by Alison Cormack
"The library looks beautiful! When is it going to open?"
This is how nine out of 10 of my conversations around town start. I love hearing the first part and dread answering the second part. The Mitchell Park Library and Community Center does look beautiful, on the inside and the outside. But it is not done and there is, unfortunately, no firm date for it to open.
I toured Mitchell Park last month with the city manager, the library director, the director of Public Works, and the city's point person for the project. It is as spacious and interesting as the plans imagined it to be and I am confident that it will be a center of learning for decades to come. But I am as disappointed as everyone else involved with the project that the construction is so far behind schedule.
Here's what I found out about why it's behind and what the city has done.
The city, like all cities in California, is bound by law to accept the lowest bid. That came from Flintco, which was qualified to bid earlier in the process. Flintco's bid was millions of dollars below the engineer's estimate and the other bids. It is apparently not unusual for contractors to bid low to win the business and then use the change-order process to increase the price. Indeed, change orders related to the steel in the plans were the first slowdown in the project.
Next came issues with the steel supplier and the glass installation. The current problem is that the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system is not passing inspection. Interestingly, bids from the other contractors used the same subcontractors, so we might have had similar issues even with a different general contractor.
I want to stop at this point and emphasize something important. At each juncture, the city has consciously chosen quality over schedule. So, when the glass failed repeated inspections, nothing moved forward until it passed. I am personally happy with this approach since we are investing a great deal of resources into the building and I want it to last for many years, but it comes at the cost of time.
So what has the city done to address the situation? Both the Flintco site manager and the construction-management firm's site manager have been replaced. The city has used a progressive inspection approach, where appropriate, to speed completion and is ordering the custom casework and furniture so it is ready to go in as soon as the air system is functioning. The contractor is already on notice that they are responsible for daily liquidated damages of $2,500 since April 29, 2012, the original projected completion date.
Currently, Flintco is undergoing management and ownership changes at the corporate level, so that is another complication preventing an accurate schedule of completion. I have jokingly suggested getting kids to stand in front of the construction site and hold up a sign saying "Flintco, when will our library be ready?" to add to the pressure to get this building done so we can use it. It's possible that it could open in the spring, but every day that goes by without progress makes summer look more realistic. So, at this point, no one can really answer the question, "When will it open?" Fortunately, the temporary library for Mitchell Park at Cubberley is proving to be popular in the interim.
Keep in mind that Mitchell Park is just one of the three projects funded by the bond in 2008. The first project, the Downtown Library, reopened on time in 2011. It is thriving, as these statistics comparing the last six months of 2012 over the last six months of 2011 reveal:
• Circulation of 56,000 items, an increase of 42 percent;
• Branch visits up 32 percent;
• The program and community rooms booked 589 times.
The third project, in chronological order, is the Main Library. It will close May 1 to be entirely renovated and expanded. The city is making reasonable efforts to avoid similar problems with the Main project. They have hired a different construction-management firm, one with a successful track record with other city projects, and that firm is already reviewing the architectural plans in detail. The temporary library for Main will be conveniently located in the Art Center.
Let's also review the expenses. The 2008 bond authorized up to $76 million. Downtown came in $1 million under budget, Mitchell Park is projected to be $4.7 million under budget, and Main is projected to be $2.6 million over budget, due to changes in the landscaped and parking area and the need to replace, not repair, the roof. So, in total, the projects should be completed for less than what was approved.
In other financial news, the $4 million fundraising campaign is just $25,000 away from being complete. The Palo Alto Library Foundation has already received 33 generous $25,000 gifts, so just one more and we're done. The public bond money can only be used for design and construction, so the private PALF funds are paying for the furniture, computers, books and more at all three libraries.
Thanks to everyone in the community for your continued support of these exciting and important projects. Believe me, I know how hard it is to wait for that beautiful building to open, but I am glad that it will be carefully built to last for many years.