Silver Spring Transit Center cracks fracture a profitable political and corporate marriage

Bryant Foulger found himself in an unusual spot — on the outside, looking in.

He sat in the audience in the Montgomery County Council chambers one afternoon last month, waiting with the rest of the public to hear the results of an engineering report about the Silver Spring Transit Center. The report would cite shoddy work by his family-owned real estate and construction firm, Foulger-Pratt, as a factor contributing to the cracked and structurally compromised center.

Graphic

Tracking the transit center's cost
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Tracking the transit center's cost

Previous coverage of the facility

Twitter reaction to the transit center

ARCHIVES | See past Washington Post coverage of the Silver Spring Transit Center.

Next step: Who should pay to fix it?

Next step: Who should pay to fix it?

How should the problem be remedied and who should foot the bill?

Twitter reaction to the transit center

Twitter reaction to the transit center

The facility was criticized on social media following the release of a report deeming it unusable.

Graphic

See the report: The opening of the $112 million bus-and-train hub, already two years behind schedule, is on hold indefinitely.
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See the consultant's report: The opening of the $112 million bus-and-train hub, already two years behind schedule, is on hold indefinitely.

Cornered later by reporters and cameras, he delivered a single message: resentment that the county hired an outside consultant, KCE Structural Engineers, instead of working through the problems with his people.

“If only the county had been willing to work cooperatively, the transit center would be open by now for the benefit of everyone in Montgomery County,” he said before cutting off the exchange.

“We’re good,” he said firmly as he headed for the exit.

The $119 million transit center has become a major embarrassment to the county and its general contractor, Foulger-Pratt. More than two years behind schedule and tens of millions of dollars over budget, the three-level structure was supposed to be the next big step in the urbanization of Silver Spring, a hub that would make it easier for residents to abandon their cars for MARC, Metrorail, buses, bikes, even hiking trails.

Instead, it is unusable and unsafe, officials say, with questions about weak concrete and missing steel supports. Repairs are expected to start in late summer at the earliest. The problems have touched off finger-pointing and legal posturing among county officials and contractors. Foulger disputes KCE’s contention that the company did not follow design documents created by the architect and engineer, Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Regardless of how the issues ultimately play out, the project represents a fall from grace for Foulger, 57, a major player in a county where developers enjoy significant influence over politics and policy. Foulger-Pratt helped lead the private end of the public-private venture to revitalize downtown Silver Spring at the turn of the century, dramatically reversing decades of blight and neglect.

The firm’s work can be seen throughout the county, from Rockville Town Center to the Mormon Temple to the massive Park Potomac condominium and office complex off of Interstate 270.

Campaign contributions

Foulger-Pratt’s contributions to the county have also included hefty donations to Montgomery’s politicians. Campaign finance reports show that company officers and affiliates have contributed at least $100,000 to county and state legislators since 2006. In 2011, when Foulger backed a proposal for a youth curfew because of concerns about juvenile crime in Silver Spring, he hired former county executive Douglas M. Duncan as a consultant.

The measure was ultimately tabled. But Foulger and his firm have often gotten what they wanted.

In early summer 1999, the $320 million plan for the Silver Spring reboot was in jeopardy because Foulger and a consortium of developers objected to fair-wage legislation pending before the County Council. The bill required that firms receiving county contracts pay employees more than twice the federal minimum wage.

The measure died, but not before a majority on the council signaled support for an amendment — drafted with the help of Foulger-Pratt attorneys — that exempted all contracts and leases signed by businesses involved in the Silver Spring project.

But cracks in the transit center’s concrete have fractured a profitable political and corporate marriage. Foulger had plans with Metro and developer Urban Atlantic for a $140 million housing, retail and office complex next to site. But the deal is on hold because Metro won’t move forward until any legal issues with regard to the transit center are resolved.

Foulger claims that the county has behaved like a prospective litigant, refusing to share responsibility and hiring a consultant who conveniently placed the blame everywhere else, including Foulger-Pratt, Parsons Brinckerhoff and the Robert B. Balter Co. inspection agency. He also said that the county rushed the project into construction before the design was ready and that the haste was costly.

“We’ve been in business for 50 years,” Foulger said in an April 2 interview. “We have core values that we live by, that we honor and that we spend a lot of time working on. We treat people the way we want to be treated. We’ve done that throughout this project. We have not been treated well by the county.” (Through a spokesman, Foulger said he was unavailable to speak for this report.)

For their part, some council members are rankled by Foulger’s indignant public stance.

“It hasn’t been a plus,” said council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac). “I think if I were his adviser, which I am not, I would advise him to say publicly, ‘We regret where things stand, and we’ll fix it’ ” and deal with questions of liability later.

The company said last week that it agreed to make whatever changes are required by the county and KCE.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he does not think fallout over the transit center will end the county’s relationship with Foulger.

“I think that he’s a terrific guy and his company has done great work in the county,” Leggett said. “This happens to be one of those unfortunate situations where there are differences of opinion on liability. I don’t see this as being any kind of permanent rupture.”

The transit center is not the first troubled Foulger-Pratt project. In 1987, the General Services Administration paid $22 million for an office building the company built at East West Highway and Colesville Road in Silver Spring. Metro Center I became the home for several thousand National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees. But agency officials soon discovered that the floors sagged, and the company later acknowledged that engineers used the wrong size of metal reinforcing rods for the concrete.

Foulger-Pratt fixed the floors, but after workers moved in they complained of odors, fatigue, rashes and sinus problems. A 1998 General Accounting Office report said a substance used to help level the floors contained phenol, a chemical that can affect air quality.

It was 1997 before repairs were completed. The GSA tried to recover costs that it estimated at $5 million but settled with Foulger-Pratt for $939,000, according to the GAO report. NOAA remains a major tenant in the Metro Center development, which now includes four office buildings and apartments.

‘It’s been great for us’

In a YouTube video of his October 2011 lecture to business students at Utah Valley University, it was a different Bryant Foulger than the one in the council chamber. Crisp and confident, he clicked through a 50-minute Power­Point presentation, describing Foulger-Pratt’s history and philosophy (Company motto: “We Build to Last”).

“It’s not the most glamorous of businesses, but it’s been great for us,” said Foulger, a Utah native whose first job was as a laborer on the Mormon Temple in Kensington. There is security and continuity in the “sticks and bricks” of real estate, he said, praising the virtues of recurring revenue streams and tax shelters for depreciation.

He cited MySpace, the one-time social media powerhouse, as the the sort of risky, boom-bust venture he and his family avoided.

“Those kinds of industries scare the heck out of me — businesses based on intellectual property,” Foulger said. “What I love is the tangible asset that real estate is.”

The company was founded by his father, Sid Foulger, a mechanical engineer who moved the family to the Washington area, joining another transplanted Mormon entrepreneur, J. Willard Marriott.

Sid Foulger started Marriott’s in-house architecture and construction shop before he left in the early 1960s to open his own business. The families remain close. Bryant Foulger was an usher at the 1978 wedding of J.W. Marriott Jr.’s daughter Deborah.

The Foulgers grew the firm into one of the region’s leading builders, developers, managers and cleaners of commercial office space — about 5 million square feet. It remains a privately held, family-owned business, overseen by Bryant Foulger, who serves as managing principal; his brother Clayton; and brother-in-law Brent Pratt. They live in homes side-by-side on a compound off Piney Meetinghouse Road in Potomac.

The firm was one of only two to answer the county’s request for proposals to build the transit center. Foulger-Pratt was selected over Clark Construction Group in 2008. Foulger-Pratt submitted a proposed cost of $62.9 million (including profit), 8 percent below Parsons Brinckerhoff’s estimate. Clark bid $65.3 million. County officials said the selection was based on the overall quality of the companies’ presentations, not the bid amount.

Civic responsibility

Those who know Foulger say he is not only a successful developer but also a businessman with an unusually evolved sense of civic responsibility. He devotes time to working groups and panels such as the Montgomery County Business Advisory Panel, formed to help the county attract and retain employers.

“We don’t see that with too many other big-name operations in the county,” said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who has received $12,500 in contributions from Foulger and his company since 2006, according to state records.

When the Silver Spring redevelopment was in its infancy, Foulger met with community groups in an attempt to tailor the project to their vision for the area. He faced deep skepticism from stakeholders who had already rejected three other plans to revitalize the area. But Foulger, who teamed with the Peterson Cos., was a key player in building consensus.

“Bryant was one of those guys who never had to be dragged to the table,” said Gus Bauman, a former chairman of the county Planning Board. “You always saw him in those night meetings in church basements.”

It’s difficult to say whether Foulger’s future in Montgomery holds more night meetings to lay plans for new projects. But even as his company prepares to pull flawed slabs from the second level of the transit center to clear the way for repairs, he remains defiantly proud of his role.

“We feel very good about how we’ve done on this job,” he said in the April 2 interview. “We’ve gone to extraordinary efforts on this thing.”

Dana Hedgpeth, Michael Laris and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

 
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