Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Unexpected costs, fractured relations arise in Riverfront Park makeover

Riverfront Park at dusk, April 9, 2014. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

More than 15 months ago, Spokane voters handed a resounding victory to the campaign seeking a massive facelift of the city’s “crown jewel,” Riverfront Park.

At the time, Mayor David Condon, Council President Ben Stuckart, Parks Director Leroy Eadie and others assured voters the $64.3 million generated by the bond would be enough to update the U.S. Pavilion, build a new ice rink, erect a new building to house the Looff Carrousel and much more, all while keeping $4.5 million aside for contingency.

Work on the park would begin Labor Day 2015 and be done in 2019, they said.

Soon after nearly 69 percent of voters gave approval to the bond, the plan to update the park “started to fracture,” according to Randy Cameron, who was then the park board president but has since left.

Although city leaders say everything is on course, no construction work has begun, and a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign is being planned to augment the bond dollars. The voter-approved funding is enough to complete the five “first-tier” projects voters were promised, those involved with the project say. But up to $10 million is needed to “leverage” the public’s dollars and “enhance” the bond projects.

The lack of work, and plans for a capital campaign, have led to criticism about how the bond project has progressed, notably from Cameron, who campaigned for the bond and is still supportive of the project.

“I don’t see how you’re able to do the five things that the citizens voted for for $64.3 million,” Cameron said. “I haven’t seen anything that’s on time or on budget.”

Eadie, the parks director, said any worries about the project are misplaced.

“We are absolutely on budget and on time,” Eadie said. “We’re really happy with where we’re at in the process right now.”

Still, Eadie and Chris Wright, the park board’s president, acknowledge the project got off to a shaky start. It’s a big project, they said, and a lot of the particulars of the project weren’t filled out before the vote because they didn’t want to waste money planning for a project that wasn’t yet approved by voters.

“We’ve heard those grumblings and we understand those concerns are happening,” Wright said. “It’s fair to say that we struggled at first how to handle this project. But it’s a complex process. You don’t just turn shovels of dirt if you don’t have design work done. … We’re going to have armchair quarterbacks out there. And that’s fine.”

Bridges cut art

The clearest example of an unexpected cost in the project deals with the park’s 11 bridges, which range in age from 84 to 42 years old.

Voters were told the park’s bridges needed about $2 million in repairs. Five months after the bond passed, a comprehensive study of the bridges showed that every bridge in the park needed work. The price tag was much higher than anticipated, up to $13.5 million. The south Howard Street Bridge, near the Looff Carrousel, was found to be in such bad shape that it needed a full replacement, at a cost between $4.4 million and $5.8 million.

The blue-trestled bridge also needs a full replacement, but the $6 million cost will be borne by the city’s utilities department because the bridge supports utilities infrastructure.

The suspension bridges for foot traffic are estimated to cost $2.8 million to mend, and the wooden bridges near the Convention Center need more than $600,000 for various repairs. Eadie said the city has put in a request for grants at the state level to fund repair of the suspension bridges.

Wright acknowledged the bridge costs have cut into other projects, but said they wouldn’t deter from the larger goal.

“We had some unanticipated expenses when it comes to bridges,” he said. “We’ll get there. It’s a matter of how much we can do with each of those five projects.”

Cameron, the former park board president, said no one knew the extent of bridge repair, so the extra cost is forgivable. But he suggests the unexpected cost, combined with what he describes as mismanagement by park department staff members, has taken money away from other promised projects in the park.

Cameron wouldn’t say where that money was being taken from, but the most recent budgetary documents from the park board show how money has been shuffled.

The building near the ice-skating feature increased in size by 4,000 square feet, adding about $500,000 to its cost. The cost of the ice “ribbon” was underestimated in the master plan by $900,000, primarily because it was originally envisioned as a rink.

Landscaping costs for the entire park were estimated too low, because early plans didn’t account for so much land being disturbed. CH2M, which is designing the Howard Street Bridge near the Looff Carrousel, asked to have a 25 percent contingency reserve to account for unforeseen costs, a request backed by city engineers that added nearly $1.4 million to its contract.

Aside from budget numbers, people in the art community have raised concerns about the dwindling budget for public art in the park.

Laura Becker, Spokane Arts’ executive director, said the budget for public art in the park has shrunk, though she notes the previous, larger figures for art were in “conceptual budgets” not approved by the park board.

The park’s work is not subject to a local law requiring 1 percent of a project’s cost go to artwork, but the park board has said it will put the equivalent amount, about $650,000, toward artwork in Riverfront Park. The previous budgets, however, had between $1.4 million and $2.3 million headed toward public art.

“I would prefer a different scenario,” Becker said. “I wish there were more money. But earlier budgets were never approved by the park board, and they are committed to do the 1 percent.”

Eadie disagreed, saying $650,000 was “the first number they used.”

“The park board said, ‘Let’s start with $650,000 and get the process going,’ ” Eadie said, adding that private donations could increase the amount of art in the park. “We could definitely do philanthropy. We could definitely do fundraising. We could definitely do donations.”

Private money solicited

Eadie and Wright say private fundraising, corporate sponsorships and naming rights were always part of the plan.

“We’re leveraging the taxpayers’ dollars,” Eadie said. “One of the things we always knew was that we could leverage those dollars. We’d love to have a sculpture garden on the east side of Havermale Island. It didn’t get funded. We’d love to have a staircase or elevator in the Clocktower. It didn’t get funded. We always knew we would need additional funding.”

The city has contracted with Seattle-based fundraising consulting firm the Collins Group for a capital campaign feasibility study, which is expected in June.

Wright agreed with Eadie.

“Bear in mind, if you read the plan, there were a number of things that we identified as needing additional funding,” Wright said, noting that between $7 million and $10 million is needed to “enhance what we’re doing in the first tier.”

The Riverfront Park Master Plan, which was developed over two years by a committee led by Ted McGregor, publisher and founder of the Inlander, identified $100 million in projects and upgrades for the park, but that figure included a second and third “tier” of projects that were not part of the bond or campaign. The second tier included the sculpture garden and Clocktower upgrade Eadie mentioned, and the third tier had a parking garage and extension of the SkyRide gondolas to the Convention Center.

But in a review of campaign literature and news coverage, it’s difficult to find any mention of additional funding being needed to complete the first-tier projects.

The last version of the Riverfront Park Master Plan, from October 2014, lists “Capital Campaign Feasibility Study” in its table of contents. However, no such section exists in the document.

In a review of documents on the city’s website, the October 2014 master plan is the earliest mention of a capital campaign. The next mention came six days after the bond’s passage, in the agenda for the park board’s Riverfront Park committee. A footnote in that document says phase one of the project “is funded in $64.3 million bond. Phase 2 would be funded through additional dollars available in the $64.3 million bond, private donors and/or capital campaign.”

According to minutes from a December 2014 meeting of the park board, Juliet Sinisterra, who was the park bond’s project manager, told members that “research is also being done for capital campaigns.”

While discussions of fundraising may have taken place among some officials in City Hall, it’s hard to find any sign that it was conveyed to voters.

In a video available on the city’s website of an open house meeting in the City Council Chambers in May 2014, Condon, Stuckart, Eadie and Utilities Director Rick Romero take turns at the lectern to talk up the bond and the 20-year street levy accompanying it on the ballot.

The particulars of the ballot measure’s financing are gone over with professorial complexity, with visual aids, specifics and the use of metaphors. The difference between bonds and levies is detailed, how the new debt replaces old debt is articulated with graphs, and renderings of the future park are shown. But there is no mention of more money being needed to implement the plan. Fundraising, capital campaigns, naming rights or corporate sponsorships are not brought up.

“So, what does all this buy?” Eadie said of the bond money at the meeting. “Well it definitely buys the investments into Riverfront Park.”

It’s the move to seeking private donations that has Cameron miffed.

“That was never the plan. A capital campaign, additional funding, naming rights, we had some draft ideas,” Cameron said. “A lot of citizens are scratching their heads. We just agreed to spend $64.3 million. Not only have we seen no work done, but you want millions more? It’s so frustrating and disappointing.”

Stuckart, who along with Condon held up the park bond’s overwhelming approval during his re-election bid last year, said fundraising was not “explicitly said” during the park bond’s campaign. However, he didn’t think it would have changed people’s votes.

“People support it,” he said.

Fractured teams

The bond passed in November 2014. Things began to fall apart early in 2015, Cameron said.

“We had a retreat in January that didn’t go well,” Cameron said. “There was a split between the park board and staff. Everything started to fracture from that point forward.”

This “fundamental flaw” in relations between park board members and park department staff led to bloated budgets, outsized project plans and the hiring of too many firms and consultants for the project, bogging down the process and chipping away at the available funding, Cameron said.

“What you hear is a sucking sound from that $64.3 million,” Cameron said. “Staff says, ‘We’ve got to do this. Let’s expand this. We need more money.’ Well, the more you put into consultants and designers, the more you have to make up in construction costs.”

The need for consultants and designers stems from a failed effort to use a bidding process different from the one governments typically use. Usually, the city hires a firm to design a project, then solicits bids from private firms and finally oversees construction. Last year, Eadie and others went to Olympia for permission to use an alternative process that would have allowed the city to pick a firm to oversee the entire process, from design to completion. The state’s Capital Projects Advisory Review Board denied the request in June, saying the city didn’t meet the criteria for approval.

Friday afternoon, during a special park board meeting discussing the project’s budget, Wright said the state board “did us a favor” with the denial by potentially increasing the diversity of design. Now, instead of one overruling firm, the city will have multiple firms, with many different ideas, working on many projects at the park.

According to Eadie, the city so far has contracted with four main designers on the project. CH2M is designing the south Howard Street Bridge for about $760,000. Berger Partnership won the big, $1.55 million contract to design the park grounds and landscape that effectively will set the tone for the rest of the park. Stantec is designing the recreation ice rink, at a cost of nearly $210,000. And Northwest Architecture Co. won the bid to design the Carrousel building for $583,000.

On Friday, the park board unanimously agreed to a one-year contract with Hill International for project management services, at a cost of $200,000.

Other, smaller contracts were completed last year during “predesign” studies, Eadie said, and ranged from $21,000 to $72,000. Firms that did that work included McKinstry for power studies, GeoEngineers for habitat management plans and Coffman Engineers for a stormwater master plan.

So far, the city has spent $1.3 million for design consultants and project management costs, and has contracted for an additional $2.3 million. The city also has earned about $813,000 in interest on the bond.

Regardless of the number of consultants and outside firms, Eadie said, everything’s on track.

“We’re tracking budget-wise but we’re also making some good decisions as we go along,” he said, noting that the city estimated it would spend $30.3 million from 2015-17. “Now we’re looking at $31 million. There are definitely some unknowns out there, and there will be as we continue to work on future projects.”

Cameron, however, said the city still is planning to “buy a Lexus,” where voters only approved a Toyota.

So far, Cameron said, it’s hard to see how construction costs can make up for the bevy of consultants since no construction has been done. He suggested the time has come to pull the trigger.

“It’s been, ‘Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim,’ ” he said. “You guys, you have got to go.”

This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Stantec.