma’s recommendation and went with the architect.
Boyle’s memo concludes with a warning: Thoma’s design changes would result in expensive change orders and higher bids unless the bid opening was postponed a month.
STA rejected the advice.
ILLUSTRATION: Two Color Photos
MEMO: A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “STA Plaza setbacks.”
A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “STA Plaza setbacks.”