Blunders helped drive Kennedy-King's costs out of control

The new Kennedy-King College campus | Credit: Justin Goh
  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • July 20, 2009 @ 3:00 AM

Faulty work, poor communication and failed efforts to save money added millions of dollars to the price of the new Kennedy-King College, internal e-mails obtained by the Daily News show.

"Every day unveils a new issue,” Chiaka Patterson, a City Colleges official, wrote in an e-mail last year about a growing list of mistakes that needed to be fixed at the state-of-the art City Colleges campus in Englewood.

The e-mail exchanges between the City Colleges of Chicago and the Public Building Commission — sometimes testy and filled with frustration — detail some of the bottlenecks sent costs spiraling. 

The new campus began as a $93 million project. To date, costs exceed $250 million.

The 500 e-mails obtained by the Daily News through the Freedom of Information Act reveal:

  • In July 2008, the City Colleges noted that special gas line connections for equipment in a massive teaching kitchen had been installed backwards. That took more than six months to fix.
  • Televison lights in WYCC's studios on campus started dimming because less expensive electrical equipment had been installed. It cost $2 million to fix the blunder.
  • From July to October 2008, a "punch list" of unexpected repairs -- including a fire hazard and building code problems --  grew from 85 items to more than 200. Fixing just 21 items cost the City Colleges about $840,000.

The e-mails provided to the Daily News ultimately don’t explain how Kennedy-King’s price rose so high by late 2006.

And the taxpayers who funded the project may never know why so much of their money was spent.

In late 2007 and early 2008, the district conducted an internal audit of the project and the cost overruns — but officials have repeatedly refused to make that report public. District spokeswoman Elsa Tullos cited a state law that lets the district keep internal audits secret.

The new Kennedy-King campus in Englewood opened in the summer of 2007, replacing an aging campus about a mile away. The Public Building Commission, a separate agency from the City Colleges, handled the building of the campus, hiring construction giant McClier in 2005 to oversee all aspects of designing and building the project.

When McClier snagged the project in early 2005, the PBC estimated it would cost $93 million. By the end of 2006, the cost had climbed to $202 million. Reports in 2008 put the total price at more than $250 million.

Officials from the PBC and from Aecom, the company that bought McClier several years ago, did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Diane Minor, a vice chancellor at the City Colleges, says the cost of construction materials was rising quickly as the new Kennedy-King started going up, and that accounts for part of the reason why the project got so expensive.

“That’s not the best answer, it’s not the most satisfying answer for you, but it’s what we’ve been told,” Minor says.

Samuel Wm. Sax, a member of the PBC’s Board of Commissioners, defended the cost of the project, insisting that the City Colleges wanted more kitchen space for its highly regarded culinary program as well as larger laboratories.

“It’s clear that Kennedy-King College was a success," he insisted after a meeting last month.

Problems with kitchen equipment for the Washburne Culinary Institute emerged almost as soon as contractors said their work was done – and some issues remained up until last week, two years after the campus opened to students.

In July 2008, the City Colleges noted that special gas line connections for some kitchen equipment had been installed backwards.

“A plumber must resize each end of the problem hoses with reducers or other connector to ensure that the connections fit,” the district’s July 28, 2008, punch list of ongoing issues said.

Almost six months later, most hoses had been fixed, according to an e-mail from Patterson, who is an associate director in the City Colleges’ facilities planning department. But in one of the kitchens, that problem remained.

“Some [gas hose] Quick Connects are not present at all,” Patterson wrote in a Feb. 13 e-mail.

Problems with countertops took even longer to resolve.

“The Culinary staff would like to know exactly when we will install new countertops,” Patterson wrote in an April 21 e-mail to officials at McClier and the Public Building Commission — following months of back and forth on the issue. “Each day, the delaminating problem worsens and increasingly decreases Washburne staff's ability to effectively use the space. ... the countertops are unsightly and unusable.”

The countertops were one of the most persistent problems on the punch list.

The list has been such a point of concern that at a board meeting last week, Minor got a round of applause for her update on Kennedy-King.

“On Friday (July 10), we signed the work order for the last remaining punch list item, finally, for the new Kennedy-King,” Minor said.

That work order called for new granite countertops for the Washburne kitchen, Minor says. McClier will swallow those costs, not the City Colleges.

The e-mails illustrate the frustration on the part of many people involved in the project.

In September 2006, for example, work on the campus’ computer network bogged down as officials squabbled over issues such as what kind of equipment to install.

Brandon Visser, an architect with a Chicago firm working on the project, e-mailed that the back and forth was “ridiculous.”

“How much time do they need?” Visser wrote. “It's been thirty days and still not one comment. They only wait until now to ask questions and say that they have not been given enough time? This is ridiculous and is holding up the construction progress.  We are moving forward. I am tired of discussing this. Let's move on and complete this important project.”

Despite all the overruns, efforts were made to keep costs under control, the e-mails show.

But sometimes those efforts backfired.

In May 2006, the e-mails show, the architects and McClier found ways to save $11 million campus-wide. For example, tweaking electrical equipment across the campus would save $150,000, one e-mail said.

But in November 2008, engineers tracked down the source of an ongoing problem with stage lights unexpectedly dimming in WYCC’s television studios on campus.

The bottom line: The lower-cost electrical system just couldn't handle the demands put on it.

It would cost $2 million to redo the electrical system at WYCC, Patterson wrote in that e-mail.

For the last two years, the college, contractors and the PBC have used a “punch list” to keep track of work that needed to be completed.

Such lists typically include finishing touches on a project, but versions of the list from 2008 show items that didn't meet building codes and in the case of an electrical issue, presented a “fire hazard.”

From July to October 2008, the list grew from 85 items to more than 200. By that fall, the City Colleges tallied spending more than $840,000 to deal with just 21 of the problems. The e-mails indicate that the contractor may have reimbursed the district for some of those costs.

Minor and Tullos could not immediately say what Kennedy-King’s final cost is, though media reports from 2008 put it at more than $250 million at that time.

Minor says even if the costs went higher than what most people expected, the New Kennedy-King is helping to start turning around the Englewood neighborhood.

“I think it’s great, what it’s doing for the community,” she says.

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.