West-side project runs into a delay

Move to fire subcontractor stops Centerpoint work

Work on facades may be reason

September 25, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Centerpoint has hit a snag.

Barely three months after Bank of America held a celebratory groundbreaking event, work is at a standstill on the $70 million retail and residential project, widely viewed as key to reviving downtown's long-struggling west side.

The bank is moving to dismiss a subcontractor whose workers may have removed too much material from the facades of buildings that are to be restored and incorporated into the 394-unit complex, say people familiar with the project.

Neither the bank nor the Virginia subcontractor, Southern Environmental Companies (SECO), is offering details, on orders from their lawyers. But people following the project say the dispute stems from damage to buildings at the site, which occupies nearly the entire block between Eutaw, Howard, Fayette and Baltimore streets.

"They got a little too zealous on a significant historic property," said one observer. "They went too far in pulling what they may have mistaken as extraneous cover for the facade. It sounds like there was inadequate supervisory control."

The damage is not likely to jeopardize at least $6 million in state and federal historic preservation tax credits, said Ray Goodrow, who administers the program at the Maryland Historical Trust. "At this point, we don't have any reason to believe this is a major deal," he said.

Still, the glitch is a setback to the bank, which has endured doubts about whether the project would ever happen. Those doubts were reinforced when the bank missed its targeted start date of October 2001 by eight months.

Usually eager to talk about Centerpoint, bank officials are more reticent now.

"What happened should not have happened," said spokeswoman Terri Bolling, who would not elaborate.

Maria Miller, the senior vice president in charge of the project, confirmed that the bank is replacing SECO but would not say why, citing legal negotiations. She said Centerpoint remains on schedule and that the bank hopes to hire a successor soon.

"I'd say within two weeks we'll be back on the site working, continuing with the abatement," Miller said. In addition, steel has been ordered for a 17-story tower to be built at the corner of Howard and Fayette streets.

The two general contractors are Turner Construction Co. and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc.

Pauline Ewald, president of SECO, declined to comment "on the instruction of my attorney."

In June, Ewald moved into a log cabin replica that had been hauled to the Centerpoint lot in the 300 block of W. Baltimore St. to supervise the round-the-clock work of removing lead paint, asbestos and pigeon droppings from eight old buildings her company was hired to do. Some of that work involved demolition.

Ewald planned to live in the cabin for up to 10 months, but by last week she was back home in Virginia. "We're not doing anything currently," she said.

For more than a week, the Centerpoint site - which the city spent $23 million to buy for the bank - has been a ghost town.

The inactivity contrasts markedly with the buzz of activity across Eutaw Street, where dozens of construction workers are transforming the Hippodrome Theater into a showcase for Broadway shows. Steel has risen for a new lobby area in the 88-year-old theater.

The Hippodrome and most of Centerpoint are supposed to be finished in early 2004.

"It's never a good thing when you have to let a subcontractor go," said Sharon R. Grinnell, west side coordinator at Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. "But they had a problem. They had to deal with it. They did deal with it. They are regrouping and are going to move forward." Others played down the significance of the delay.

"People get fired from jobs, contractors get fired from jobs," said Robert M. Aydukovic, who heads the Downtown Housing Council, part of the Downtown Partnership business group. "Stupid stuff happens. It's really not insurmountable unless the damage was so bad it can't be replicated."

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