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Cracked floors, leaky windows dampen building's welcome

Valley College center's many flaws typify poor oversight and quality control

March 01, 2011|Michael Finnegan and Gale Holland

The opening of a new health and science center at Los Angeles Valley College should have been cause for celebration. The complex included the first new classroom building on the campus in more than three decades. There were chemistry and biology labs, a greenhouse, an aviary, even mock hospital rooms for nurse training.

But when students and professors poured through the doors, excitement quickly turned to dismay.

Ceiling panels and floor tiles were askew. Crooked cabinet doors would not shut.

Hot water ran through cold water pipes, cold water through hot. Hot, dirty water flowed at emergency eyewash stations, making them useless. Spigots at some sinks were misaligned, pointing water straight onto lab counters.

Wild temperature swings left students roasting or freezing. A deep chill killed lizards in a biology lab. An imbalance in air pressure created a wind-tunnel effect, and it took a herculean effort to open or close classroom doors.

The problems at the Allied Health and Science Center went well beyond comfort or convenience. Exit signs and fire extinguishers were missing. Hanging pipes and light fixtures were not securely attached to ceilings.

Chemistry professor Elizabeth Friedman was appalled at the builders' work.

"I wouldn't let them build an outhouse for me," she said.

The Los Angeles Community College District, which paid a contractor more than $48 million to build the science center, had to pay other firms at least $3.5 million more to fix and complete it. The district and the original contractor, FTR International of Irvine, are embroiled in a court fight, with each seeking to recover money from the other.

The project offers a vivid illustration of the oversight and quality control problems that have plagued the district's $5.7-billion voter-approved bond program to rebuild its nine campuses.

Nizar Katbi, founder and president of FTR, defended his company's performance. In an interview, he said FTR met its obligations even though architectural plans were often vague and energy-conservation features posed difficult challenges.

"Every problem brought to our attention has been addressed and taken care of," Katbi said.

Dozens of interviews and a review of hundreds of internal e-mails and other documents tell a different story. They show that inspectors, architects and project managers began finding serious construction defects early on and grew increasingly frustrated as deadlines came and went and the complex ultimately opened with many of the problems uncorrected.

Those supervising the project on the ground pleaded with higher-ups to deal firmly with FTR. Yet the top two officials overseeing the construction program did not share their urgency.

They publicly praised the contractor's work and repeatedly approved payments to FTR over the objections of Valley College officials and construction supervisors, who wanted the money held back until problems were corrected. The district had the right to withhold nearly $5 million but released almost $4 million, forfeiting a key source of leverage.

The conciliatory approach was charted by Larry Eisenberg, the district official in charge of the building program, and James D. Sohn, then a vice president of URS Corp. of San Francisco, the college district's construction manager.

When Katbi became embroiled in a dispute with an inspector who had documented numerous flaws, Eisenberg urged subordinates to consider transferring the inspector, records show. Later, Eisenberg argued forcefully against suing FTR.

Two years after construction began, and after inspectors and architects had cited the company for hundreds of instances of substandard work, Sohn sent Katbi a letter thanking FTR for a "job well done." FTR posted the letter on its website as a client testimonial.

Sohn declined to be interviewed.

Eisenberg said FTR was "a good company" that had struggled with a difficult project, and he defended his attempts at accommodation.

"My feeling was that there was an opportunity to work in a positive way with FTR to resolve the issues," he said.

Eisenberg admitted that in the end, "it didn't work."

Months after the complex opened, the district awarded FTR an even bigger contract at West Los Angeles College, followed by more projects at Pierce and Mission colleges -- a total of $113 million in new work.

In December 2008, the district celebrated a California Construction magazine award recognizing FTR and the Allied center at Valley College.

"I was speechless," said Don Gauthier, an associate geography professor who teaches in the complex. "These are the people who have just caused us so much agony."

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A test for officials

The Allied project -- a pair of attached buildings, one with classrooms, the other with faculty offices -- was supposed to be a huge step forward for a campus built in the era of black-and-white TV.

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