NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu celebrated the re-opening of the Treme Center as a symbol of the city's recovery in 2013.
But getting the facility renovated not only cost double what the city had anticipated, but parts of the center’s major improvements had to be re-done because of problems with construction.
The Treme Center is nestled on the back side of Armstrong Park in the heart of one of the city’s most historic neighborhoods. It’s a recreation center with a pool, a basketball court, a dance studio, workout area and a stage for community performances.
Since it re-opened in April 2013, the Treme Center has become a neighborhood treasure that is used by people from all across the city, especially swimmers looking to take advantage of the heated, indoor pool.
For several weeks this spring, that pool was shut down as construction crews had to re-finish the concrete deck around it. It’s just one of a number of problems with the construction that have community members questioning the high cost and what they describe as poor quality renovations.
Just as basketballs bounce on the center’s gym floor every afternoon, city leaders celebrate the Treme Center as a symbol of the city’s rebound from Hurricane Katrina.
Last May, Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave his state of the city address at the newly-reopened building.
With a rebuilt pool and a brand new gym floor, community members like urban planner Amy Stelly couldn't wait to start using it again.
“It's the best that the city has to offer for the community,” Stelly said.
At the time of the ceremonial ribbon cutting in April 2013, the city estimated the cost of the project at $4.8 million. One year later, the price tag is now over $6 million and climbing.
“I cannot believe that it cost $6 million to repair the center, especially considering the craftsmanship. It was very poor craftsmanship, very poor quality of materials, so I can't understand how the $6 million was spent. Frankly neither can anyone else in the community,” Stelly said.
Hurricane Katrina did not flood the Treme Center. The high winds led the roof to leak and water came in from above.
FEMA estimated the actual hurricane damage to be $403,000, and that's what they ended up paying for the repairs.
“If you do the FEMA improvements, then you're still stuck with a building that's out of code that still might be old, that still has major issues that need to be addressed,” said New Orleans Capital Projects Director Vincent Smith.
So, how did the cost bounce to $6 million and climbing?
Smith got his job in 2010, around the time that Mayor Landrieu took office.
“We inherited the projects and the architects that had been selected by Nagin,” Smith said.
Mayor Ray Nagin issued a contract in 2009 to architecture firm Hamilton-Anderson to design the repairs and oversee the Treme Center construction. That initial contract was for $198,000. Five contract amendments more than tripled their total payment to more than $600,000 by the end of the project.
Smith points out that Hamilton Anderson is the same architect behind the controversial job at the sculpture garden at Armstrong Park that left the park closed and in disarray for more than a year in 2010.
However, Nagin only issued the first contract amendment for Hamilton-Anderson, doubling its cost and extending the construction timeline just before he left office. The four other amendments were issued by the Landrieu administration.
“A project of this nature, yes, we do expect to have an unusual amount of unforeseen conditions,” Smith said.
Those unforeseen conditions also led the overall project costs to nearly double from about $3.5 million to more than $6 million and climbing.
Icon Construction Group was the lowest bidder after the city issued its second request for proposals for the project in late 2011. They threw out the first round because of problems with documentation submitted by some of the pool subcontractors and cost estimates that varied too widely, according to Smith.
By spring 2012, Landrieu took the press on a tour of the Treme Center construction that showed a pool in progress with pilings being driven inside the natatorium to support its concrete weight, and an otherwise dingy facility that hadn’t been touched in the nearly seven years since Katrina. The site revealed an overhaul of a facility that city leaders said they felt was inadequate before the storm.
The city put in a dance studio upstairs and added a room that is supposed to be a computer lab, but as of this week, doesn't yet have any computers in it.
The city issued nine different change orders for Icon on the project, adding to the renovation costs and time. Most of those change orders read that they are for "unforeseen circumstances."
“We're never happy with change orders. As I mentioned to you before, a project of this type, we expect we're gonna encounter some unforeseen conditions. Were gonna do the best we can to try to minimize that,” Smith said.
Some of those change orders added features to the project, including the addition of a new Grandsprung gym floor for about $150,000. It’s a spring-loaded floor that gives basketball players and users added bounce when they’re playing on it. It replaced the Grandwood floor, in place before Katrina, that Smith says received “minimal damage.” Community members asked to add the nicer, Grandsprung floor and the city obliged.
But that’s where many say the real problems with the renovations began.
The Grandsprung floor was only installed within the boundaries of the basketball court to avoid the cost of pouring a new foundation, and because of that, it has a higher profile than the Grandwood floor around it.
“We had a structural slab, so to have to tear that out and replace it would have really cost a lot of money. We got the recommendation from the architect with how to install it with a transition strip,” Smith said.
The initial transition strip was made of aluminum. The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, or NORDC, documented an incident where a 13-year-old had been exercising on the floor less than three months after the center had re-opened, and he tripped on the transition strip. The teen hit their chin, possibly cracking their teeth. They were taken to the hospital as a result.
“In response to those concerns, we replaced it with a rubber transition strip acknowledging that that type of solution was not the best solution,” Smith said.
Even that rubber transition strip can present a trip hazard. Users of the center expressed their concerns to Smith about it because it buckles over time as the floor bounces. Just last week, the city paid to re-glue the strip, something Smith admits is a temporary fix.
“The support system for the floor has collapsed. So, there are dips in the floor where the springs are no longer functioning,” Stelly said.
A close examination of the floor shows discolorations where the floor wax pools in the areas where the floor is starting to warp.
“It's obviously gonna cost. The permanent fix is gonna cost. We're in discussions with the contractor and the architect to once again, figure all of that out,” Smith said.
But the floor isn't the center’s only problem. The concrete pool deck didn't drain properly and had to be re-done last month.
“The lifeguards spent the better part of their day sweeping the water off of the deck,” Stelly said.
“Instead of tearing out the concrete, he more or less grinded it or graded it and created soft swales so that the water could fall into the swales into the drainage,” Smith said.
The showers also didn't drain properly, with waste water from one person’s shower draining around another person’s feet. The drainage in the concrete shower floors was also reconstructed in recent weeks.
In addition to the problems on the floor, users started noticing problems up above, particularly in the natatorium where the pool is located. Mold spots had started to grow, and the environment in the room was problematic for swimmers, particularly the senior swimmers, community members said.
“On the very cold days, it was bone-chilling cold. The water was very cold. People would get in the water and shiver,” Stelly said.
Smith admitted the climate in the natatorium was part of the problem. Operator error in setting the climate conditions both in the room and the pool contributed to the mold growth, he said.
“We had challenges with staff making the right adjustments to the equipment, the water being too hot, the air temperature being too cold,” Smith said.
A mold remediation contract was issued this spring to identify the problem and treat it.
Plus, users of the community center point to other problems with the work such as the new roof leaking in the gym, paint peeling off the upper walls in the natatorium and sod in the front of the building has had to be re-laid multiple times. They’re all issues that should not happen in a newly-renovated facility that had been open less than a year.
“It's just unfortunate that such a poor job was done,” Stelly said.
Icon and their sub contractors have re-done some of the work without charging the city, according to Smith. The construction warranty ran out in February 2014. But so far the additional work has cost the city at least $12,000 with Smith admitting future repairs to the gym floor will likely cost much more.
Over all, Smith said he is pleased with the work that Icon has done on the Treme Center.
It’s not the company’s only contract with the city of New Orleans. Icon is also building the new Joseph M. Bartholomew golf clubhouse at Pontchartrain Park. It’s a more than $4 million job that initially was budgeted at $3.5 million. So far, the cost of that project has been increased about $220,000 through change orders, again, because of “unforeseen conditions.” It’s scheduled to open in July.
Hamilton-Anderson has no additional contracts with the city, according to Smith.
The city's project manager for the Treme Center renovation no longer works for the city. Daniel McElmurray resigned near the end of the project, not exclusively because to issues with this project, and according to Smith, before the construction problems began to surface.
In the end, problems with the project have only temporarily kept the center from buzzing with activity. City leaders said they're committed to making the Treme Center the legacy project it was designed to be.
“This is a beautiful facility. If you had seen it before, and see it the way it is now, there's no way you could not agree that it's a great building. We've got issues but you know, we're working, we're collaborating with the contractor and the architect and the community as well,” he said.
The city said they also worked to make doors and the entry ways handicap-accessible, however the elevator to give the disabled access to the work out equipment on the second floor was taken out of the plans because it was too expensive.
According to Smith, classes and programming are held on the first floor to give everyone access.