If you want to understand how the District amassed a $700-million-plus deficit, you could spend years studying Medicaid policy, accounting practices, and civil service regulations. Or you could trek over to 5th Street and Indiana Avenue NW and peek into the D.C. Superior Court’s new, vacant annex, a case study in D.C. government incompetence.
The sorry history of the annex begins back in 1992, when D.C.’s Department of Public Works (DPW) awarded a $1-million contract to D.H. Kim Enterprises, an Annandale-based construction company. D.H. Kim was hired to erect a three-story, 7,000-square-foot addition on the east wing of the Superior Court building.The space would house the Multi-Door Alternative Dispute Resolution Division, a program that tries to reduce the court’s backlog of civil suits through mediation and arbitration. The Multi-Door division is now scattered on the first and fourth floors of the courthouse.
Today, three years and more than $400,000 in cost overruns later, the annex remains unoccupied, a hostage to building and fire-code violations, and a victim of DPW’s ineptitude.
“This is the last job I will ever do for the D.C. government,” says Jim Anglemyer, D.H. Kim’s senior vice president. “I’d rather be horsewhipped.”
DPW’s Design, Engineering, and Construction Administration (DECA), which supervises D.C. government construction, mismanaged the project from the start, Anglemyer says. He documents 57 “change orders”—alterations submitted by DPW to its original plans—that jacked up the contracting outlay by 50 percent. Nearly all of the changes, Anglemyer says, resulted from the “sheer stupidity” of the city’s planners.
Anglemyer’s list chronicles snafus at every phase of construction. DPW demanded a last-minute overhaul of the office layout. That added $50,000 to the price tag. The agency requested “miscellaneous” interior changes: That meant $78,000 more. Other DPW change orders hiked the bill by almost $100,000.
But DPW was just starting to waste city money. In April and July of last year—as the project neared completion—the D.C. fire marshal inspected the facility and flagged more than a dozen code violations. The violations, which DPW’s planners hadn’t noticed before giving their blueprints to the contractor, included not only easily corrected glitches like fire-alarm placements, but also costly, structural problems such as faulty sprinklers. DPW revised the plans again—another six-month delay. D.H. Kim finally started to correct the violations this spring and is expected to finish in August. Total cost to D.C. taxpayers: $130,000.
While D.H. Kim was waiting for DPW’s revised plans, city officials were bungling again. Demonstrating ignorance of a principle mastered by even the dumbest homeowner, the building managers turned off the heat in the empty space. Winter came, and a pipe froze and burst. The flood drenched the first floor, destroyed the carpet, and ruined oak doors and door frames. Tack on another $35,000.
DPW refused to comment on the annex. After 13 phone calls and three faxes, the agency referred questions about the project to the court’s administrative office.Margaret Summers, a spokeswoman for the court, also wouldn’t discuss the construction delays and overruns. Summers says only that the Multi-Door program will move into the space in late August.
Anglemyer doubts it, noting that the elevator-shaft crawl space—built to DPW’s specs, of course—falls 2 feet short of D.C. building code requirements. (This is no frivolous regulation: The crawl space requirement protects repair workers who risk getting pancaked by rogue elevator cars.)
But if the project does eventually clear its regulatory hurdles, Multi-Door employees probably won’t be clamoring to move in, at least not into the second and third floors. The city’s planners have done it again: The first-floor ceilings are 10 feet high. Those on the top two floors offer a claustrophobic 7-foot clearance.