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Downtown Baton Rouge library dispute headed to mediation

The city-parish and the architect, contractor and numerous subcontractors involved in the construction of the partially built downtown library—which has been on hold since mid-April, when a structural problem with its signature cantilever was discovered—have agreed to go to mediation in an attempt to negotiate a settlement over how to divide up the cost of the estimated $2 million repair bill.

Parish Attorney LeAnne Batson confirms the mediation hearing is scheduled for Nov. 2. She declines to provide additional details.

The development is a potentially positive sign in the six-month saga of the nearly $20 million downtown library, which is currently being supported by four, huge hydraulic jacks. Sources say the fact that all the parties involved in the project have agreed to sit down together—and potentially each shoulder some of the cost of the repair and overruns that have resulted from it—suggests there could be a positive resolution by the end of the year.

But mediation, unlike arbitration, is not binding and if the various firms cannot agree on who should pay what, the next step for the city-parish will likely be litigation, which could drag on for years and keep the project from completion indefinitely.

The downtown library, which broke ground in early 2017, was originally supposed to be open by now. But on April 19, construction was halted, after a faulty weld that had caused a shift in the cantilever that overlooks North Boulevard was discovered.

Sources familiar with the situation say the problem has been identified as a failure in the joint of one of the iron I-beams that is critical to the integrity of the ambitious structure. But the parties do not yet agree on how to divide up the repair costs because there are lingering questions over whether the problem stems from the fact that the I-beams were not designed properly, welded correctly or adequately tested.

An experienced construction mediator will try to answer those questions, according to sources, who declined to identify the mediator. The hearing, as is customary, will not be open to the public, though where it is held is sure to draw attention, as it will involve the use of as many as a dozen separate offices or conference rooms, one each for the participating parties, their executives or representatives and legal teams.

If the mediation fails, sources say the city-parish will have no recourse other than to sue either its architect/project manager, WHLC Architecture, its contractor, Buquet and Leblanc, or both. Construction could resume during what would doubtless by a years-long court battle, but only if the city or library board fronts the money to pay for the repairs.

Library Board Executive Director Spencer Watts says the library board at this point has no plans to pay for any of the repairs or cost overruns and is hopeful it won’t come to that.

“Hopefully, the mediation will bring a resolution as quickly as possible,” he says.

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