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Significant failure outlined, costs expected to increase at downtown library project

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BATON ROUGE – A significant failure at the downtown library project was blamed on structural design and could increase the cost of the project and the timeline for when – or if – the River Center branch will open.

An initial analysis by contractors blaming designers for a “simultaneous rupture” of key supports of a cantilevered section of the building under construction near City Hall was obtained by the WBRZ Investigative Unit through a public records request. WBRZ filed the records request earlier this week and the documents were made available late Thursday morning.

The records request was made after repeated attempts to get information from designers, contractors and city officials for specific information about the ongoing issues plaguing the construction of the $14.5 million library in downtown have been blocked. Buquet & Leblanc, the contractor, and WHLC Architecture have refused to provide information and, according to records obtained by WBRZ, city officials wanted to “simplify” any public release of information and planned to “channel” messaging related to the library issue through the mayor's office and Mayor Sharon Weston Broome's public relations team.

“Construction terms can get complicated and so I want to make sure we have accurate news in simple terms,” a city government architect, Jim Frey, wrote in an email Friday.

WBRZ requested correspondence from city officials regarding the library over the last two weeks.

But contractor Buquet & Leblanc has been concerned. The company's president wrote earlier this week the failure at the library site “raised immediate concerns regarding life safety.”

On Wednesday, April 18, trusses failed, causing a crack down part of the library. Businesses were evacuated surrounding the construction site over fears of a possible collapse. Roads have been closed in the area as a precaution.

The mayor's office has said an independent review of the structural designs is being conducted and a preliminary report is expected to be complete Friday. WHLC Architecture is paying for the emergency review.

While the situation is analyzed and a plan is formulated to move forward, contractor Buquet & Leblanc warned the work stoppage will result in additional costs and a delayed completion.

Company President Robin B. Liles wrote to the city Monday, the company intended “to make a claim for additional compensation… and to seek an extension of the contract completion date.”

Estimates about how much more construction could cost could not be made, Liles wrote. Additionally, the “duration of the suspension/delay is currently unknown,” he reported.

Liles also asked for “evidence” related to the failure be preserved: “We also request that you and your consultants preserve all evidence related to your investigations and analyses.”

Under Louisiana law, emails to and from government emails are public record. Documents shared internally between the architecture firm and the contractor are not, however. But, once sent to a public email address, the information is considered public and must be protected and released when requested.

Neither the contractor nor the architect have responded to requests by the WBRZ Investigative Unit this week.

The library construction project has been contentious from the beginning. City leaders, library executives and taxpayers have argued against each other over the plan for the project – budgeted at about $19 million. Before the snafu this month, Buquet & Leblanc estimated it could build the library for about $14.5 million - $500,000 under what its next closest competitor bid.

     > CLICK HERE to read the letter

     > CLICK HERE to read a note from engineers conducting research on what happened and see a drawing of the truss failure area 

After WBRZ.com posted its investigation early Thursday, the mayor's office responded with a statement.  

"At this time, we cannot speculate as to the cause of the failure or the costs or time delays that could be incurred. Once we have the opportunity to review the design team’s report [Friday] afternoon, we will provide an update on the situation. Any deficiencies or issues would fall on the parties responsible as defined by their contracts."   

"...The City-Parish does not take ownership of the building until it is completed and accepted. Our role at this time is to ensure public safety and to protect the taxpayers’ investments."

Construction started at the downtown branch a few years after a new $32 million main library facility opened about six miles away.

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Follow the publisher of this post on Twitter: @treyschmaltz

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