Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Stop-work order pauses MLK Center design for months

Council selected this design for the MLK Community Center’s new gym with masonry, metal panels and translucent panels. (Courtesy City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON — The wait for downtown neighborhoods to see improvements to their community building will take longer than expected. Progress on an extension to the MLK Center is just now resuming after the city issued an August stop-work order.

The order paused design work on the MLK Community Center after Sawyer Sherwood & Associates Architecture reportedly told the City of Wilmington the pre-engineered metal structure it wanted was impractical. The city then spent more than $25,000 debunking the claims with a third-party firm and is now re-engaging the original contractor.

As part of the voter-approved 2016 parks bond, the City of Wilmington committed to putting $1.83 million toward a new high-school-sized gymnasium in the center, located between South 8th and 10th streets. That price has since risen to $3.4 million.

The city is also allocating around $500,000 in federal Covid-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to design and build a commercial kitchen as part of the project.

In February 2021, two design options were presented to city council for how the new building, located next to Williston Middle School, could look. One was for a $3.1-million masonry building with a metal roof; the other was projected at $3.6 million with stucco. Council supported city staff’s recommendation to move forward with the least expensive of the two options.

“It is more attractive, less institutional-looking and less expensive,” City of Wilmington construction project manager Anne Ballweg told council at the time of the decision.

During the meeting, councilmember Charlie Rivenbark expressed concern about how far off the funding gap was, roughly double, and pointed out many projects appeared to be exceeding their estimated price tags.

It’s true many parks bond projects are surpassing their initial estimates. In most cases, the city has attributed delays and budget increases to across-the-board material and labor costs, inflamed by the growing inflation rate and Covid-strained supply chain. It has also placed blame on 2018’s Hurricane Florence as the demand for renovation and repair work from the storm’s wrath posed issues.

The city has dipped into the general fund to fill some gaps. Other times it has found funding in leftover money from completed projects. But, to date, no park projects have been shelved or had their budget cut.

The timeline for the parks bond pinned the MLK Center work as starting within three to five years of July 2017. As of early 2021, the city was targeting finalized designs of the MLK Center by October 2021. It anticipated awarding a bid by February 2022 and completing construction within a year.

As of spring 2022, no ground has broken at the site.

That’s largely due to the city placing a stop-work order on its design firm, SSA. City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron said it has “developed a strong professional relationship” with SSA as the contractor has worked on a list of city projects, including most recently the 1898 Memorial Park sign design and Portia Mills Hines Park in 2020.

In fall 2021 — when designs were expected to be complete — the city’s director of community services, Amy Beatty, wrote to the firm formally informing it of the stop-work order issued Aug. 13.

“As you are aware, the stop work order was issued upon receipt of a memorandum and cost estimate from SSA on August 12, 2021 outlining significant revisions made to the design of the MLK Gym project with associated project cost impacts without consultation or approval from the City,” Beatty said.

Dandron explained the city originally asked for a pre-engineered metal structure, but SS&A asserted that was unfeasible and pursued a masonry building instead. At that point the city brought in the third-party firm to double check SSA’s claims.

“[W]e find the decision made by SSA to make project modifications without discussion with and authorization by the City to be highly irregular and unsatisfactory,” Beatty wrote in her letter. “At this time, we will be continuing the stop work order.

“Due to the unusual circumstances triggered by SSA’s unauthorized work and as guardians of the City’s project funding, provided by the taxpayers of the City, we are performing an independent due diligence of the design modifications with another firm.”

DMA Architecture reportedly found a pre-engineered metal structure was achievable and, since then, the city has determined it should invite SSA back on the job, Dandron said.

According to internal emails obtained by Port City Daily, the city scheduled a closed session Apr. 4 to deliberate on the next steps for the project. That afternoon Dandron told PCD, “While SS&A made modifications not consistent with the city’s direction, SS&A has expressed interest in addressing the city’s concerns and producing plans as initially requested. The city intends to work with SS&A to resolve the inconsistencies and avoid future delays on this important project.”

So far, the city has paid $117,049 to SSA. The continued work with the original architect, at least through the initial design, should help avoid future delays and budget impacts, Dandron explained.


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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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