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City puts brakes on Streetscape

A round of ‘value engineering’ will compare projections to costs elsewhere.

Plenty of projects are spurring work at City Hall, but the $20.6 million Winslow Way Streetscape is in the driver’s seat.

On Monday, amid concerns by some that spending has veered out of control, and nearing the project’s next big crossroads – the city must approve the next phase of work by April 1 to remain on schedule for a spring 2009 groundbreaking – planners said they’re willing to put the brakes on the Streetscape.

“There’s at least one thing in there that everyone hates,” Public Works Director Randy Witt told the Public Works and Transportation Committee.

The goal now, Witt said, is to “let go” of the Streetscape’s current iteration and “really find a project that is a majority yes.”

That doesn’t mean a wholesale scrapping of the work to this point. Instead, the project likely will receive scrutiny from an outsider, in the form of value engineering and peer review aimed at verifying its estimated costs.

Along with a scope of work for such a review that with council approval would enable the city to seek a contract, planners on Feb. 13 will present a detailed accounting of the work done to date on the project. They also will evaluate whether Seattle firm Heery International has thus far delivered what the city asked for when the Streetscape was launched last spring.

The hope, planners said, is that a third-party evaluation of the designs will give council members and the community more confidence in the project going forward.

Some councilors – in particular Kim Brackett, who managed capital projects with Sound Transit – have been pushing for value engineering.

Once a firm is selected and a contract approved to do the review, different elements of the project would be compared with like elements elsewhere.

For example, reviewers would compare the costs of planned natural drainage features in the Streetscape to the cost of natural drainage features in other projects, rather than more traditional drainage features, which planners already know would be cheaper.

Doing so would help determine whether to retain prominent design elements or materials, or to seek alternatives that are less expensive or better fit the project.

Determining which of those elements are actually desirable to a majority of the community is a different problem. Many have expressed concern that the design is too expensive and ambitious, and would damage the existing character of downtown.

Still, committee members on Monday agreed it makes more sense to begin next phase of work with financing – rather than design elements – at the forefront.

Project Manager Chris Wierzbicki said the outside review would cost between $20,000 and $30,000, and could be finished by mid-March.

That money would be the first spent of the $1.6 million budgeted for the Streetscape in 2008.

Deadlines

If the review satisfies the council, it could lead to the approval of another contract with Heery to move work ahead.

That approval needs to come by April 1, Wierzbicki said, or else groundbreaking for the project would likely be pushed back by one year, to spring 2010. A shorter delay isn’t possible because the city has to begin work in the spring to take full advantage of the drier weather.

Other deadlines remain on the table.

In particular, the city would like to seek low interest Public Works trust fund loans from the state, a large quantity of which will soon be available; applications are due by the end of March.

The city so far has received $800,000 in grant funding for the project, which to this point has cost $1.1 million, according to figures presented by planners Monday.

Motor vehicle excise tax funds – cities have the authority to collect $20 per registered vehicle in the city per year – could be tapped as well.

The initial funding plan called for a rough split between councilmanic bonds and utility user fees.

Both still will be part of the final equation, but the exact mixture – including the amount to be extracted from a Local Improvement District – won’t be decided until later.

Six of seven council members were on hand for Monday’s discussion, along with an unusually large crowd for a committee meeting.

“I have great respect for (the design team),” Councilman Chris Snow said. “I also respect the public’s concerns. We need to be certain these numbers are real and haven’t been overvalued.”

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