The chaotic fiasco associated with theBetter Jacksonville Plan (BJP) must include the new downtown library scandal. That disaster began in 1993, when $29 million included in then-mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance (RCR) counted a new downtown library among its projects — then the library vanished. That year, the Jacksonville City Council passed a $226 million bond to cover projects in the RCR program; a brand new library was just one project in the program. Five years after the bond issue was passed, the library was no longer on the drawing board, and the $29 million had disappeared. Where did it go? To other projects that had major cost overruns.

According to Ken Sivulich, then-director of the Jacksonville Public Library (JPL), hiring a consultant to determine what kind of structure should be built and what it should contain were to be done within a month. Even with the consultant in place, however, it could take as long as six months to complete the study. So even under the best circumstances, it would be 2001 — eight years after the funding was approved — before a new Main Library would be built.

It’s interesting that Mayor Austin’s 35-page RCR report on the library (February 1993) stated, “The crowded Main Library houses over 1,000,000 books and other materials, plus administrative offices and processing operations for the entire library system. Expansion of library has become impossible and patron parking complaints continue to increase. The Main Library has simply become inadequate for current demands and cannot meet future demands.” The mayor even included a drawing of the proposed library building in his RCR report.

A few months later, the city issued a 10-page report on the Renaissance program. It contained a similar description of the proposed library, at a cost of $29 million. And when the Downtown Development Authority released a four-page Renaissance bulletin, it noted that a December 1993 survey showed 81 percent of Jacksonville residents believed that the modernization of the library was needed and was a good idea. Despite that high percentage, city officials denied the funding. Business as usual in Jacksonville — the public be damned.

Jacksonville’s annual contribution to the public library system is small compared to other cities. In the late ’90s, the city contributed approximately $13 million to the library annually. In that era, Seattle, with a population of 534,000, gave $28.5 million to its library system; Baltimore, with a population of 717,000, gave its library system $22 million. For 2016, Jacksonville will provide the library with $32 million.

The disappearance of the library downtown is just the beginning of the chaos surrounding the awards of the architectural contract and the construction contract. Both involved hanky-panky, including disgraceful construction that is extremely expensive to repair, with invoices going to the local taxpayers.

The ’01-’02 bidding process to select architectural and construction firms reeks with a manipulated stench. Heery International (HI) was chosen to analyze four bids from architectural firms. With no explanation, Robert A.M. Stern was awarded the
contract to design the structure. To some, the pre-existing relationship between HI and Stern, whom HI had selected as architect for a library in Nashville it was involved with, indicated a conflict of interest. HI’s estimates were challenged by the architectural firms that weren’t selected. They accused HI of overstating design costs and low-balling Stern’s estimates.

The Florida Times-Union reported, “Heery’s report and Philadelphia-based Vitetta (a competing architectural firm) estimated it would cost $65.4 million to build its design for the library and parking garage, and evaluation committee members focused on that number in their discussions. Heery’s own analysis estimated Vitetta’s costs to be $72.1 million. But James Keller, principal for Vitetta, said the firm’s actual estimated cost was slightly below $54 million.”

Sivulich, an experienced library director, picked the Vitetta design, saying “it was the most functional and offered a ‘world class’ design.” Also voting for Vitetta was Rex Holmlin, an engineer who was then the manager of the BJP library project. The remaining committee members, obviously influenced by the HI report, included a city attorney, a city purchasing agent and the city treasurer. None of these three was a library expert. The opinion of Sivulich and Holmlin should have carried the day.

The T-U article continued, “Heery’s report listed Stern’s estimated cost of $51.4 million, but it did not include several multimillion items that were included in the costs for the other architects. The added items, including design contingency and site development costs, would have significantly increased Stern’s estimate.”

HI estimated it would cost another firm, Michael Graves & Associates (now Michael Graves Architecture & Design), $65.3 million to build its design. Michael Graves & Associates estimated it would cost $52.4 million. (Neither city officials nor HI provided copies of HI’s report to the bidding firms.) Thus, the bidding architects were not allowed to question any parts of HI’s report before the contract was awarded to Stern. This was fiscally and ethically irresponsible. It also appeared to be illegal.

But wait … there’s more to the story of our library disaster. In April 2013, the publication Law 360 headlined, “Fla. City Sues Contractors Over Shoddy Construction Work.”

Law 360 reported, “The City of Jacksonville, Fla., has launched a suit against contractors it hired to build the city’s main downtown library and parking garage, saying that after the project was complete, it discovered numerous defects stemming from shoddy construction work. Jacksonville brought the suit against Heery International Inc., Robert A.M. Stern Architects LLP, Elkins Constructors Inc., Lodestar Construction Co. LLC and James E. Parris Jr. Inc., doing business as Auchter/Elkins/Lodestar/Parris, Joint Venture, claiming years after the project was completed, destructive and other testing revealed several problems with the complex.”

According to the complaint, tests conducted by an outside engineering company found systemic wall failure including delamination of the stucco, which led to the city closing walkways next to the main library building.

The city said that the report found major water intrusion at various points in the roof and around numerous curtain wall windows and skylights.

Law 360 reported the city said, “Many of the problems arose from defective work, incompetent installation of various elements of the building, and the absence of certain structural components that were required by the contract documents and by nationally recognized industry standards.” The suit alleges breach of contract, contractual indemnity, misrepresentation, breach of warranty and professional negligence.

In 2014 News4Jax reported that the library leaks were to cost $1.4 million and that some areas were blocked off and some library materials were covered in tarps to guard against water intrusion.

In February, News4Jax reported on a new leak in the Main Library, saying,

The building has been plagued by problem leaks since 2012. Caution tape surrounded a table, just feet from computers in the main library … In April 2012, we showed you tarps covering books on the fourth floor. In February 2014, those tarps were still there, along with plywood covering skylights and watermarks lining the walls. The more work crews did, the more problems they found … Councilman John Crescimbeni met with the public works department last week to go over the problems. ‘We discovered in some of the concrete walls, the cells were not reinforced with steel and poured concrete as required,’ said Crescimbeni.

Instead of just suing the architects and contractors to pay for the series of repairs that continue to this day, the city should demand a grand jury investigation. Given the number of serious structural and other defects, at least some of those involved had to have been aware of the potential for future problems.

But this is Jacksonville — so don’t hold your breath. The disastrous saga of the failed library fits in with many other problem projects extending over many, many years and many, many city governments.