Friday, February 18, 2000

Overruns not new to stadium architect

Seattle project $100M over budget

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Seattle has more in common with Cincinnati than Ken Griffey Jr. Sports stadiums that cost tens of millions of dollars more than expected have become big news in both cities.

        And there's another link between the Seattle Mariners' new Safeco Field and Paul Brown Stadium — they were designed by the same firm, NBBJ Architecture.

        The Mariners' new home came in $100 million over budget last year when the first pitch was thrown in July. It was learned this week that the Bengals complex is an estimated $35 million to $45 million over budget — numbers that could continue to grow.

        In both cases, changes to the design of the stadiums during construction, along with a fast-track building schedule, are being blamed for the added expense.

        And that has some people saying NBBJ, which started the design of Safeco Field nearly four years ago, should take a lion's share of the responsibility.

        “We have a lot of concerns about incomplete drawings and bid packages going out before the designs were finished,” said Rebecca Hale, director of public information for the Mariners. “There were a lot of design changes and modifications had to be made while we were building.”

        That will sound familiar to anyone keeping tabs on the rising costs of Paul Brown Stadium along the Ohio River.

        A construction auditor hired by Hamilton County said Monday that bids were taken for work with incomplete drawings, and that there was inadequate oversight and scrutiny as changes to those contracts worked their way through the system.

        But Dennis Forsyth says that's part of life when building on the fast track.

        Mr. Forsyth, head of NBBJ's stadium design team for Safeco Field, said it is common for construction on sports stadiums to begin without finalized designs.

        That's because deals to make the stadiums possible are often slow to develop, and the teams are always in a rush to move into their new homes, he said.

        “Unfortunately, it's all too common,” Mr. Forsyth said. “It's really a strange business. You'll find that often the buildings aren't even half designed when you start construction because everyone wants to be in the stadium as quickly as possible.

        “You build it as best you can, and then a thousand little things change completely. And they all add up. The question becomes: Whose fault are the changes?”

        The similarities may be striking, but there is one big difference between the two stadiums — the Mariners have paid for all of the overruns for their ballpark, while it is unclear who will pick up the tab at Paul Brown Stadium.

        Ms. Hale said the Mariners are “considering our options” about possible lawsuits to recoup some of the costly overruns. But Ken Johnsen said any suit will probably not be successful.

        Mr. Johnsen was chairman of the Public Facilities District when the organization was created by the Washington legislature to find a way to finance the ballpark and negotiate a lease with the Mariners.

        “Our lease is crystal clear,” Mr. Johnsen said. “The public's contribution would be capped at $417 million with no additional public money. We are strongly protected.”

        Taxpayers in Hamilton County don't share that protection.

        Although county officials negotiated a “guaranteed maximum price” of $287 million in tax dollars to build the stadium, it became apparent this week that there is really no such guarantee.

        The auditor hired by county officials said there were insufficient de sign drawings, which created loopholes in the gross maximum price when the county was negotiating to cap the taxpayers' share.

        Although the auditor thinks that some of the cost overruns can be recovered, the county will have to foot the bill initially and then either negotiate or sue to get its money back.

        Meanwhile, the architect, construction manager, project manager and county officials must continue working together in order to have the stadium open for the first preseason game Aug. 19.

        “If we start fighting ourselves, we'll find ourselves in even more difficulty,” Hamilton County Administrator Dave Krings said. “The last thing we need to do is start suing each other now.”


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