Riegel: Saga of a star-crossed downtown library project

Sometimes, fate just has it out for someone or—in the case of the downtown branch library—something.

Multiple times over the past dozen years the stars have crossed to thwart this project. Most recently they’ve collided, as if by cosmic design, to cause what is arguably the most serious setback yet to the long-sought library: A structural failure that threatens the integrity of the building’s shiny, signature cantilever overlooking North Boulevard Town Square.

No one in Baton Rouge architectural or engineering circles can remember such a thing ever happening around here before. And for now—as four hydraulic jacks support the questionable cantilever, making the construction site resemble an industrial art installation—there’s a lot of speculation about who or what is responsible for the failure, which appears to stem from a faulty weld on a support beam.

But one thing is certain: If any building in Baton Rouge was going to experience a major structural failure it was bound to be the downtown library.

There’s no reasonable explanation for why such a good project has experienced such bad luck, but the problems date back to the mid-2000s, when the idea was first conceived to replace the aging main library at Goodwood with a new one downtown. Though voters overwhelmingly approved a tax to enable construction of the new library, as well as other facilities within the system, the concept of putting the main library downtown was met with howls of protest from suburbanites who harbored a certain fear and loathing of downtown, where they might have trouble parking or, worse, encounter homeless people.

Ultimately, after years of bruising battles before the Library Board and Metro Council, a compromise was struck to build a new main library at Goodwood and also a new library downtown to replace the outdated River Center branch.

But the saga was far from over. In 2011, a dispute erupted among the architects vying for the job, after two firms in the running shared information with the city-parish selection committee suggesting the front runner firm had plagiarized his design. Ultimately, all three firms were cut from consideration and the committee chose a team comprising local firm WHLC and Boston-based Schwartz/Silver Architects, both of which are probably wishing now they hadn’t been so lucky.

There’s no reasonable explanation for why such a good project has experienced such bad luck.

In the years since, even as things moved forward, controversy continued to roil the project, which became a poster child for the never-ending battle over city-parish funding between the suburbs and the city.  As recently as 2016, Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso tried to kill the library, which he described at the time as “fiscal insanity.” Though unsuccessful, the effort reflected the hostility a certain segment of this community will always harbor for the project.

The latest indignity occurred in late April, when contractors discovered two welded joints on a critical support beam had separated, forcing an evacuation of the construction site and a shutdown of nearby streets. Over the next few days, it emerged that the problem was “really, really serious,” to quote several local architects and engineers, who generally shy away from hyperbole unless warranted.

There still isn’t a lot of clarity surrounding the situation. The contractor, Buquet & Leblanc, engineering firm SCA, and architect WHLC have all refused to comment. The library board has also clammed up, deferring all comment to the city-parish. The mayor’s office has taken the lead on communications but it’s getting its information directly from WHLC, also the project manager, and the firm seems intent on doling out information on what appears to be a need-to-know basis.

While rumors abound in this gossipy big small town about who’s to blame for the fiasco, several experts familiar with commercial construction disputes say it’s important to remember several things.

First, it’s too early and there are too many players involved to start pointing fingers. Among those involved in the construction are the architect, engineer, steel supplier, steel fabricator, welder, testing agency, general contractor, subcontractors and materials vendors. Any one of those parties or combination of them could have played a role in causing the problem. Chances are more than one did.

Second, it will take a long time to determine culpability because each of the aforementioned parties is insured and has attorneys, who will do their own discovery and produce their own expert witnesses to demonstrate their clients didn’t do anything wrong. The claims resolution process is typically measured in years, not months. Get the popcorn and sit back: this one’s going to be epic.

Third, when you get into the weeds in these kinds of cases it can be difficult to determine what “anything wrong” really means. With a nebulous concept like a building design, different professionals see it in different ways. It’s a gray area and it’s very difficult to prove professional negligence.

Which is why, fourth, though Buquet & Leblanc has already sent a letter to the city-parish positing that faulty design by architect WHLC is to blame, it is premature for the firm—or anybody for that matter—to make such assertions.

Finally, though there are questions about how much exposure the city-parish may have, chances are taxpayers won’t be left holding the bag. At the end of the day, major construction and engineering firms typically have adequate insurance policies to cover such contingencies.

Then again, if something can go wrong with the downtown library project it will. However this thing ultimately settles out, history suggests the outcome won’t be good. 

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