What Cal U hasn’t divulged since collapse at parking garage last year

Source: http://www.post-gazette.com, October 7, 2017
By: Bill Schackner

Michael Kanalis knew early on that the state university where he works was looking straight up at a problem — a big one.

When a concrete chunk longer than a car inexplicably fell to the floor inside a five-story parking garage that had opened just six years before, California University of Pennsylvania lost not only prime parking in the heart of campus but fees it sorely needed to offset its growing yearly debt.

In an email days after the August 2016 collapse, Mr. Kanalis, interim director of facilities, said he informed an outside engineer that Cal U needed reassurance that the problem would not occur in other parts of the garage — and it needed to know in a timely fashion.

“I told him that for each day the garage is off line it is creating a growing financial burden to the university,” wrote Mr. Kanalis in a Sept. 16, 2016 email.

The email was among hundreds of pages of correspondence obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through the state’s Right-to Know Law.

More than a year later, Vulcan Garage remains closed, which means those parking fees are not available to pay off publicly financed bonds on the $12 million building.

Costs, meanwhile, continue to escalate around a collapse that Cal U has declined to discuss in any significant detail for more than a year.

State treasury records indicate that to date, Cal U has spent as much as a quarter-million dollars on consultants investigating the collapse and preparing for litigation. More costs appear inevitable as Cal U decides what is needed to ensure the garage behind the campus library is stable enough to reopen.

The 650-space garage, named for Cal U’s Vulcan mascot, was part of a $1 billion-plus building boom during the previous decade that transformed Cal U and the rest of the State System of Higher Education with new glass-enclosed campus centers, upscale residence halls and other improvements.

The building and borrowing across the 14 state-owned universities helped those schools boost enrollment. But some of the projects, the garage among them, also drew criticism as enrollments began to slide and debt service payments added to financial strains on campuses already facing classroom cuts.

Cal U carries the largest debt among the 14 system universities, in part because it decided to buy back residence halls from an affiliated organization to hold down costs. The university’s total yearly debt service, including the garage project, is $14.9 million on $163 million borrowed.

State university debt-load Total outstanding debt and yearly debt service payments for the 14 state-owned universities belonging to the State System of Higher Education, 2016-17 (most current data available, include debt paid not only through tuition and fees and state appropriation but also by dining/residence hall charges and activities fees):

*Higher figures for California, Edinboro, Mansfield and Lock Haven universities in part reflect decisions by those schools to buy back residence hall projects from affiliated entities. Source: State System of Higher Education | Graphic: James Hilston/Post-Gazette

For 13 months, Cal U has declined to provide details about the garage’s design, provide a full list of contractors, or what it suspects caused part of a cement deck to fall onto the garage’s first floor.

But records turned over after Cal U lost a yearlong effort to shield them from public scrutiny indicate that days after the collapse, a theory emerged as to what went wrong.

The documents and materials turned over to the newspaper include garage surveillance video that captures the moment concrete rained down near two startled women unloading a parked car.

The garage’s floor framing consists of precast concrete load-bearing structures called double-tees, each 12-feet wide, with extensions or “flanges” reinforced with carbon fiber mesh, according to documents and emails.

Outside engineer Wiss, Janney Elstner Associates summarized the suspected problem in a Sept. 13, 2016 email to Mr. Kanalis just after the firm was hired to investigate and analyze the failure.

“You (Mr. Kanalis) have reported that part of a double-tee flange on the second level failed and collapsed to the floor below,” wrote Phillip Elgin, an engineer with the firm.

In another email four days after the collapse, university architect Douglas Philp told colleagues that visual evidence suggested a connection had failed “either because of a bad or insufficient weld . . . or from unanticipated forces on these connections from a failure or overload in the adjacent area.”

Yet another email put the size of the failure at 31 feet by nearly three feet.

The failure occurred Aug. 26, 2016 as students were preparing for the start of fall classes last year. In the days after barricades went up and cars were quickly removed, engineers and other professionals pored over the garage’s design calculations, and some walked through the empty structure to eyeball the ceiling hole and other cracks.

Four days after the concrete fell, Robert Thorn, Cal U vice president for finance and administration, forwarded to Mr. Kanalis and others an article from a journal published by Hoffmann Architects, a Connecticut firm specializing in rehabilitating building exteriors.

The article, “What’s Wrong With My Precast Concrete Parking Garage?” apparently resonated with the Cal U vice president.

It said concrete elements made in a plant and then shipped to a construction site can be less costly, erected faster and be more durable than concrete fabricated at the site. But it also referenced “a spate of precast concrete parking garage failures in recent years” and discussed various type of problems.

“Very enlightening information,” Mr. Thorn wrote. “It is exactly our issues.”

Pre-cast concrete garages are becoming more prevalent, said Lawrence Keenan, director of engineering for Hoffmann Architects.

Among pre-cast garages his firm sees after they develop problems, a lot have connection failures involving the components, he explained. But cast-in-place construction, Mr. Keenan added, has issues too, including cracks into which chlorides often from road salt can enter. Over time, it can corrode reinforcing steel, he said.

An occupancy permit for the garage was issued in August 2010 by the state Department of Labor and Industry’s Bureau of Occupational and Industrial Safety. Agency spokeswoman Theresa Eilliott said the building would have had to meet construction code but declined to discuss anything about what the inspection entailed.

At Cal U, the $12 million garage plus $8 million in other parking enhancements were developed during the administration of then university President Angelo Armenti Jr. As an auxiliary project, debt service and operating costs were to be covered by parking revenue.

But parking income did not fully cover those costs, even when the garage was open.

A complete cost accounting was not available from Cal U. But in 2013, it reported that the $1,551,357 in yearly debt service plus $510,100 in operating costs left a deficit of $743,041 in 2010-11, even with $1,318,416 in revenue as the campus transitioned to a pay parking system.

The revenue picture worsened for Cal U after the state Supreme Court ruled that faculty had been improperly charged to pay for parking and ordered return of $242,000.

Last fall, Cal U turned over some emails sought by the Post-Gazette about the garage but withheld hundreds of other pages, appealing a decision by the state Office of Open Records to Commonwealth Court. There, the newspaper and its attorney Frederick Frank, of Frank, Gail, Bails, Murcko & Pocrass, largely prevailed.

In August, the court ordered release of more than 550 pages, nearly all of what had been withheld.

This week, Cal U spokeswoman Christine Kindl declined comment on the newly released emails. Nor would she update the investigation, other than to say Cal U is weighing a solution and “there are probably both engineering elements to that solution and legal elements.”

However, in an email Friday, she said the debt service on the garage as of July 1 stood at $9,044,749.28. She also said that to date the university has spent $263,673 on professional services related to the garage failure.

Mr. Kanalis, Mr. Thorn, Mr. Elgin and Mr. Philp did not respond to requests for comment for this article, nor did firms referenced in the emails including Manheim Corp., the project’s general contractor.

Concern for safety was evident in some emails.

In one email, Mr. Kanalis said the school needed to know if problems with design, construction or both were responsible and noted that “it is the university’s stance that the garage will only be reopened once the entire structure is deemed safe.”

Other emails focused on how much to tell the public.

Mr. Thorn, who is also Cal U’s Right to Know Officer, was asked in one email if an engineering firm analyzing the failure should bill the university as it performs work, or wait.

“Let’s wait, because once They (sic) invoice us it will become discoverable under [Right to Know],” he replied. “Until we get a report and findings issues (sic) I want to minimize documents like these.”

In other emails, staff debated whether to say in posted announcements that the garage “is” closed or “remains” closed.

And in still others, staff pondered whether to mention the garage failure during the fall faculty and staff convocation.

“It does seem like the “topic of the day” but I have concerns about mentioning this because it’s a matter involved in negotiations,” wrote Ms. Kindl, the university’s associate vice president for communications and public relations. “One wrong word and we’re in the soup.”

Came the reply soon after from the president’s office: “Sounds like we leave it be and don’t mention it. Thanks.”

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