NEWPORT BEACH – Since city employees moved to the new, sprawling City Hall complex near Newport Center in March 2013, the cost of the controversial project has increased by about $10.5 million, pushing the grand total to about $142.2 million.
On Tuesday, the City Council is scheduled to vote on a settlement agreement with construction manager C.W. Driver, which would require the city to fork over $2.2 million for project-related claims from contractors for carpentry, landscaping, ceiling finishes and other changes prompted by design modifications.
According to a staff report, while the original claims from contractors and sub-contractors totaled about $8.2 million, some of those costs were absorbed by C.W. Driver and architect Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and the city was left with $2.2 million to pay to avoid potential legal battles.
What started as a plan for a $46 million, bare-bones building in Balboa evolved into a massive project that included the City Hall, an expanded library, a 450-space parking structure, two parks, a community center and a pedestrian bridge. Critics of the project have complained about cost overruns and the unnecessary grandiosity of the project while supporters have maintained that it will be an iconic Civic Center in which residents and employees can take pride.
City Council members were given an opportunity to look at the details of the settlement agreement during a Feb. 11 closed session meeting. Mayor Rush Hill said he was surprised to see the price tag escalate yet again, but said it is common for sub-contractors to demand more money at the conclusion of a project.
A number of the costs were associated with changes in design and the time it took for the architect to make the design changes, said Hill, who is an architect and sits on the city’s ad-hoc Building Committee, which approved change orders for the Civic Center project.
“The architects we hired wanted to have the highest opportunity for design awards,” he said. “This was a high-design architect that does things in minute detail that many people don’t even see, but that ends up costing a lot of money. In the end, we did get an award-winning facility, but we paid for it.”
According to Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s website, the firm has received two awards for the Civic Center project from the American Institute of Architects’ Orange County Chapter: the 2013 Members Choice Award and the 2013 Honor Award for Design.
Hill added that he does not, however, solely blame the architect for the high project costs.
Councilwoman Leslie Daigle said she wished the council had been kept better informed about the escalating Civic Center costs.
“I don’t know who authorized the change orders – the city’s project manager, the Building Committee or the rabbits,” she said referring to the much-criticized bevy of rabbits gracing the Civic Center Park.
The Building Committee has been criticized by residents, including Jim Mosher, for making closed-door decisions about the Civic Center project.
Steve Chaitow, project manager for the architect, was not available for comment Friday. The Civic Center has been dubbed “the Taj Mahal” by those in the community who oppose the expenditures involved.
In June, city staff came to the council requesting an $8.5 million increase, taking the price from $131.4 million to $139.9 million. At the time, project manager Steve Badum told unhappy council members that a bulk of the change orders that raised the cost came from items left out of the original design plans, which later had to be incorporated into the project.
Badum told council members in June that the city pushed through those design plans anyway because they wanted to move while construction costs were lower. The San Miguel Pedestrian Bridge, a later addition to the project, raised the total cost as well. Council members unanimously approved that increase.
City Manager Dave Kiff stated in an email Thursday that the new net cost to the city would be $2.2 million if the council approves the settlement agreement, which will be discussed in an open session. The specifics of the agreement have not been made public.
“On a $139-million project, this is a small percentage (1.5 percent), but it’s a challenging one,” he wrote.
Kiff praised C.W. Driver for “chipping in” and absorbing much of the additional costs.
“Overall, we are very happy with the project’s outcome, including the great use it is getting by the community,” Kiff wrote.
Hill estimated that the city could end up paying about $6 million if it refuses to approve the settlement and chooses to go to court.
“We want to settle it as expeditiously as possible at the lowest cost,” he said. “Driving it down to $2 million is the best deal at this time.”
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