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All Wet

Toiling together on a slippery slope, a minority contractor, the city and a neighborhood have built something terrible.


It's a hot and sticky July afternoon on Kansas City's West Side. A rusty truck cruises noisily along Southwest Boulevard as men lean out to whistle at the women on the corner. A block away, families gather inside a tiny orange Mexican restaurant for a late lunch. Up 21st Street, near Observation Park, atop the highest hill in the neighborhood, three little girls sit in the bed of a Ford pickup, giggling and combing their dolls' hair. On the park's soccer field, two teen-age boys kick a ball around.

Ten blocks to the northeast, the buildings of downtown Kansas City rise in a haze, but this neighborhood just west of I-35 seems tucked away from the corporate bustle -- rows and rows of small-frame houses occupied by neighbors who remedy the heat with cool drinks on the front porch and keep an eye out for each others' kids.

This is Tony Aguirre's neighborhood -- has been since he was a little kid. Everyone here knows the friendly 73-year-old coach and knows where to find him at 4 p.m. If he's not in his office at the Sacred Heart Church, where his teams play basketball in an old gym, then he's driving his blue van, loaded with bats, balls and gloves, on his way to meet twelve-, thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys for baseball practice at Penn Valley Park.

There is one place you probably won't find Tony Aguirre, though: just down the 21st Street slope, on the corner of West Pennway at the shiny new city-owned community center that bears his name.

From the outside, the long-awaited community center looks exactly like the gem it was supposed to be when first dreamed up a decade ago: beautiful and colorful, reflective of the neighborhood's Mexican roots. It was to be a place for community groups to gather, for kids to exercise, for senior citizens to do water aerobics or share a cup of coffee.

Instead, it's a $4 million catastrophe, a gilded embarrassment that, according to two West Side city councilmen, should be demolished and rebuilt.

"It's terrible. I think it's an insult to the community," says Jerry Adriano, a consultant with the Kansas City His- panic Association Contractors Enterprise, which closely followed the building's construction.

The community itself helped create the insult, but there's plenty of blame to go around. The city faults the contractor. The contractor gripes about the city and the designers. Adriano and his organization -- who pushed the city hard to put an untested Hispanic contractor on the project -- now blame the city and the contractor. The same West Side residents who insisted on an absurdly awkward construction site also blame the city and the contractor. A few even point a finger at Adriano's group.

Meanwhile, new problems keep developing at the community center. In the past year, the city's parks and recreation department has closed the center's indoor swimming pool three times for more than a month each so workers could make major repairs. First, cheap paint and caulking material flaked off and stuck to swimmers' bodies. Then swimmers endured frigid water because moisture had seeped into the pool's heating system. Finally, the pool's metal fixtures started rusting.

Partly because of the closings, usage of the Aguirre center has been just a fraction of what other community centers around town see. Swimmers have shown up in suits, towels and goggles in hand, only to be turned away from the closed pool. But except on the most oppressively hot days, residents don't use the pool much. A yawning teen-age lifeguard usually slumps in his elevated chair, surveying an empty pool flanked by stacks of colorful foam noodles. A pretty fountain spits turquoise water at the shallow end, and an aquatic volleyball court sits unused on the other end. A warning set in tile on the floor reads "NO RUNINNG."

"I've tried to go there to do water aerobics, and when I showed up, the pool was closed," says one community activist. "I've never actually gotten to use it."

People aren't using the Aguirre center's gymnasium, either. Not long after the center opened, basketball players found that dribbles bounced unpredictably. Athletes tripped running up and down the courts. Soil moisture seeping through the walls has caused the floor boards to expand, badly warping the expensive surface. City workers have cut grooves in the wood in an effort to flatten the floor, a temporary fix until they can resolve the moisture problems. Meanwhile, the organizers of the Latino Men's Basketball Tournament last year had to scramble to find other gymnasiums where more than twenty teams, many from out of state, could face off. Now, the gym attracts a few bored kids who want to shoot hoops and escape the heat.

The pool and the gymnasium take up most of the usable space in the center -- the building's fancy atrium and curved staircase leave room for little else. But problems persist in all areas.

A neighborhood activist from the West Side Community Action Network Center sent a memo to city officials in February listing many troubles that still bedevil the center: window seepage, rusting structural beams, poor air quality caused by mold and mildew, rusty lights, sloppy caulking along the floor, faulty drainage that causes water to puddle on changing-room floors, lack of ventilation, uneven steps, an elevator that often doesn't work, grungy floors and a leaking roof.

Residents hate the exercise area, which lack of space limits to nothing but a few treadmills and stair-stepping machines. Nautilus equipment is crammed into a tiny area near the reception desk, where self-conscious exercisers are vulnerable to gawks and stares from every visitor. A few more pieces of equipment are stashed across from the reception desk. The center's planning was so severely compromised that the project's last architect was unaware there was going to be an exercise area in the building at all.

"That would have been a nice thing to know about," the architect quips. "I was wondering what that mirrored wall was for."

No private office was included in the building's design, so the center's director works in the reception area. Upstairs, an undersized conference room was inexplicably equipped with partitions to allow three simultaneous meetings. The Coalition of Hispanic Organizations tried to meet there several times but found that, even undivided, the room was too cramped. The group now gathers instead at Penn Valley Community College. "It was just too small," one member says. "We had to find another place."

The building has no roof gutters -- a problem the city may remedy, according to Mark McHenry, deputy director of the parks and recreation department.

"There's not one downspout there," agrees Adriano. "With that curved roof, the water just rolls down like Niagara Falls. And in the wintertime, that parking lot's a skating rink."

By the time the city got serious about building a West Side community center in 1992, the neighborhood had lost all patience with promises. In the 1970s, when the city widened Southwest Trafficway, it bulldozed the community center where Aguirre had played basketball and billiards as a boy. West Side residents responded with anger and protests, he remembers. City leaders pledged to build a new center but didn't for years.

"We got nothing," Aguirre says. "Nothing." Just a pathetic wading pool in Jarboe Park.

"We didn't have anything, and we were one of the oldest neighborhoods in Kansas City," remembers Cris Medina, executive director of the nonprofit Guadalupe Center, which provides social services, programs and youth sports activities on the West Side. "The community had been here for years, and we just really felt neglected and overlooked." The Guadalupe Center leased the old gym at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, but it was cramped and had no air conditioning.

In the late 1980s, the city's parks and recreation department determined that Kansas City didn't have enough community centers. Parks officials created a plan to fund six new community centers by persuading voters to pass a special vehicle tax. City officials approached community leaders, asking for help in persuading citizens to pass the measure.

Lali Garcia, a West Side activist since her father helped organize a political club in an old barber shop on Southwest Boulevard in the 1960s, played a key role in getting West Side voters to pass the referendum. As a great-grandmother, Garcia thought the community center initiative sounded like a great idea. As president of the La Raza political club, she joined other community leaders negotiating with then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver and his parks board president, Ollie Gates: They'd ask their people to vote for the plan if the city promised that the West Side would be the first to get a new community center. It was a deal -- West Side residents thought.

"I was really involved with trying to get people to vote for it," Garcia says. "We talked it up at meetings and churches and made phone calls. We went door-to-door, telling people, 'Look, if you vote for this, it's going to be good for the community."

In 1992, voters approved the vehicle tax. West Side residents believed they would soon have a building to be proud of. They petitioned the city to name it the Tony Aguirre Community Center. Residents felt the shy, modest man deserved the recognition after working with the community's youth all his life. "I didn't believe it," he says quietly about the moment he learned of the honor.

Tony Aguirre was born on the West Side to parents who had immigrated from a tiny pueblo in Mexico. He and his six siblings grew up during the Depression in a crowded house at 2311 Holly, just down the street from Observation Park.

During sweltering summer Saturdays in the 1930s, Aguirre's mother would walk her kids eight blocks to a well-used community center at what is now 27th Street and Southwest Trafficway. The Aguirre kids and their playmates would horse around, shoot hoops in the gym and then go hang out in the recreation room and play pool while their mothers sat in the lounge and chatted in Spanish.

"It was something to do," Aguirre remembers now. "A place to go."

Young Tony wasn't very athletic. He was a chubby kid who watched the bigger, more muscular boys and dreamed about being like them. "I wasn't very good," he says. "But I tried hard."

The nuns who taught Aguirre at school encouraged him to practice. He did, and he slowly improved as an athlete. As a teen-ager at Redemptorist High, he played year-round: tight end for the school's football team, guard in basketball and second base on the diamond in spring. One day, a nun approached Aguirre and asked him to volunteer to coach children at the Guadalupe Center, a longtime hub of community programs on the West Side.

Aguirre loved coaching. "It was the only thing I wanted to do," he says. He skipped college and, after twelve years of volunteering, he got a part-time paid job as a coach at the center. But his income was earned working for the city's water department and as a busboy and bartender.

In 1965, Aguirre became the Guadalupe Center's full-time athletic director, a job whose main duty, he says, is "making sure every kid plays." Over the next three decades, he oversaw the neighborhood's sports teams and emerged as a father figure in the Hispanic community.

As the city moved toward fulfilling its long-unkept promise of building a community center, West Side residents demanded that the city listen to their views on the project. After years of brushing off the residents, the city found it couldn't say no, not even when West Side residents told a site-selection committee that the center should be built on a steeply sloping, rocky piece of land. Perhaps driven by sentimentality and lofty visions of an attractive building in the heart of their community, residents ar-gued passionately for the impractical site at West Pennway and 21st Street, and the city relented.

"I think we picked a good site geographically because it's right there on West Pennway, but it's a very challenging site because of the topography. It's a split grade," says McHenry, who has supervised major parks department projects, including the expansion of the Kansas City Zoo in the early '90s and the just-completed restoration of Liberty Memorial, and has been trying since 2000 to make things right at the Aguirre center.

A ruined apartment building sat on the site, which was owned by the Housing Authority of Kansas City. In 1992, the authority was a mess, housing Kansas City's poor in run-down and crime-ridden projects. Its management was so bad that a federal judge placed the agency under control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That created problems for the proposed community center, because HUD had strict standards for property sales, and city officials had to fill out reams of federal paperwork to obtain the land.

The bureaucratic entanglements caused some delays, so the city began the design process before it owned the site. Parks officials chose Bruce Patty, a veteran local architect, to design the new community center after his firm, Patty-Archer Architects and Engineers, submitted the lowest bid. Patty met with city officials and residents and heard about the kind of center they wanted. It was supposed to be bright, bold, unusual -- a reflection of the community's Mexican heritage.

Patty got creative -- perhaps a little too creative. He sketched a complex brick building with red, turquoise and purple fixtures and trim and with a barrel-vaulted roof over the gym. He dealt with the grade changes on the site by essentially designing three buildings that would be stuck together.

"There were some things that could have been designed differently," McHenry acknowledges now. "When you design a concept as to how it looks, and then you go and try to transfer that to the details of actually constructing it, it's a challenge."

Patty left Patty-Archer in early 1994, just before the company dissolved. He took the project with him to his new firm but stopped working on it when construction drawings were about half done. Then Patty died of cancer.

Architect Pat Harriman of the ET Archer firm, which formed from the remnants of Patty-Archer, had the project thrust on him. Parks officials told him that the construction drawings were about 90 percent complete, but Harriman soon informed them that there was a lot of work left to be done.

"I didn't want the project from the beginning," Harriman says. "It was a mess when I got it. It's not a simple design. It's a composite design that's made up of some really dissimilar elements on a really difficult site.

"I'm coming into this thing late in the game, and I'm sitting here looking at a structure that looks like the box Disneyland came in. And I don't know why in the hell decisions were made the way they were made because I wasn't privy to the process," Harriman remembers with frustration.

Harriman and a team from ET Archer -- including a draftsman, a technician, a structural engineer, a plumbing engineer, a mechanical engineer, a civil engineer and a pool consultant -- scrambled to finish the construction drawings. Everyone pressed them to hurry. Harriman remembers when parks and recreation department construction manager Victoria Roque told him he had about ten days to finish the drawings because the project had to go out to bid.

"We were not able to finish it, in my opinion," Harriman says. "And I sure don't like the idea of putting something out on the street until it's complete. It gives me a nasty taste in my mouth."

The city took construction bids on the project in early February 1997. Completed plans were not available to bidders, and the city codes department had not yet approved the project. By late that month, however, the parks department had received seven bids. The lowest bid was from a Hispanic-owned business, Vina Construction, of Stilwell, Kansas. The firm was owned by Regina Fries, who had grown up in the West Side housing project that had been on the site.

Fries, whose parents are from Mexico, remembers a small playground at the edge of the site. When she started Vina Construction in 1989 and began doing electrical work for Kansas City Power & Light, she had dreams of becoming a general contractor and building big projects on the West Side.

"Regina really wanted this job," says Joy Parrish Vohs, a spokeswoman for Vina Construction. "She wanted to do this project so bad. More than any job she had ever wanted in her whole life. She wanted this one to be a winner."

Vina Construction had never handled a project of that size before and had primarily operated as an electrical subcontractor, but city sources say that locals rooted passionately for Fries. Everyone pictured the little West Side girl who had grown up in poverty coming back as an adult to transform the neighborhood with a dazzling new building. Now they downplay their support for Fries, but members of the West Side community, the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations and the Kansas City Hispanic Association Contractors Enterprise met with city officials to encourage the city to choose Fries, the only Hispanic bidder, to build the community center. They wanted a Hispanic to get the job. And they prevailed.

"We wanted to make sure she got fair consideration from the city," says Jerry Adriano of the association. "Historically, Hispanic contractors have been overlooked. We assumed she was qualified because the city let her bid."

At the end of April 1997, the parks and recreation board awarded the contract to Vina Construction. "There was lots of support in the Hispanic community for that particular contractor," McHenry says sheepishly. "They had the West Side connection. It just seemed like the right thing to do."

In May, the codes department finally completed its review of the plans. According to a parks department document, "extensive and time-consuming modifications were required to meet code approval." The project went back to the drawing board.

The city's slow pace and disorganization didn't help the inexperienced contractor. It wasn't until four months after awarding the bid that the city finished writing the contract and issued a notice telling Vina to proceed with the project. It took another four months before Vina received the necessary building permit from the city.

When Vina started construction on the 27,000-square-foot building February 9, 1998, the company encountered major problems with the rocky site. Vohs recalls that the geotechnical survey done by a city-hired consultant was "spotty" and did not reveal that the company would have to drill 80 feet to install concrete piers because the alternating layers of weak shale and limestone rock underground could not support the building.

"When construction began, they realized not only did they have drainage problems, but they were trying to set this massive structure on a hill they had no idea was basically rock," Vohs says.

That immediately cost the city an extra $175,000 on Vina's bid to excavate and remove rock not only for the piers but for the pool. To rebound from the initial setback and save some money, the city decided to eliminate a large amphitheater that had been planned outside the center.

Because Vina's bid could not account for designing and engineering changes made after its estimate was submitted, the company sought "a whole mess of change orders," Harriman says. Those seventeen amendments to the construction contract were "lost in a quagmire of papers on [Roque's] desk," he says. But Roque maintains that the delays were not her fault and were caused by normal parks department procedures. "I managed all the other community centers, and they turned out fine," Roque says.

The project's many change orders included $886 to "change interior signage to add Spanish," $34,000 to relocate an electrical transformer and $28,000 to buy more steel and masonry for the center's elaborate entry. Harriman says he and Vohs repeatedly delivered change orders to Roque that she did not process. But Roque denies that she stalled or lost change orders and says she did a good job on the project.

"Buildings go together in a sequence of events," Harriman says. "And if you've got a change order out there hanging and you've got no action being taken on that change order, I mean, nobody's telling you yes or no, then all of a sudden the sequence of events gets pretty muddled and the construction process slows down. And it did. Because those change orders sat on Victoria's desk, and no action was taken on them until she got around to doing it." The city regularly took months to process change orders on the project.

As the project wore on and other community centers funded by the car- registration tax rose on other sites around the city, word passed to McHenry, Roque's boss, that the West Side community center project had big problems.

"It became readily apparent that they were in over their heads," McHenry says of Vina Construction. "We were able to contrast and compare with other community centers and say, 'Hey, this isn't going so great.' They changed superintendents midproject, and that was an indicator. The progress of the work was slow -- very slow. They asked a lot of questions. They were having problems reviewing the plans, and you started to wonder if they even understood them."

Vina's spokeswoman, Vohs, says that on visits to the site, Roque complained about cost overruns and money problems and that subcontractors became nervous about the possibility of not getting paid for their work. "That was a big demotivator for the subcontractors," Vohs says. Vina began having problems getting the subcontractors to show up for work, she adds.

During the course of the project, the city withheld 10 percent from each payment to Vina. Vina's attorney, Bill DeBauche, says that Vina in turn withheld 10 percent from its payments to subcontractors, causing them to complain to the city. In all, the city withheld about $300,000 from Vina's payments.

McHenry began paying frequent visits to the work site, and he says the place was a mess. "When you start seeing a lot of junk all over the property," McHenry says, "you start saying, 'This guy is sloppy.'"

Finally, parks and recreation director Terry Dopson took Roque off the project and replaced her with McHenry. The project began to proceed more efficiently, Harriman and Vohs say -- but McHenry may have come too late.

The parks department asked Vina to complete the project in time for a summer naming ceremony. Vina wrote to McHenry, projecting a late June 2000 completion date and claiming that the job site was "bustling with activity."

"You can guess what happened," McHenry says grimly. "They didn't finish." In July 2000, the city held a ceremony to name the Tony Aguirre Community Center -- at an embarrassingly incomplete building that was rife with problems.

"Of course, all that was pointed out to the contractor," McHenry says. His list of problems started a flurry of angry memos between McHenry and Vina.

"I'm appalled at the lack of progress being made toward the completion of this project," McHenry wrote to Vina in November 2000. "It seems that every week a new and serious problem arises that prevents the center from becoming fully operational. These continuing delays damage the reputation of the city, the architect and the contractor. It is also costing each of us significant amounts of money in labor, supplies and operating costs that were not anticipated at the start of this project." He added, "The time has come to stop procrastinating and get this building finished."

The contractor corrected a few of the 41 problems McHenry had cited, but new problems arose and lengthened the list again. Ceiling tiles were falling. There were holes in the wall of the women's bathroom. Paint on some walls was blistering. Faucets were dripping. A drinking fountain did not work. A men's room urinal was leaking. Water was seeping through walls. Rainwater was leaking and collecting on the reception counter. The pool's office door would not close, and so on.

By that time, the project had gone two years past its original construction deadline. The Aguirre center was falling apart as fast as it was being built. Meanwhile, five other new community centers were open and had been running with few problems for as long as five years.

Regina Fries' husband, Vincent Fries, wrote an angry letter to McHenry, blaming problems on the parks department and complaining that Vina "has incurred significant additional costs due to incomplete and deficiency-ridden plans and the incompetence and delays caused by the project management of the parks department."

"It is Vina Construction who has had to suffer through years of dealing with the parks department and the ineptness of the parks department staff," Vincent Fries wrote. "Perhaps you forget the numerous visits we made to parks board meetings, begging for signed change orders, pleading for the processing of paperwork because the job was being so detrimentally delayed. ... Perhaps you have forgotten that Vina was not able to obtain a permit for the job until December 15, 1997, due to the incomplete plans and major revisions that had to be undertaken to correct the drawings in order for them to be approved by the city."

McHenry replied, "I acknowledge that some of the early-on delays were attributable to Parks and Recreation ... however, we do not own the sole responsibility for the delays to date."

Finally, in March 2001, after several warnings to the company for lack of progress on McHenry's lists of deficiencies, the city declared Vina in default of its contract and took over the project. The parks department declared Vina liable for all costs incurred by the city in completing the work and tried to finish the center using city staff and some subcontractors.

But the city didn't fix the problems, either.

The center opened to the public in November 2001. When Mayor Kay Barnes visited the West Side last year, more than 100 angry residents gathered to gripe about the community center's poor design and ongoing problems. City council members Evert Asjes and Jim Rowland visited the community center and wrote a February 2002 letter to the parks board president, Karen Daniel, calling their visit to the center "extremely distressing" and demanding that problems be addressed.

"The facility is just a couple of years old and is falling apart," Asjes and Rowland wrote, and even that was an understatement. "The workers and residents have complained to the Parks Department time and time again and get either piecemeal solutions or are ignored completely. It is commendable that they continue to serve the citizens of that area from a building that clearly should be bulldozed and rebuilt."

An April 2002 review of Kansas City's community centers by city auditor Mark Funkhauser showed that resident use was low at all of Kansas City's centers but pathetic for the Tony Aguirre Community Center. In 1999 and 2000 the Aguirre Center had no visitors because it still wasn't open to the public. In fiscal year 2001, the Brush Creek community center logged 91,359 visits; the Gregg/ Klice community center on the east side had 89,882. The Aguirre center had only 12,068 visits. The audit showed that the Aguirre center cost more than any other center: more than $4.3 million, a half million dollars more than originally bid.

West Side residents are upset. Instead of having the city's first new center, as they were promised, theirs was the last. Other centers in the initiative opened as early as seven years ago, with the Hillcrest Community Center, on Hillcrest Road near Bannister Mall, being the first, in November 1995, at a cost of just $2.7 million.

The city and Vina are in what McHenry calls "litigation mode" but so far have not sued each other. If the city is able to fix the current problems at the center using the money withheld from Vina's payments, then the city probably will not sue, says parks department attorney Maggie Moran.

"If we run out of money, we'd consider it," Moran says.

Vina does not plan to sue the city, Vohs says, but has been nearly financially devastated by the Aguirre Center problems. Thirteen subcontractors filed lawsuits against Vina seeking money withheld. All but four of those have been settled, according to Vina's lawyer, DeBauche.

Vohs says Vina has not filed for bankruptcy yet but is struggling financially. "We're having a really hard time," she says. "It's given the company an unnecessary black eye. I think it's real easy to point to the general contractor and say, 'You should have done something to stop this mess.' The only thing we could have done is not bid the job. ... Regina's lucky to be able to walk down the streets of the West Side without people throwing eggs at her."

But even Vohs agrees that the center just plain sucks.

"It was going to be the Cadillac of all the community centers," Vohs says sadly. "But it didn't turn out to be the Cadillac. It kinda turned out to be that Volkswagen with all the clowns in it. And that sucks for the community, and it sucks for the kids."

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