After unexpectedly throwing out a hard-won contract for the development of a grand linear park through the heart of New Orleans, the city has reopened bidding. But this time, the urban planners who won the first contract say the question is not how to win the contract with City Hall, but whether they want to.
“It’s only been one day since the new RFP (pdf) was released. We are weighing it in the office, said Steven Spears, a principal at Design Workshop. “It’s such an amazing project to be a part of, yet it’s become something of a roller coaster.”
The ride began more than a year ago when the city issued its first request for proposals to design the three-mile Lafitte Greenway stretching from Armstrong Park to Canal Boulevard along an abandoned rail corridor. After a competitive bidding process and months of negotiation, Spears signed an $892,000 contract (pdf) with the city.
The contract obligated Design Workshop to hold community meetings, survey and plan the site, develop a construction schedule and work with City Hall to make sure the project proceeded as planned. Company officials were thrilled at the opportunity to work with the city on a project they felt passionately about.
“I love New Orleans,” Spears said. “Many of our consultants are local and our principal is from Louisiana. We were honored and humbled to be chosen for such an incredible project with such an incredible community behind it.”
It then came as a quite a surprise to Spears when in early January another letter bearing Nagin’s signature arrived at his office, this one saying the contract had been “terminated.” No warning had been given that the contract was at risk, and the letter included no explanations.
It’s rare for a government to rebid a project after a contract has been signed, even in New Orleans where public work routinely comes with headaches. The decision to throw out the agreement came after a meeting in November between members of the Nagin administration and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department officials in New Orleans to monitor how the city is spending the $411 million in HUD Disaster Community Block Development Grants it is eligible to receive.
HUD ordered the city to change the city’s procurement policy, and it said that all public bidding should be stopped, and no contracts should be signed until HUD approved the new policy, correspondence between city and state officials shows. Contracts signed under the previous procurement policy would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
The complaint centered on the mayor’s policy of favoring bids that include minority businesses that operate an office in New Orleans.
“HUD didn’t feel that the local-office provision should be there,” Dubravka Gilic, the city’s director of strategic planning said in an interview in January.
Nagin signed the contract with Spears on Nov. 13, within days of the meeting with HUD. The decision to terminate it was made by an entity referred to as a “Recovery board” by city technology chief Harrison Boyd in an e-mail to a citizen who raised questions. There is no mention of a recovery board on the city Web site. The city has not yet responded to a reporter’s questions about who is on the board and what its role is in City Hall.
For those who spent over a year shepherding the project, the decision to rebid was not an obvious one. Or a good one.
“The decision to rebid did not take into account all the time, resources and community efforts that went into advertising and negotiating the first contract,” said Jennifer Ruley, a planner who managed the project for the Department of Public Works before the decision was made to rebid. Nearly a full year – 11 months—passed between the time the city advertised the first professional service contract for the greenway and when Spears signed his contract. Redoing the bureaucratic process could easily set the project back another full year, Ruley said.
Nonetheless, Ruley says she would prefer to make the delay even longer than see it move forward under the Nagin administration.
“I believe all major contracts that will extend into the next administration should at this point benefit from the consideration of the next administration,” Ruley said.
Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu agrees. Last month he asked Nagin not to sign major contracts in the final months before the city’s leadership changes on May 3. While it is not likely that a contract could be signed and negotiated before early May, Ruley said that she would rather the next administration not inherit an already troubled bidding process.
As a result of the HUD orders, four projects worth a total of $35 million were put on temporary hold and rebid. Of the four, the Lafitte Greenway was the only project rebid after a contract was signed. It was also the only project that changed management.
Nagin shifted oversight of the Lafitte Greenway project to the administration’s own Office of Community Development. That office became the city’s chief recovery agency after Recovery Czar Ed Blakely left New Orleans last summer. The powerful office is run by longtime Nagin aide Kenya Smith.
The original request for bids issued at the end of 2008 was managed by the Department of Public Works and City Planning, departments with fewer ties to the administration.