County may seek legal damages for O’Donnell panels

    Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is recommending a $5.4 million plan to remove the decorative façade panels from the O’Donnell Park parking structure and make repairs and improvements to the facility that will “make sure it is 100-percent safe and stands the test of time.”

    In the meantime, the county is considering taking legal action to recover the costs of replacing the panels that were incorrectly installed, Walker said.

    Some have called for the demolition of the O’Donnell Park structure, saying its location near the lakefront is prime real estate that could attract a major development and would put the site back on the property tax rolls.
    However, Walker said he wants to maintain the parking structure because it provides needed parking spaces for downtown Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Art Museum and lakefront parks.

    A 13-ton panel fell off the façade of the parking structure, located near the downtown Milwaukee lakefront, on June 24, killing 15-year-old boy Jared Kellner and injuring two others.

    Milwaukee County hired Milwaukee-based Inspec Inc. to evaluate the condition of the façade of the parking structure. Inspec hired Skokie, Ill.-based CTLGroup to assist with the testing and forensic evaluation of the structure.

    The Inspec and CTLGroup report, released this week, indicates that nearly all of the 70 decorative panels installed on the parking structure’s façade, when the structure was built in the early 1990s, were installed incorrectly. The report also says that about one third of the panels are potentially in a state of failure, and could fall off, just like the panel that fell off in June.

    The panels were supposed to be installed with four connections, but a two-pin connection system was used instead, according to the report. In addition, Walker said the design for the parking structure called for the pins to be installed in the wall and the panels to be attached to the wall with a hole in the panel for the pin. Instead, almost all of the pins were installed by drilling a hole through the panel. The installation was done inconsistently with some pins longer than others, some holes deeper than others and some of the pins did not even penetrate the wall, Walker said. The installation also resulted in cracks in some of the walls.

    “We believe this report affirms a concern we had all along that these panels were not installed according to design,” Walker said.

    The county has “no evidence” that there were any change orders that were made or approved for a different installation method for the panels, Walker said.

    Madison-based J.H. Findorff & Son Inc. was the construction manager for the O’Donnell Park parking structure project. The decorative panels were installed by Random Lake-based Advance Cast Stone Co., county officials said.

    Executives for Advance Cast Stone did not return a phone call seeking comment.

    Walker said legal action seeking damages for the incorrect panel installation is an option that county officials will consider. The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office is also conducting an investigation of the panel collapse and will decide if any criminal charges should be filed related to the death and injuries from the panel that fell off, Walker said.

    “Certainly there’s a compelling case that there is fault here,” he said.

    The parking structure has been closed since the panel fell in June. Inspec provided a list of seven options to country officials for the future of the structure. Walker’s $5.4 million recommendation to remove the panels and repair the structure is one of the seven options. Removing the panels permanently is critical to make the public confident that the structure is safe, he said.

    “We can’t risk having these panels remain on because they were not installed correctly,” Walker said. “We can show we can fix (the structure). We want to make sure this structure, as long as it stands, is completely safe.”
    One of the least expensive alternatives presented by Inspec is to tear down the entire O’Donnell Park structure, including the removal of a pedestrian bridge to the county’s transit building and adjustment to access to the Milwaukee Art Museum. That would cost $3.9 million. However, it would eliminate the O’Donnell parking structure’s annual revenue source to the county of about $1.1 million net, Walker said.

    Another option presented by Inspec is to demolish the parking structure but leave the O’Donnell Park pavilion in place, adjust access to the art museum and redevelop the site as a park. That would cost about $6 million.
    Other options presented by Inspec include: removing the panels, modifying them and reinstalling them ($6.4 million); removing the panels and replacing them with new panels ($8.4 million); repairing the panels in place ($3 million); and removing the lower planes and repairing the plaza level panels ($4.5 million).

    The option for the O’Donnell Park parking structure that the county chooses will be selected through the county budget process.

    Walker’s recommendation will be part of his 2011 budget recommendation, which he will present to the County Board on Sept. 30. The board is expected to adopt its own budget on Nov. 8. Then on Nov. 17, the board will review and vote on overriding any of Walker’s vetoes of the board’s budget.

    Any funds that the county receives from litigation could be used to help pay for improvements to the property.
    Walker said the improvements that he is recommending could be completed by next summer.

    “You should have a fully transformed parking structure (then),” he said.

    Andrew Weiland is the managing editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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