- Joe Capozzi Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When players and staff for the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals first arrived at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in February, they were asked to be patient: Their new $152 million shared spring training complex in West Palm Beach wasn’t quite finished.
What they may not have known was that a lot of the work hadn’t been done properly, the result of corners cut by work crews under extraordinary pressure to open on time, a Palm Beach Post review of internal emails, city inspection records and court documents found.
Although players and staff never complained, at least not publicly, the shoddy work forced them to deal with a roster of minor inconveniences: Large buckets strategically placed in the Astros clubhouse to collect water leaking from the newly installed roof and windows, pooling water from an improperly sloped shower, and ripples in the Astro Turf floor in the batting cages, to name a few.
In December, about two months before the first game, both teams briefly considered delaying the ballpark’s opening until 2018 after West Palm Beach building inspectors flagged the concrete stadium seating bowl for failing to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act specifications.
The ballpark wound up opening on time, with few, if any, visible signs of the hectic behind-the-scenes struggle to make that happen. And after more than 140,000 fans, many visiting from Houston and Washington, watched the ballpark’s Grapefruit League games, the teams went on to have successful seasons — the Astros won the World Series and the Nationals won a division title.
But with star players Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper and their teammates scheduled to return in three months, the ballpark still isn’t finished. And the county and teams are losing patience as the lead general contractor, a joint venture led by Hunt Construction Group, scrambles to finish nearly $12 million in work.
That work includes repairs and remediation on 23 so-called “non-conformance” items that were done incorrectly or not according to the architect’s plans — from plugging roof leaks and replacing windows and drywall to fixing uneven floors and repainting areas that are rusting and flaking because the original application did not include primer.
At the same time, Hunt is fighting with the teams and many of its 35 subcontractors, some of them in court, over billing issues and delays that, according to Hunt, prompted some workers to walk off the job.
Now, it might be January before the city issues a final certificate of occupancy after having granted the teams a twice-extended temporary permit.
Get it done
To speed up completion, the Astros and Nationals in October started doing some work on their own, without using Hunt — from ceiling work in the Nationals’ executive offices to elevator finishes and repairs to the playing fields.
“We expected Hunt to be entirely completed with this project by now. You are not. Complete the project as contracted for. We have incurred enormous costs as a direct result,” Marc Taylor, the project manager for the teams, told Hunt in a Sept. 15 letter about a payment dispute.
In its reply, Hunt accused the teams of “placing the project in serious jeopardy with the subcontractors” by delaying payments. The dispute is one of several that have dogged the project and created tension among the teams, the contractor and, at times, the county.
Hunt responded to questions with a short statement, issued to The Post through a public relations firm: “While the facility is already fully in use, the Hunt Straticon Messam Cooper joint venture has been meeting with the owners and is continuing to work with them to come to an agreement as quickly as possible on outstanding items.”
The teams certainly hope so.
“We expected some problems,” said Giles Kibbe, an Astros lawyer who has helped shepherd the project since its earliest days. “We had more than we expected, but we thought surely by now all of this would have been done and everyone would have been paid and we would all go our separate ways.”
Schedule ‘too tight’
Problems and delays are not uncommon in massive public projects involving dozens of subcontractors. That was the case with the county’s $672 million waste-to-energy plant in 2015, the $127 million courthouse in 1995 and the $63 million Palm Beach International Airport terminal expansion in 1988.
At the ballpark, the pressure was on before work even started because of a protracted, politically charged site selection process that dragged into the spring of 2015. By then, the teams had decided to leave their previous spring homes after the 2016 Grapefruit League season.
That meant they needed to have a new home by February 2017 or face potentially expensive negotiations to extend their leases.
A three-person committee made up of representatives for the teams and the county chose Hunt to build the ballpark because of the company’s track record with other stadiums, including Marlins Park in Miami and the Chicago Cubs spring training complex in Arizona.
“This is the company that is going to make it happen. This is the horse we are riding into the sunset,” Arthur Fuccillo, a Nationals partner, said after the committee picked Hunt on March 30, 2015.
The county agreed to dole out $113 million in tourist-tax revenue to help finance construction over many years, along with a $50 million contribution from the state. The teams picked up the rest.
But work crews were under enormous pressure to start and complete the project in just 15 months.
“It was too tight,” said County Administrator Verdenia Baker, whose staff voiced concern about the construction schedule before work started in November 2015.
“If you recall some of the discussion we had, our staff said, ‘This is a really, really tight time frame you are trying to complete this project in,’ and therein lie the problems.”
And there were problems from the get-go because of the facility’s location — an abandoned landfill on 160 acres south of 45th Street and west of Interstate 95. Clearing the buried trash and debris and then preparing the land for construction took longer than expected, leaving about eight months to build the stadium and clubhouses.
Playing out in court
Mistakes were made in the ensuing scramble, which included 20-hour work shifts over the final four months.
“During the course of this construction project, we have experienced significant issues with work that was not constructed in accordance with architectural plans and specifications. Most of those items have been corrected but many have not,” HW Spring Training Complex, the entity representing the Astros and Nationals, said in a statement Monday to the County Commission.
Along the way, Hunt was slow to process payments, the teams said, prompting complaints from many subcontractors, consultants and suppliers.
At least 10 lawsuits were filed against Hunt. Five have been withdrawn but one of the pending suits includes a complaint by Davco Electrical of Boynton Beach seeking $7 million in unpaid work from a $10.2 million contract with Hunt.
“Hunt’s failure to properly manage other subcontractors caused the project to fall significantly behind schedule,” according to a lawsuit Davco filed June 15. Davco claims it was forced to start its work “months after its original start date. As a result, Hunt ordered Davco to work significant overtime and additional shift work on the project to perform the work on an accelerated schedule.”
Davco also accused Hunt of making the company “perform out of sequence work, knowing that subsequent work by other trades would cause damage to Davco’s work, which resulted in Davco needing to duplicate previous efforts.”
Hunt, in a response filed in October, denied the allegations. The company also accused Davco of using “unlicensed temporary agents and/or employees” and submitting payment invoices with inflated charges.
Davco representatives did not return messages seeking comment.
Redoing concrete steps
Hunt filed one lawsuit against its window subcontractor, A Christian Glass & Mirror of Delray Beach, accusing the company of shoddy work. A Christian Glass and a lawyer representing the company did not return messages seeking comment.
A consultant hired by Hunt to review the glass work found 11 deficiencies, including glass and frames that didn’t fit and pinholes in sealants. Hunt said it had to fire A Christian Glass and hire a new company to install the windows. The work is almost finished.
Other problems at the complex were flagged by city inspectors, including stair risers on several aisles along the first base side of the stadium’s concrete seating bowl that were either too steep or too narrow.
“They did not meet ADA requirements,” said Rick Greene, the city’s development services director. “We identified certain areas in the stadium where they actually had to saw-cut and basically cut out the steps and re-pour them to make sure they met the proper grade.”
Roof leaks, many caused by sharp objects and debris, are still being fixed. During a heavy rainstorm one day in April or May, the Astros clubhouse took in water from above and below: A faulty connection in a drainage pipe sent gallons of storm water gushing out of the floor drains, forcing the Astros to replace the carpet.
Who’s to blame?
Invoices from subcontractors received intense scrutiny from Hunt and the teams. But both sides accused each other of delaying the payment process, and many subcontractors complained about being caught in the middle.
In a letter to HW Spring Training on Sept. 15, Hunt summarized some of the consequences of what it claimed were the “significant modifications” made by the teams to payment invoices. Since some subs hadn’t been paid for work performed more than five months ago, they have either left the job site or taken legal action against Hunt, a vice president of the joint venture wrote.
“This has made completing the project difficult, at best,” wrote Doug Utt. “In fact, Hunt has had to advance more than $2 million in payments to subcontractors and suppliers to date to keep the project afloat and deter further litigation.”
The teams previously told The Post they blame Hunt. “The continued failures of HSMC to provide correct, timely and completed pay applications has plagued this job from the very beginning,” Taylor wrote to Utt on May 1.
After the Astros won the World Series on Nov. 1, some frustrated subcontractors reached out to The Post to complain that they still hadn’t been paid for work done nearly a year ago.
Astros officials took issue with the comments, saying the team can’t directly pay the subs because the teams have no contractual relationships with them. The subs work under contracts with Hunt.
In its letter to the county written in response to The Post’s story, the teams said they are obligated to scrutinize all payment applications to make sure tax dollars are not spent on substandard work.
“We take our obligations to the county very seriously and we are comfortable in how we have managed those responsibilities,” the teams said.
“Although this has been a difficult project … Palm Beach County will be very proud of the work product and will also be proud to be home of the best spring training complex in the state of Florida.”
County staff has been encouraging Hunt and the teams to work out their differences.
“We’d like to get it cleaned up once and for all and finalize things and move on,” Baker said, “because we are about to roll into new spring training season and this is the last cloud you want over your head.”