Since a new contractor was brought on last February to finish the long-stalled Mitchell Park Library project, a "night and day" difference in work results is bringing an end in sight for the much maligned project, city officials said at press briefing Friday.
In one of the biggest milestones to date, the new library in south Palo Alto -- by far the largest of the city's five branches -- has received a certificate of occupancy, which means city staff can start moving into the glassy 40,000-square-foot library and the adjoining 15,000-square-foot community center. The city plans to hold a "soft opening" to give the public a preview of the new complex at 4050 Middlefield Road on Sept. 27. The library is scheduled to officially open in November.
Work has picked up in recent months, since the city made the contractor change, Keene said. The briefing included as its central prop a 146-page stack of pages listing all the items that were in contractor Big-D Pacific Builders's to-do list when it took over in March, which includes installation of doors, shelving and benches. Most of that work has already been completed, city officials say.
The library, which is being funded by a $76 million bond voters passed in 2008, was initially slated to be completed in spring 2012. Its opening has been severely delayed by a dispute between Palo Alto and its original contractor, Flintco Pacific. The city fired Flintco in January, citing shoddy performance, and hired Big-D to finish the job.
At Friday's press briefing, City Manager James Keene said the difference in work results has shifted dramatically since the city replaced Flintco.
"It's really night and day on the results since we brought Big-D on, and the construction of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center has been progressing steadily and on schedule," Keene said.
The biggest issue now, he said, is not with the building construction but with the process of moving staff in and installing the library system. Keene said he is confident that once everyone gets into the building and sees it, the struggle to construct the building will fade into history.
"The center of community life is going to move south to Mitchell Park," Keene said.
On the legal front, the landscape remains cluttered. Flintco has already filed two claims against the city, arguing in one claim that the city breached its contract and engaged in fraud and in the other, accusing the city of not fully responding to its requests for information.
The city has not filed a claim against Flintco, but it plans to do so in the near future, City Attorney Molly Stump said. The city's argument will likely center on the "liquidation damages," a contract provision that requires a contractor to compensate the city for failing to complete the job by the agreed-upon date, said David Ginn, the city's retained attorney in the Flintco dispute.
"I do expect that to be a substantial element of the claim," Ginn said.
Keene stressed that the city is "not defensive on the issues." He called Flintco an "ineffective, unresponsive performer" and said the city will be "pursuing our own remedies." One major problem, he and Ginn both said, is Flintco's inability to have enough subcontractors on site to finish the job. As the Weekly reported last year, the project was hampered by errors and omissions, including failed inspections, incorrect materials and long delays. Ginn said the company struggled to manage its subcontractors and materials suppliers.
"My impression is there was a lot of rework that needed to be done and Flintco was struggling in getting its contractors back to repair the work that was done incorrectly," he said.
On Aug. 26, the Santa Clara County Superior Court will consider Flintco's request for a writ requiring Palo Alto to hand over documents that the company claims the city is withholding. Stump said Flintco's request for a writ is "without merit" and that the city has made a "tremendous compliance effort."
"The city has always indicated that it's willing to work with Flintco to give them the documents," she said, noting that more than 40,000 pages of documents have already been produced.
The city is also scheduled to respond to Flintco's broader claim, which alleges fraud and a breach of contract, by the third week of this month, Stump said.
According to Ginn, the firing of Flintco and hiring of Big-D is not expected to raise construction costs. That's because it is the insurer of the project, known as a surety, that is paying Big-D.
"The surety is paying for the entirety of the completion costs at this point," Ginn said.
Even so, the city's legal bills are expected to grow as its battle with Flintco proceeds. Since the city's legal dispute with Flintco started in 2011, Palo Alto has spent a total of $394,646 on three different legal firms. Though that figure will surely continue to increase, Keene stressed that residents will have much to feel good about once the new library opens.
"The legal issues are going to continue after the Mitchell Park Library is open," Keene said. "We want the community to know that what they read about and hear on the legal front does not impact the new library and community center."