Board fires corner lot construction firm



One year ago this week, donning pressed suits and ill-fitting construction hard hats, the previous Southwestern College Governing Board broke ground to celebrate the start of construction on the $389 million Proposition R project on the infamous “corner lot.” A seven-acre dirt and gravel field on Chula Vista’s busiest intersection, the lot has remained empty for five decades. In the 12 months since then, the only meaningful activity on the property was seasonal vendors selling pumpkins in October and Christmas trees in December.

With the pumpkin patch up and running again this year, the current governing board unknowing marked the anniversary of the groundbreaking by firing Escondido-based Echo Pacific Construction, the firm contracted to provide construction management for most of the Prop R project. Echo Pacific, however, continued on as if it was business as usual.

SWC Director of Facilities John Brown confirmed the board action to fire Echo Pacific. The firm would continue to be part of the Proposition AA project, he said, but the board was already seeking its replacement for Prop R work.

“A recommendation was made at the October 12, 2011 governing board meeting by staff to open negotiations with the number two ranked firm, Balfour Beatty [formerly known as Barnhart Balfour Beatty],” Brown said.

Chris Rowe, president of Echo Pacific Construction, said his company had not received any sort of official notification from SWC until The Sun inquired about it.

“The first I heard of it was yesterday,” he said. “There’s been talk of termination for convenience, which was a clause in our contract. We worked trying to resolve the issue because we earned this project through the interview process and our body of work. The last I talked to John Brown, a week or so ago, we were still trying to work it out and he was going to get back to me.”

Rowe said he was surprised to have found out in such a fashion and would like to know the justification for the action. Brown said that the district had sent its “termination” letter on Sept. 12, return receipt enclosed. The letter was also faxed Sept. 14. On Sept. 19, the receipt returned to SWC. He said the last conversation with Rowe was on Sept. 28.

“In this conversation there was some misunderstanding on what Mr. Rowe was asking,” Brown said. “I was somewhat taken aback by his approach, that he wanted to continue the contract relationship. I thought he was asking for a modification to how the relationship ended. As the governing board had not reported out from closed session [of October 12]yet, I did not feel at liberty to discuss it.”

Rowe admitted he received a letter of termination, but said that he did not believe the action was legal.

“At that point, based on the statutes that govern a situation like this, termination can only happen through a public board meeting,” he said. “It has to be on the agenda and there has to be a public discussion. There are exceptions that would allow it to happen in closed session, but nothing in this situation meets the exception.”

He said that there was nothing about their termination on the October 12 board agenda, so he was shocked when The Sun inquired about it.

“I did not see it on the board agenda,” Rowe said. “I didn’t see it on previous board agendas. It certainly wasn’t on any board agenda around the time I received the letter from Mrs. Whittaker, so it meant nothing to us.”

Rowe said that he continued to have conversations with Brown about their relationship. He said it felt formal.

“When you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars and a $4 million contract, I don’t think anything is informal chit-chat,” he said.

Rowe said he never thought the project was dead and had not put together a total cost to the college for the termination.

“I think that’s probably an important thing for the board to know before they make any decision,” he said. “Because convenience is one thing, but if it costs several hundred thousand dollars, that makes it a little less convenient.”


Mounting Frustration

Rowe said the entire episode was frustrating.

“We’ve never had any action like this taken against us in any of our hundreds of projects over the past 18 years,” he said. “I’d be interested in finding out what their reasoning was.”

Echo Pacific had been contracted to provide construction management services for Prop R contractors and subcontractors. Pasadena-based Seville Construction Services is in charge of program management, providing oversight for financial, community and design issues, as well as working with the college itself.

Neither Seville nor San Jose-based BCA Architects, the designers of the corner lot project, were affected by this decision.

As Rowe wrestles with the board’s decision, board members continue to wrestle with concerns and construction delays on the $55 million corner lot project. Governing Board President Tim Nader spoke highly of the team now overseeing construction. It includes Brown, Interim Vice President of Business Bob Temple and Seville project manager Bob DeLiso.

“One thing that I feel pretty comfortable saying publicly is that we’ve put a new administrative team in place and vetted them a bit more thoroughly with the campus and the project community at large,” Nader said.

Board Out of the Loop

Nader also said the team was concerned with accountability and transparency, and keeping the board apprised of progress and problems.

“There are entire aspects of this project that are now being brought before the board that the board was never aware of, both the old and new members,” Nader said.

A few of those issues he couldn’t comment on, he said.

“Some of that has been subject to closed session discussion that I can’t really go into,” he said. “But one thing we have found is that the uses that were contemplated for some of the [new corner lot]buildings are probably not the best uses for the college and community. That requires that we rethink some aspects – not the entire project, not even most of it, but some aspects of it.”

Nader said that there had been some public discussion during the board’s Prop R workshops and that others had expressed their concerns, both publicly and privately, about these issues.

“Whether it’s really wise to move the cafeteria to the edge of campus, or the bookstore, or the police station – those types of things,” Nader said. “What other uses those might be better reconfigured for, so that when we do build the project, it’s one that gives the taxpayers the best use for their money.”

New board trustee Humberto Peraza agreed that changes were necessary.

“You’d be making a mistake as a board member or member of administration in putting something out there you know isn’t going to work, that’s going to fail within the year,” he said.

Peraza said it was important that the new board do things right.

“You can’t just decide you’re going to put something out there and say, ‘Wooo! Let’s go! Let’s be cowboys and put whatever we want out there and make it a dream!’ without going through the process,” he said.

Nader said that the felt the work to modify corner lot buildings would not involve major structural changes.

“I think the changes that we’re likely to make, in terms of optimizing use of the corner lot, are not changes likely to significantly affect when we can start building,” he said. “We’re looking more at internal reconfigurations or allocations of use, as opposed to a radical change in the building footprint, or anything of that nature. If we decide we’re not moving the cafeteria into that space that doesn’t mean we can’t build the footprint of that space pretty close to what was previously designed.”

Spring Ahead

Temple said he believed construction would finally begin in the spring and there was sound financial reason to do so.

“I do not expect any significant delay,” he said. “One of the primary reasons for the changes being considered is to bring the corner lot project back into the board-approved budget of $55 million.”

Peraza said the public is tired of seeing an empty lot and wants to see progress begin.

“Just because someone had a groundbreaking a year ago and said something was happening when it really wasn’t,” he said. “We’ll do it when there’s actually going to be a shovel in the ground. We’re not going to put on a show when nothing’s happening.”

Peraza said he knew one thing he would like to see on the corner lot, a large and well-appointed hall that could host community activities.

“Our community has wanted a place for kids to have their proms,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to go downtown and put our tax dollars into another community rather than spending it right here in our community. If the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce wants to have a dinner in their own city, they can’t do it. We don’t have the ability to do those things.”

Changes to the building design have led to questions that these plans were not the ones the voters initially supported.

“That’s ridiculous,” Nader said. “That plan wasn’t even drawn up when Prop R was passed. So how could that be a change? The voters were not told they were going to have a separate private bathroom for every member of the administration on campus as part of this project. For us to remove that from the project is certainly not a betrayal of the voters. Quite the opposite.”

Going into Labor

Delays are issues for the college community, but also Prop R construction workers.

On October 10, members of several different labor unions showed up at the governing board meeting. Janet Mazzarella, vice president of Southwestern College Educators’ Association (SCEA), said they were there for a reason.

“They were all asking the same thing, for the board to hurry up and please get this Project Labor Agreement signed,” she said.

The PLA, if signed, would regulate the administration’s hiring of construction workers to hiring union workers for all Prop R work. Mazzarella said didn’t know if a PLA would be able to be signed soon enough to affect Phase I work – which would include the corner lot building – or if it could only be for Phases II – V.

“Phase II is a long way out,” she said. “I’m personally hopeful that Phase I is correct, because that’s clearly what the community and these workers want to see happen.”

Nader said that was likely.

“The labor agreement that our subcommittee is going to be working on will almost certainly not be applicable to Phase I,” he said. “It will be applicable to subsequent phases. And you have the little problem that contracts have already been let out.”

Nader said that a series of rumors, including one allegedly reported by a local television news channel, were unfounded.

“There have been a lot of weird rumors out there,” he said, “but one of those was that the commencement of Phase I construction is tied to completing the PLA, and that’s completely false. They’re completely separate from each other.”

Even with design alterations, a change in construction management, public perception as it is and a possible backlash from organized labor, members of the board and administrative team are convinced that the project will still progress with little delay.

“I am not going to predict that we’re breaking ground before the end of the year,” Nader said. “I think it’s more realistic to expect that happens next year. I hate to see the project delayed, because I want to see people put to work as soon as possible, but you have to consider we only get to build this thing once. And we need to have a project that best serves the community college.”

In the meantime, vendors sell pumpkins on the empty lot, and shortly after Thanksgiving, a new operation will begin selling Christmas trees. Cinderella missed the deadline once already and saw her magical vehicle reduced to jolly orange gourds. SWC’s corner lot continues to wither on the vine.


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