Allen Lew takes on D.C. budget challenge

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 11:15 PM

City administrator Allen Y. Lew is decorating his new office on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building with dozens of hard hats, reminders that he managed construction of the District's largest and most expensive publicly funded endeavors over the past decade - from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to Nationals Park to new school buildings.

Still, some of the hard hats remained in boxes one day last month.

Lew, using choice words, explained that if he's not satisfied with a firm's work, he tucks its hard hat away. "It depends on who's in favor and who's not in favor," said Lew, 60, who has developed a reputation as a commanding and hands-on boss. "They look to see if their hat is up. . . . That's how they know if they're doing a good job."

On that day, Lew was trying to overcome the fallout from the Jan. 26 snowstorm that snarled the region's roads and inundated local and federal governments with complaints about grueling, extended commutes.

"In my world before, I didn't deal with all the agencies," said Lew, acknowledging that he was out of his element.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) tapped Lew - a former executive director of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization under predecessor mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) - to run a government facing a daunting deficit that could run as high as $600 million under some estimates and already instituting four furlough days to save more than $19 million this year.

Turns out that Lew - an architect by training who became a go-to construction guru, beginning with New York City's Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center in the 1980s - hasn't had much practice cutting budgets.

Although he repeatedly says he completed construction projects "on time and on budget," a Washington Post review of more than a dozen projects shows that most ballooned in price. The convention center jumped from $714 million to $834 million by the time it was completed in 2003. The baseball stadium price tag swelled by $80 million to $691 million before costly amenities are added in.

Out of a list of 16 schools and a pool built under his leadership, 12 went over budget. In each case, Lew bulldozed his way to additional spending with the power of persuasion.

He convinced city leaders that the projects' initial budgets were unrealistic for the quality they demanded. The increased spending, he said, was justified. "It's like a doctor," Lew said. "You question his opinion. You get a second opinion, a second budget, a third budget."

But with the District's massive deficit, Lew's era of big spending is over. He won't be able to just ask for more money to pick up the trash, clear snow, deliver social services or build parks and pools. Instead, he must maintain services with fewer resources while managing the expectations of a public used to certain services but who balk at higher taxes or fees and a Republican-led Congress that is increasingly interested in District government.

Lew has many supporters, but even some of them wonder whether he will be able to transition from project management to governing.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a proponent of the convention center and baseball stadium, said Lew has always set a final budget and stuck with it by threatening contractors when they were failing.

"Whether that skill will translate to running the government, I don't know," he said.

Lew said he knew what he was getting into when he accepted Gray's job offer. "Things go right, he gets credit. Things go wrong, I get . . . blamed," he said.

Gray, however, is confident it won't come to that, because he considers Lew a "solution-oriented" leader.

"I don't think there is any such thing as a city administrator school," Gray said. "You don't have to know every agency. You have to make sure you hold people who run the agencies accountable."

'I can be intense'

Lew was raised in Queens, N.Y., and his parents owned a dry-cleaning business. His Chinese mother told him that impatience was a negative American characteristic.

But Lew is impatient. A college mentor told him "to use it to solve things faster. Let it drive you to succeed."

And he did. He got the District government to speed up payments to contractors. Vendors accustomed to waiting months for payments began to get paid every two weeks - a significant boon for small and cash-strapped minority-owned firms.

When he took over the construction and renovation of crumbling schools and athletic fields in 2007, the results were immediate. Work orders for broken boilers at schools no longer lingered for five years - they were tended to on the same day. "It wasn't good enough to go from five years to five months to five weeks to five days," Lew said.

The quick work cost money, though, often in the form of overtime. "His mantra was excellence, not a mantra of spending more money," said Willard Mangrum, a vice president at Brailsford & Dunlavey, the program management firm partnered with McKissack & McKissack that manages the school modernization projects.

But spend he has. Wilson High School, currently under construction, has gone from an $85 million project to one estimated at $115 million. Mangrum and President Chris Dunlavey said $10 million of the increase was because of the need to move students to the University of the District of Columbia during renovation.

Lew's supporters say that many of the initial budgets predated him and did not include design costs. Tony Robinson, Lew's longtime aide and now director of the city administrator's office, said RFK Stadium had to be renovated to accommodate the Washington Nationals while their ballpark was being built. To get it up and running for the 2005 season, city leaders originally said it would cost $11 million, Robinson recalled.

"No, it wouldn't," he said. "Not in three months."

The final cost: about $25 million.

Dunlavey, who also worked on the baseball stadium, recalled how the leading firms were on a deadline to come up with cost estimates in December 2005.

Lew didn't like estimates, so he ordered an emergency meeting the day after Christmas, leading a dozen people to cut vacations short, Dunlavey said.

"That's a closed-door meeting for a reason. It gets heated," said Robinson. "You want to see the results, not the process. Like sausage."

In a previous job, Lew recalled being criticized as "too blunt."

"That was after I told them to go where the sun doesn't shine," he said. "I guess I can be intense."

Privately, some contractors and vendors say that Lew has his favorites, but they don't want to speak publicly because they compete for projects.

In 2007, on the same day Lew was approved as executive director of school construction, he terminated the firms that had been building Hardy Middle School because of delays. "He fired everybody," recalled Alberto Gomez, whose wife owns Arrow Construction, one of the fired companies.

Although disappointed about the loss, Gomez said the project was in shambles when Lew took over. "In hindsight, yeah, it hurt. But he made a wise decision," Gomez said.

Arrow later worked as a subcontractor on Alice Deal Middle School, Gomez said. "We have bid on some jobs as general contractor, but we didn't win," he said. "It could have been price."

The 'artist' at work

Lew, who is paid $295,000 annually, came to his life's work because he couldn't stand looking at blood when he was studying pre-med at the City College of New York.

A fellow student who had tutored Lew in high school encouraged him to apply to the architecture program. Lew's acumen in the subject led to a master's degree from Columbia University and jobs working on the Manhattan convention center and later running a $3.2 billion capital hospital program for then-Mayor David Dinkins.

In 1996, Lew was lured to the District to run the Washington Convention Center Authority, establishing a long-distance relationship with investment banker wife Suling Lew and their son. They have homes in both places and see each other on weekends, Lew said.

Lew calls himself a "troubleshooter" - able to manage his long-distance family responsibilities as easily as reading the city budget, which he must submit by April 1.

"It's not about adding and subtracting. It doesn't take a genius to do that," he said.

Lew declined to discuss details of his cuts and how he plans to get unemployed residents back to work. But he said the difference between "a masterpiece and just another painting" isn't the brush or fancy paints.

"It's the artist," he said with little humility.

Still, his initial idea to include police and firefighters in the furlough days was quickly shot down. Privately, members of the Gray administration said it would have been a bad move politically.

But Lew appeared to recover quickly.

By law, the unions were to be contacted 30 days before the start of the first furlough day, Presidents' Day. Lew decided to hand-deliver the letters and meet with union leaders. It was an unusual step, because the Fenty administration for years refused to meet with labor management.

His first meeting was with Geo T. Johnson, president of the local AFSCME, which represents 8,000 city employees as members. In an interview, Johnson said Lew's style is refreshing. "He's not a guy who's going to take you through hoops and loops," he said.

The meeting showed the softer Lew, the one who would pull a hard hat out of a box to put a deserving person at ease.

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