The District of Columbia says it will open a 292-unit public housing apartment building for the elderly later this month. But it will open six years behind schedule and at a cost of $9.1 million, nearly double the original estimate.
Both city and federal housing officials agree that they were lax in overseeing the renovation of the building, located in the Arthur Capper public housing complex in Southeast Washington near the Navy Yard.
But beyond that the city, the construction firm and the architects blame each other for turning what might have been a one-year renovation project into a seven-year nightmare spiced with federal-city disputes, a lawsuit, allegedly faulty blueprints and numerous requests to change the plans.
Former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington visited the boarded-up building during his 1974 mayoral campaign and promised that it would soon be rehabilitated. But federal officials had approved only part of the construction funds at the time and were still arguing with city officials about the project.
The fate of the project only turned bleaker after that and now provides a case history in how not to transform a rundown building into quality housing for the poor.
"Almost everything possible that could go wrong went wrong," said D.C. housing director Robert L. Moore, who inherited the problem-prone building from the Washington administration. "So many things had to be unraveled."
"I think it is extremely unfortunate that it has taken an extraordinary long period of time" to redo the building, said Terry Chisholm, director of the Washington office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Chisholm, who was involved in the preliminary planning of the renovation in 1973, said he was surprised "when I went away later that year for five years and came back in 1978 and the building was not done."
This story begins in late 1960s when the Arthur Capper public housing project, containing more than 1,500 apartments, was one of the worst and most densely populated in the city. The high-rise building now in its final stages of renovation was built in 1958. It "had been take over by drug addicts," only one-third of its then 235 units were occupied and "nobody wanted to move there," recalled James G. Banks, then the city's public housing director.
"It was a fearsome place," said Banks, now the executive vice-president of the Washington Board of Realtors. "People were attacked in the hallways. There was a danger to life and limb to any ordinary citizen who wanted to live there."
The city decided to empty the building in 1970, board it up and transform it into what was then a revolutionary concept in public housing -- a building for the elderly that was a combination apartment house and nursing home.
The city planned a library, greenhouse and woodworking shop, a central dining room and a 272-bed wing that would serve as a nursing home with doctors and nurses on duty 24 hours. The idea was that elderly tenants could remain close to their friends and in a familiar environment, even if they became disabled. Then, as now, if an elderly person living in public housing became unable to care for himself, he would have to move.
HUD officials rejected the idea. "We feel that local public housing authorities should not become involved in health and medical programs," Robert Prescott, a high-ranking HUD official, told the local HUD office in December 1974. "We fail to see how the nursing home . . . fits into the category of low-rent dwelling units and I know of no provision that would allow use of housing money for anything other than housing."
Prescott ordered the local HUD officials to tell the city to come up with a new plan.
But in April 1976, city housing officials were still fighting with HUD to put a small medical clinic in the building and the cost had grown to $5.1 million. It also was escalating at the rate of nearly 1 percent a month, according to federal documents.
Later that year, the District agreed to eliminate the medical facility and HUD then approved a $5.7 million loan to take the boards off the building and convert it to public housing for the elderly.
By early 1978, the city asked for bids on the project and an Albany, N.Y., construction company was the lowest of five bidders at $7 million and got the job in March.
But the runner-up, G&C Construction Co., a Fairfax County firm, successfully challenged the award. So in May the city again asked for bids and in July G&C won the contract at $7.4 million. The Albany firm did not bid.
G&C vice president Robert Nippes said this week that his company fought for the contract because "it was a nice job. We could work every day because it was inside and it was a large building" with a large price tag.
Construction began in November l978 and was supposed to take 14 months. Nippes noted that the third anniversary of work on the building has just passed and his men are only now nearing completion.
Moore, who became city housing director in January 1979, attributes the delay to his own staff's bad management, "the omissions in the specifications and errors on the architect's drawings" that led to more than 200 requests from the contractor to change the plans and construction problems at the buildings.
"Our staff did not manage the job and it was initially left too much to our consultants," Moore said. "We had no one there full time."
Moore said he discovered in March 1979 that the housing department's coordinator for the project "had never visited the building." That person, whom Moore refused to name, was removed from his position, the housing director said.
By April 1979, Moore said he fired Navy, Marshall and Gordon, the D.C. architectural firm that had been hired in 1975 for $213,500, because of "omissions in specifications and errors on the drawings."
According to a $1.2 million lawsuit the city filed last January against the architects, the firm noted the existence of crawl space under one wing of the building through which plumbing and sewer lines were to be installed even though no crawl space existed, incorrectly listed window sizes and incorrectly noted the locations of plumbing pipes.
Navy, Marshall and Gordon has denied all the city charges. "We have never had any other errors and omissions against us because we are good," said Randall S. Marshall, a co-owner of the firm. "Our credibility is nationwide. We don't have any regrets about our performance."
The building was also plagued with other problems. Midway through the construction, it was discovered that new city regulations required the installation of an emergency generator in case of an electrical power failure. Last year a large crack was discovered in the foundation and city officials feared the whole building might be unsafe. The bay windows on the eighth and ninth floors are still not free of leaks.
Now the city hopes to open it Nov. 21. Deputy housing director James Clay, who was put in charge of the project in September l979, said recently, "I want to be out of there and have it occupied. I want it to be finished."