News

Ups, downs and - finally - construction for community cente

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

The city of Federal Way observed a major milestone with a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for the new community center.

With construction to begin soon, the center's shape could be arising by the end of this year.

Much like a ride on a roller coaster, the project has been an accelerated, bumpy, careening ride. Also like a roller coaster, it has created excitement, elation and, for a few moments, the blood-chilling fear that perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all.

If the fuel for the project was a public survey in which a community center topped the list of capital projects residents wanted, then King County's plan to mothball the Kenneth Jones Pool was the spark that got everything burning.

In late 2002, a community center was added rather suddenly to the capital side of the city's 2003-04 biennial budget after residents told the City Council in person and through an on-line survey they wanted one. The city's six-year capital improvement plan included construction of a community center, but not until 2005.

At the same time, dozens of swimmers told the council they wanted the city to step in to save the Kenneth Jones Pool, which drew an estimated 79,150 people the year before. The council agreed, but the city would have to subsidize the pool to the tune of about $300,000 a year, and it would soon need major renovations.

The council allocated $10 million for the center in the 2003-04 biennial budget, a dollar figure intended to serve as a placeholder until there was a better sense of what such a facility would cost.

On Nov. 19, 2002, the council moved the project forward by approving a 1 percent increase in the city utility tax –– generating about $1.25 million a year –– to operate the Jones pool for a couple years and to cover bonds for a brand new community center and pool. The council upped the budget for the center, too, from $10 million to $13 million, which would cover the cost of building a new pool.

In April 2003, a community center advisory group convened for the first time and began to acquaint itself with the parks department and the project. At the time, city manager David Moseley equated the project's significance with the creation of the city's Police Department and the purchase and development of Celebration Park.

Meanwhile, the city hired Barker Rinker Seacat to serve as project consultants and worked as well with Arai/Jackson, experts on soils and land issues, and GreenPlay, a recreational programming firm.

The advisory group and consultants held a series of public meetings with focus groups –– teens, families, seniors and people with specific recreation interests –– and began developing a list of community center amenities.

They also began to see a problem.

Grim financial reality

By the following June, city officials were realizing the costs involved with a state-of-the-art community center and swimming pool. Grimly, they accepted the advisory group's analysis that $13 million wasn't going to be enough. They accepted the group's recommendation to increase the budget to $15 million.

It was during this period that council members firmed their resolve for a community center people would actually want to use, not simply one that was inexpensive. "If you're not going to do it first class, don't do it all," Councilman Jack Dovey said.

Despite the rising costs, there were some sunny spots. On July 1, 2003, the advisory group selected Celebration Park as the preferred site for the center, because of the proximity to ballfields.

Later that month, in a move that some budget-conscious citizens saw as folly, a few city officials and everyone on the seven-member council except Dean McColgan flew to Denver, Colo. to tour community centers there. Travel expenses –– about $5,000 total –– were paid out of the project budget.

Upon their return, council members' ideas for a community center had become expansive. They envisioned a grand lobby, a vaulted community room with a view of Mount Rainier, spa areas and a climbing wall. They wanted a large leisure pool where water slides and other aquatic amenities would draw visitors from around south King County during the rainy season. They wanted a teen center with arcade games, spacious community rooms for conventions or receptions, party rooms and saunas.

City officials and their consultants suffered sticker shock when they saw the costs representing their vision. In August 2003, estimates ranged from $18.6 million for a 65,000-square-foot center to $22.2 million for 83,000 square feet. It was a big jump from the $13 million in the 2003-04 budget, and even from the $15 million recommended by the Community Center Advisory Group.

"The $22 million kind of blew me away," McColgan said.

"We're astounded, as well," said Keith Hayes, with Barker Rinker Seacat. He attributed the higher cost to "it just costs more to build here."

Some council members said if the project done right would cost $22 million, they should pay $22 million. Others were hesitant, but wanted to see what the consultants had to offer. They didn't know at the time the project's biggest bomb would fall several months later.

Budget overruns, testy council

Council members liked the list of amenities a more costly center would bring to Federal Way: A large leisure pool, a three-court gym, the largest community space in the city, a cafe and juice bar, a senior lounge, a childcare area, classrooms and party rooms. They began to envision families and people of all ages using the center, playing in the pool area and renting rooms for parties. While they were concerned about the costs, no one was willing to call off the project altogether.

As the months passed, the council approved sources of funding –– utility tax revenue, money from the street overlay fund and real estate excise tax among them –– and the project scope. It wasn't until April 2004 they hit the hurdle that heralded the decline and near fall of the whole project.

What parks officials initially thought was a lower-class wetland on the project site turned out to be the most significant type, which requires a 200-foot buffer zone. As designed, the community center encroached 100 feet into the buffer zone.

During a public hearing, parks officials said they would offset the impact to the buffer zone by preserving an adjacent 3.5 acres –– twice the amount encroached upon –– to remain undeveloped in perpetuity. Ultimately, a hearing examiner ruled that was adequate mitigation and allowed the center to stand as designed.

City officials were buoyed by the project's progress, so it was a crushing blow when they met at a study session in October 2004 and heard the project was $6 million over budget because the consulting firm hadn't included state sales tax on construction, and also because of unanticipated inflation and rising materials costs.

In an instant, council members watched their dream project collapse. No more climbing wall, jogging track, third gym bay, arts classrooms or large community wing. The total building size would have to be reduced, the senior lounge and another room would have to be combined, and the contractors would have to use less expensive materials.

Councilman Mike Park called the oversights an outrage, Councilman Jim Ferrell agreed, and Dovey wondered if the project should proceed at all.

In response, Barker Rinker Seacat created an alternate design for a smaller base facility and broke out the key amenities as items that could be bid separately if the city had the money. That way, if bids came in lower than expected, the council could decide what to throw back into the project. With less expensive materials throughout, the building could still come in on budget.

It was a serious disappointment. Council members noted the alternates were the key items they were looking for. Without them, the city wouldn't be able to offer the sports tournaments, wedding receptions and climbing wall that led them to pursue the community center to begin with.

A lesser blow came a few weeks later, when council members learned parks and recreation officials and the consultants had decided to install a solid wall to separate the third gym bay from the other two. "We had no way to decide if that was an appropriate thing to do," McColgan said, frustrated the council wasn't in the loop. Dovey wondered why the "ones writing the check" weren't informed.

Council members' fuses were short. They authorized the consultants to move forward to the 85 percent design phase, but testily warned they were getting tired of unexpected news.

Clouds begin to clear

There was another surprise later that month, but one that might have been mitigated by the community.

City officials discovered the city would have to pay about $274,000 for the center's pro rata share of transportation impacts. The costs weren't part of the original budget, but they fit within the $21 million budget cap.

At a November 2004 council meeting, several citizens offered encouragement. Kathy Franklin urged keeping the "much beleaguered, quickly shrinking" center on the front burner. Mike Anderson said the members of the Community Center Advisory Group, on which he served, worked hard to create a balanced center the city needed. "We want to see a total quality facility. Don't take shortcuts. Work through the budget issues," he said.

By last January, the clouds began to clear.

C.T. Purdom, the former chairman of the advisory group, said all the components as originally agreed upon should remain part of the project. "It really makes the package," he said.

Barker Rinker Seacat, along with a newly hired construction management firm, Vanir, announced $500,000 in cost savings that could be applied to the alternates, depending on how bids came in. Things were looking up.

On time and on budget, albeit without the preferred amenities, the council authorized the parks department to begin collecting bids to build the center. When officials opened the sealed bids, they were nearly stupefied.

The lowest bid, offered by Absher Construction, came in a full $350,000 under the construction budget. What's more, Absher's bid included all four alternates. For less than the cost of the base facility, the city could have the base and the third gym bay, the larger community wing, the climbing wall and the jogging track.

With all the ups and downs, the project has come full circle. After an intense ride, construction is expected to begin this summer.

"I'm pretty excited about being able to build the community center the way it was originally designed," McColgan said.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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