Dirty Pool

As the Bayview waits for a rebuilt MLK pool, the project, a stated mayoral priority, keeps gobbling money and time--making it the prototypical city contracting fiasco.

As the chill of summer descended upon San Francisco, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works swore that the new Martin Luther King pool would open on July 22, in time for the children of Bayview-Hunters Point to enjoy indoor swimming before going back to school. It came as no surprise to many people in the community when the big day dawned as just another pool-less day, in a pool-less year, in what has shaped up to be a pool-less 21st century on Third Street.

As it now stands, the new MLK pool, originally estimated to take one year to complete, is about one year behind schedule. It's way over budget, too -- about $1.5 million over -- and laced with needlessly expensive items, among them exorbitantly expensive brass plumbing fixtures (much cheaper plastic fixtures are preferred for many reasons) and sophisticated computer scheduling software for the project that has never met a schedule it didn't want to violate.

But the MLK pool is noteworthy for reasons beyond wasted time and money. The project's significance involves the manifold ways it has gone wrong despite its status as a top priority of Mayor Willie Brown.

Eight million pounds of concrete enclose the swimming pool.
Paul Trapani
Eight million pounds of concrete enclose the swimming pool.
Eight million pounds of concrete enclose the swimming pool.
Paul Trapani
Eight million pounds of concrete enclose the swimming pool.
Eight million pounds of concrete enclose the swimming pool.
Paul Trapani
Eight million pounds of concrete enclose the swimming pool.
Eight million pounds of concrete enclose the swimming pool.
Paul Trapani
Eight million pounds of concrete enclose the swimming pool.
City officials decline to say when the new pool will open.
Paul Trapani
City officials decline to say when the new pool will open.

Brown made construction of the MLK pool a focus after he assumed office in 1996, loudly promising to quickly deliver a major public works plum to the area, which has very few recreational facilities. The pool, after all, was meant to serve a largely African-American neighborhood that has long supported Brown. "This pool has been one of the great features of our city," Brown said in 1998, at a ceremony kicking off the reconstruction of the pool, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. "That this pool was allowed to go into total disrepair is a great tragedy for the city."

The mayor's interest notwithstanding, the pool project has become, in the world of local government, a legendary fiasco.

The MLK pool was in trouble from the start. The city's Public Works Department awarded the job to a contractor who was running a year late on another city project. City officials allowed the contractor to give a subcontract to a company owned by his wife, in what appears to be a violation of the city's affirmative action contracting rules. The wife, in turn, paid a larger firm to do the actual work, apparently violating another set of regulations. The cost of concrete ballooned by hundreds of thousands of dollars before the concrete subcontractor, who just happened to be working out of the offices of a politically connected business consultant from the Bayview, disappeared. Serious questions have been raised about the quality (and safety) of the work. The city architect on the job has quit. City officials blame the prime contractor on the project for the cost overruns and delay, but have declined to fire him. The contractor, in turn, blames his subcontractors. Neighborhood activists blame the mayor. In a strange twist, the mayor apparently authorized the hiring of a dentist with little apparent public relations expertise -- at a cost of $100,000 -- to polish the image of the pool project.

Putting a public relations shine on a boondoggle is not as odd a response as one might think in the world of San Francisco contracting. In that world, even a mayor's top-priority, fast-track projects must struggle against, and often lose out to, a long-standing culture of incompetence, wastefulness, apparent impropriety, and utter unaccountability.

Tragic events are woven into the history of the King pool.

In 1968, producers of the Steve McQueen classic Bullitt -- remember the famous car chase through the hills of San Francisco? -- donated money to build a community swimming pool on Third Street, in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. It was named in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had just been assassinated.

In 1974, two boys drowned in an after-hours swim at the pool. Actor/philanthropist Raymond Burr -- whose television series Ironside was made in San Francisco -- responded by giving money to the Department of Recreation and Park to enclose the pool.

As the years wore on, though, the city neglected to maintain the facility. Mold, algae, and rust blossomed in the showers and locker rooms. In 1996, the roof fell in, and the pool closed. Willie Brown hired Harry L. Overstreet, of Gerson/Overstreet architects, to study the feasibility of repairing the pool. Overstreet decided that it should be torn down and replaced. During a campaign to convince the voters to build a stadium-mall for the 49ers football team, Mayor Brown promised to spend $8.2 million on a new pool. Brown assigned the design contract to Overstreet after declaring the pool situation an "emergency," a move that suspended a requirement that architectural firms compete for the design job.

A neighborhood committee, composed mostly of elderly women, was formed to advise the city. The committee insisted that the pool be of Olympic size, so it could support both swimming competitions and recreational use. Hopes were high that the pool would open in the summer of 1998.

The work proceeded at turtle-pace as the architect missed one deadline after another, but finally, in May 1999, the city Department of Public Works, which is building the pool for the Recreation and Park Department, awarded a multimillion-dollar construction contract to Chiang C.M. Construction Inc., operated by Robert Chiang. The completion date was set for Aug. 22, 2000. As that proposed completion date -- and many more -- slipped by, the project's budget rose to $9.7 million.

Barbra Viltz is a spokesperson for the neighborhood's pool advisory committee and is mad as hell about the delay. "Myself and the other little old ladies got this pool off the ground," the 64-year-old Viltz recalls. "We marched in front of the mayor's office in 1996. My daughter laughed. She said, "You old bats should sit down before you fall down; there will never be a pool, and if there is, the water will leak out.'

"They knew that damn pool would have problems from the beginning. It doesn't take two years to build a swimming pool. It's ridiculous that city money has been taken and wasted like that. Our esteemed mayor let this stupidity go on."

City records show that, during the past few years, Chiang's construction firm has been paid $28 million for work on an array of small city public works projects. One such job, a $4.5 million contract for the Richmond District Community Center and Gymnasium, was due to be completed in May 1999. Two years later, it is still not finished. A frustrated Public Works official wrote in a memorandum that "C.M. Construction is playing this paper writing delay game" on the project. The state labor commissioner fined Chiang $146,000, alleging that excessively low wages were paid to workers on the gym job.

A reasonable person might ask why Chiang's company, which had performed so miserably on the Richmond gym project, would be hired for the King pool, a mayoral priority. One answer to this question involves the methods used to select Public Works contractors in San Francisco. Those methods are not necessarily reasonable.

Public Works employees enjoy a lot of discretion in deciding who qualifies as the low bidder on a city construction contract; winning a bid is not simply a matter of submitting the lowest price. An array of requirements -- having a city business tax license, employing the correct number of minority subcontractors, putting decimals in the right place -- comes into play after a bid is made. Officials have the power to kill a low bid based on the technical violation of a particular rule or regulation, thereby giving the job to the next lowest bidder. Conversely, officials can decide to waive technical violations, or let a bidder correct them without penalty.

In March 1999, officials disqualified all six bids to build the King pool, on the basis that the lowest price submitted was a half-million dollars higher than the city engineer's estimate of how much the pool should cost. When the city put the job out to bid again a few weeks later, Chiang, who did not bid in the first round, won the prime contract, even though his $6.4 million bid was, still, more than $400,000 above the city engineer's estimate.

One of the losing bidders, Alvarado Construction Inc., filed a protest with the Human Rights Commission -- which has veto power over Public Works contracts -- asking that Chiang be disqualified because, in his bid, he improperly listed his wife as a subcontractor who would help satisfy city affirmative action requirements.

In San Francisco, a city contractor is required to use local minority- and women-owned businesses as subcontractors for a set percentage of the dollar amount of any particular job. The Human Rights Commission sets these quotas as a way of ensuring that governmental work goes to such "disadvantaged" companies, which have not, historically, been able to compete with richer, more established companies. There are strict definitions of ownership for disadvantaged firms, designed, among other things, to prevent the use of "front" companies that obtain government work under disadvantaged status, take a cut, and then pass the bulk of the work on to a "non-disadvantaged" firm.

In the end, some 20 percent of the MLK pool job was to have been done by minority-owned subcontractors, with another 4 percent done by women-owned subcontractors. To meet the quota for women-owned businesses, Chiang used a $675,000 subcontract with OWA Steel Inc. The choice of steel contractor does not appear to have been coincidental.

Starting in the early 1990s, Chiang and his wife, Lori O.W. Chiang, each had ownership stakes in C.M. Construction and OWA Steel Inc., according to the California Contractors State License Board. The Chiangs had other partners in each of the companies, and Robert withdrew as an owner of OWA Steel in 1997. Still, the two businesses are run out of the same warehouse-garage, a block from the MLK pool, in a building owned jointly by the Chiangs. Clearly, the two businesses are interlocked; when the pool contract was won by Chiang, Lori held ownership in each company, according to public records.

Because of Lori's ownership stake in both companies, C.M. Construction had violated city affirmative action rules, Alvarado Construction claimed. Indeed, city contracting regulations do not allow a disadvantaged prime contractor to meet its quotas by using a minority- or woman-owned business in which it holds ownership. The reason is easy to understand: Without such a prohibition, construction companies would form "minority-owned" or "women-owned" shadow companies in the names of their spouses or children, defeating the intent of these affirmative action programs, which is to spread government-contracting dollars to as wide an array of legitimate disadvantaged firms as possible.

Despite the appearance of common ownership, the Human Rights Commission denied Alvarado Construction's protest, saying that, according to the Chiangs, Lori had resigned as an owner of C.M. Construction. Public records on file with the California Contractors State License Board show, however, that Lori resigned as an owner of C.M. Construction on June 25, 1999, a month after the pool contract was won by C.M. Construction, and two weeks after Alvarado filed its complaint.

The connection between the prime contractor and a major "disadvantaged" subcontractor is not the only affirmative action question raised by the MLK pool project.

City contracting rules require Human Rights Commission-certified subcontractors, such as OWA Steel, to perform the work themselves, if they are being used to meet affirmative action quotas. Hiring other companies to do the work -- that is, subcontracting the subcontract -- is not allowed. It appears, however, that OWA Steel did just that. In an interview last week, Steve Romak, a principal of Oakland-based Romak Iron Works, said his company performed all of the structural steel work on the MLK pool under a subcontract with OWA Steel. Romak said he did not know that C.M. Construction used a subcontract with OWA Steel to meet its women-owned business quota. Romak Iron Works' Internet site also cites the steel work at the MLK pool as one of the firm's projects.

Romak Iron Works is not eligible to be certified under San Francisco's affirmative action program because, among other things, it is not located in San Francisco.

The city's decision to uphold the contract award to C.M. Construction, despite the strong appearance that Human Rights Commission regulations had been violated, has had another consequence. "Alvarado made a corporate decision not to do business with the city again," says Rick Dion, area manager of Alvarado Construction. Dion says that decision is based on his belief that getting a Public Works contract in San Francisco is dependent upon political influence, that Chiang was pre-picked for the pool job, and that rules were broken to favor Chiang and his wife.

Ed Lee, director of the Department of Public Works, did not return repeated telephone calls requesting comment.

Maurice Williams, deputy chief of the Bureau of Construction Management, made light of the matter. "Chiang better not have given the steel contract to someone other than his wife. That would make his home life too hard," he chuckled.

Others were less amused.

Vince Courtney, an attorney for the San Francisco Building Trades Council, spoke with a directness unusual for an advocate of union members who work on city Public Works projects: "What's going on here is political. Public Works steered the contract in Chiang's direction. City employees steer contracts to firms using minor technicalities to knock out their competitors."

The King pool building looks like a gun emplacement: It's easy to imagine a cannon poking out of its top, swiveling for targets while anchored in 8 million pounds of dull gray concrete.

Aesthetics aside, concrete has proven to be the bane of the troubled pool project.

The city engineer originally estimated concrete work at the pool -- which does not include the pool shell itself -- at $830,000. Chiang's low bid allowed just $533,000 for concrete work.

In his bid, Chiang listed Hoi's Construction Inc. as the subcontractor that would do the concrete work. Shortly after ground was broken, Hoi resigned and Chiang replaced Hoi with a Los Angeles-based firm, Creative Construction & Design, owned by one Frederick C. Taylor. Don Alameida, the city architect in charge of building the pool, says he had never heard of Taylor, or his company, and was surprised when Chiang hired him.

Public records show that Taylor ran his company, now apparently defunct, out of the Bayview office of Business Development Inc. Calvin Hayes, the owner of Business Development Inc., says he shared an office with Taylor for several years. "I tried to help him out," says Hayes. "He still has stuff here." Hayes declined to respond to questions regarding the nature of his financial relationship, if any, with Taylor.

(In San Francisco, it can be useful to have a mentor, especially one as savvy as Hayes, who has earned $3 million during the last decade for acting as a "liaison" between the Department of Public Works and the Bayview-Hunters Point community. In other words, Hayes is paid for hosting community meetings about Public Works projects that the city wants to build in Bayview-Hunters Point. He also "monitors" Public Works contractors for compliance with affirmative action rules, a duty that is normally the responsibility of city employees. Several years ago, Hayes earned a little unwanted air time when a television news reporter revealed that his company was billing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars for an "odor control specialist" to sniff sewers. BDI is also a partner in the construction management company supervising a San Francisco International Airport expansion project that is more than a billion dollars -- with a "b" -- over budget.)

City Engineer Harlan Kelly says he kicked Taylor off the pool job because he stopped showing up. This happened after the city had paid Chiang $518,000 for Taylor's work, some of which had been rejected as low quality. Hayes seemed surprised to hear that Chiang had been paid so much money; apparently Taylor had been hard pressed to pay his workers. Taylor did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

After Taylor's firm left the pool job, Chiang's firm took over the concrete work. Quality problems continued to pop up. The city Department of Building Inspection complained that some of Chiang's structural steel -- used to reinforce concrete walls -- was rusty and made him throw it away. City inspectors rejected Chiang's poured concrete work on several occasions.

City records show that Overstreet, the pool's architect, has long expressed serious concerns about the quality of the concrete and steel work. Overstreet complained that Chiang used substandard material to make the forms into which concrete is poured, and that he did not test the concrete properly. When a dirt wall inside the pool collapsed as structural steel was being installed, Overstreet demanded a written assurance from Chiang "guaranteeing the structural integrity of the pool wall." After documenting a string of complaints about Chiang's concrete and structural steel work, Overstreet wrote in a memo last summer, "It appears that every week we are running into new problems. ... Our concern is one of quality and overall safety of the facility. We do not need to enumerate the vast problems we have encountered."

Chiang did not respond to telephone calls requesting comment. When approached at the pool job site, he walked away without comment. His site supervisor, Rob Ho, said he could not talk about quality problems, or why the job is a year late, because, "I don't have time. This is a construction site. Every minute is accounted for in advance."

As concrete problems continued, the city paid C.M. Construction extra money to fix the mistakes, while paying its own employees at least $800,000 to watch over the contractor. And even ignoring matters of concrete, this construction company -- and, it seems, a whole lot of people working on the MLK pool -- could use watching.

A partial list of other MLK pool ills documented in the public record would read something like this:

- When the project bogged down in August 1999, the city spent tens of thousands of dollars to buy Chiang sophisticated scheduling software manufactured by Bidcom Inc. of San Francisco. When computerization failed to bring the project up to speed, the city paid $100,000 to Don Todd Associates, a local construction management company, which assigned five people to help Chiang write a schedule. Nonetheless, Chiang continued to fall a day behind for each day he worked; that is, after he was on the job for a year, he was a year behind schedule.

- Against the strong protests of the subcontractor who installed the actual swimming pool, representatives of the Recreation and Park Department insisted on spending $50,000 extra for brass fittings in the drainage system. Dennis Berkshire of Aquatic Design Inc. (which did consulting work on the MLK pool job) says this extravagance will cause massive permanent stains on surfaces of the pool shell. He says nobody uses brass fittings in public pool construction because cheap, non-staining, plastic ones do the job just fine.

- The city spent tens of thousands of dollars extending and repouring the shallow end of the pool because it was too deep for children to play in safely.

- Dirt excavated from the hole destined to become the pool had been slated to be used as fill under the foundation. Chiang, apparently, piled the dirt haphazardly about the job site, making it difficult, sometimes impossible, for subcontractors to work. Then, the dirt got soaked in the rain, spoiling it for future use and, ultimately, costing the city $150,000 to replace.

- Three months ago, inspectors rejected "the majority of [interior] walls with colored plaster ... [they were] blotchy and had cracks." Exterior walls were seamed with 10-foot-long cracks that, Alameida, the city architect on the project, says do not endanger the pool structurally but are cosmetically undesirable and may have resulted from improperly mixed concrete.

- Chiang's firm had trouble connecting the pool to the municipal water and sewer system because the pipes specified by the architect were the wrong size.

- For some reason, the painting contract for the MLK pool has caused great controversy and bitterness.

Jim Haugabook is an African-American painting contractor whose company, Golden Gate Painting and Decorating, was subcontracted to paint the pool. Sitting in a file cabinet in a trailer at the job site is a 2-inch-thick file stuffed with a paper trail of bitter correspondence between Chiang and Haugabook.

Simply put, Chiang blames Haugabook for causing months of delay. Haugabook admits to making some mistakes, including accidentally spraying paint where it was not wanted, but he disputes most of Chiang's charges. It was impossible to be on schedule, says Haugabook, when there was no real schedule. The painter refuses to quit, which would mean losing money. Instead, he struggles along day by day, squabbling with Chiang over who is to blame for what and when and where and how much.

The amazing plenitude of problems at the MLK pool did not go unnoticed. Some city employees, clearly, tried to do something about them. But that something, for some reason, just couldn't get done.

As a city architect, Don Alameida was responsible for managing the nuts and bolts of the MLK pool project. Clearly distressed by the fiasco, his attitude in interviews seemed to shift between weary resignation, abject apology, and fear that the pool disaster would damage his career.

"I am leaving Public Works at the end of July," he said earlier last month. "Obviously, this pool job is a contributing factor, but it's not the only reason; it's not just the pool. I want to leave the city in good grace, not to be a muckraker. But you can see why I'm looking for new employment; probably not with this city, though."

When asked whether city employees use technicalities to steer contracts to particular firms, Alameida turned thoughtful. "Maybe that's why I'm having so much grief," he mused. "Things have changed in the last few years. Every mayor has his own style. I do not know if there is any accountability in this system. I tried to work autonomously.

"I'm the fall guy now."

Alameida said that mistake number one on the pool job was the hiring of Chiang's firm, even though the company had botched the Richmond gym project, and had had a history of problems with subcontractors. "All the automation in the world could not save [Chiang's schedule]," Alameida said. "Nor all the city supervision, either."

Alameida said that he wanted to throw Chiang off the job a year ago. He was dissuaded from doing so by Department of Public Works Director Lee and City Engineer Kelly, who, he said, "kept the pool job under a microscope."

"I wanted to put the bonding company on notice, so that the bonding company could finish the job," Alameida sighed.

A contractor cannot bid on a Public Works job without buying insurance -- a performance bond that guarantees that, if the contractor must be fired for good cause, the bonding company will finish the job, at no extra cost to the city.

Tim Mikolajewski, a vice president of Safeco, the company that insured the King pool job, says that if San Francisco were to fire Chiang's firm, the bonding company would be bound to deliver a finished pool for the contract price. But until it was contacted for this story, Safeco did not know there were serious problems on the MLK pool job -- in no small part because city officials have hidden those problems from the bonding firm.

Safeco has been sending periodic "audit requests" to the city to determine if the pool is being completed on time, and if the contractor is paying subcontractors. Mikolajewski seemed unhappy to learn that the following words were handwritten across the top of Safeco's last audit request: "Do not reply -- file." He also was less than thrilled to learn, from a reporter, that subcontractors who claim they haven't been paid for work they've done on the pool have filed $102,000 in liens against Chiang's company, and the city.

"I am surprised that with Chiang being a year behind schedule, and with the liens, that the city would not reply to our audit request," says Mikolajewski. "Liens and delays are not positive signs. Our file has no record of substantial problems. We could stop the work, though. The sooner we find out, the less money it costs us to finish the job."

Kelly, the city engineer, gave this explanation of the bonding situation: "Six months ago a decision was made not to reply anymore to audit requests from bonding companies." He declined to elaborate.

Kelly said that the decision not to fire Chiang involved race. Public Works wants to hire racial minorities from the communities in which projects are being constructed, Kelly explained, but in this case the use of minority firms worked badly. "C.M. Construction has no leadership," Kelly said. "Things spiraled out of control. Subs didn't perform, or went out of business. They were Asians doing work in a black neighborhood; the schedule got set back because we had to include minorities."

Mayor Brown's press secretary, P.J. Johnston, said that the mayor is disappointed the project has taken so long. "He tried to instill a sense of urgency into the Department of Public Works and the Recreation and Park Department," said Johnston, who referred other questions to Elizabeth Goldsmith, executive director of the Recreation and Park Commission.

Goldsmith and Gordon Chin, president of the Recreation and Park Commission, did not respond to repeated telephone requests seeking comment on the pool.

In April 2000, Mayor Brown held a meeting in his office with Robert Chiang and the city employees and contractors responsible for supervising him. After the meeting, Chiang wrote a letter to the Department of Public Works saying that he had been instructed by the Mayor's Office to hire "a community liaison for additional community relations, additional public outreach to expedite the project and [to] help mitigate the various issues involving Bayview residents."

Chiang informed the department that he had, therefore, hired a "consultant" for a $100,000 flat fee.

Although the city paid Chiang the $100,000, city officials claim to have no record of what consultant Chiang is using, or what that consultant has been paid, or what the consultant has actually done. During interviews at the pool construction site, SF Weekly learned that the public relations consultant is Dr. Caesar Churchwell, a dentist. Last year, Churchwell served as president of the Black Leadership Forum, an umbrella group of African-American community organizations. In a telephone interview, Churchwell said he does not work with a consulting firm, nor does he own one. He said he works for Chiang as "a liaison between the city and the community." He said he did not get $100,000 for his work, but declined to reveal how much he was paid.

Kelly said he approved spending $100,000 for the previously unidentified consultant, even though Alameida, the architect in charge of the project, refused to sign off on it. "The mayor was concerned about the project," Kelly said, "because the community felt it was unfair that an Asian contractor had been given the job, and there are gang activities and shootings in Bayview-Hunters Point."

Community activist Viltz -- who has led neighborhood complaints about the pool project, and who would seem to be an obvious target of any public relations campaign -- says she has never seen or heard of Churchwell.

As the MLK pool project cranked up in 1998, Gordon Choy, manager of the contract administration division of Public Works, e-mailed Tamra Winchester, his counterpart at the Human Rights Commission, these words: "This project, like so many recent ones, has political overtones in that the mayor promised the community that a pool will be built."

One might reasonably detect a hint of frustration in Choy's remark. After all, politically sensitive projects dotend to be micromanaged by high-ranking officials who give underlings no end of headaches. After all, politicians who come and go with every election cycle cannot possibly know the details of public contracting as well as the professionals at the Public Works Department. After all, there have been many books written about the tendency of bureaucrats to humor elected officials -- and then do precisely what the bureaucracy desires.

It may be faintly unusual that the MLK pool became such an extraordinary sinkhole of time and money after the mayor had expressly made it one of the highest priorities of his administration, but the way the pool project swirled out of control is not remarkable. It is typical of the city contracting process.

For those who know the city system, it is entirely unremarkable that great chunks of the pool budget went to people and firms with connections to the Department of Public Works. For example, Gerson/Overstreet Architects, Don Todd Associates, and Business Development Inc. have all held open-ended, multimillion-dollar contracts with Public Works for many years. The city regularly pays out many millions of dollars in this fashion, thereby losing the benefit of soliciting competitive prices from other firms.

The MLK pool fiasco has also helped keep Public Works architects and construction managers in clover. At least a half-dozen Public Works architects and engineers were assigned to manage and monitor the pool job. Those employees are paid directly out of the funding of the projects that they manage, which means they are not necessarily interested in bringing projects in on budget or on time. In fact, the bureaucratic incentives often work in just the opposite direction.

Anyone who has read a newspaper over the last year or so knows of allegations that the city Human Rights Commission has steered contracts to favored bidders, and away from those without the needed supplies of political influence.

In the end, the MLK pool fiasco is unusual in only two significant ways.

The project stands out among city construction failures because the prime contractor on the project drew attention to itself by being so flagrantly incompetent and apparently improper that a respected city architect felt it necessary to flee city employment in midcareer.

And that architect, Don Alameida, stands out because he -- apparently alone among those responsible for the project -- drew the line at giving $100,000 of the public's wealth to a man without a name, while the children of Bayview-Hunters Point played, for another summer, in the street, and not the water.As the Bayview waits

for a rebuilt MLK pool,

the project, a stated mayoral priority, keeps gobbling money and time - making it the prototypical city contracting fiasco.

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