A new game at Aspen’s Burlingame housing
ASPEN – As the city of Aspen prepares to finish what it started with its largest and most controversial affordable housing development, officials have turned to experts for guidance.
Leaning on the “smart people,” as one official put it, gives the local government more control over the final construction phases at Burlingame Ranch, a city-owned and -developed affordable housing project just upvalley from the Aspen Business Center and across Highway 82 from Buttermilk.
The city has recently begun planning efforts to build another 161 multi-family units and six single-family homes in the development, which already has 84 condos and seven single-family lots, four of which have been built on.
The city so far has hired two outside firms to be part of the development team for Burlingame. Two more are expected to be added this week.
The firms are part of what’s known as an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) design effort, which is estimated to cost $4.3 million for phase two of Burlingame. The Aspen City Council is expected to approve $1.2 million in initial contracts by March 22.
Made up mostly of young families, Burlingame has provided some 300 locals with an affordable place to live and has received national recognition for its environmental objectives. But it hasn’t come without controversy.
In 2008, it was discovered that a 2005 city brochure about Burlingame was off in total costs by millions of dollars. City officials admitted the error. The brochure stated that the total cost of all phases of the project was $74 million, but that was only the cost of on-site construction. It did not include the cost of the land, infrastructure, design, engineering, changes made by the city council, inflation in construction costs and other expenses.
Those omissions have provided ammunition for critics of the government and the affordable housing program, and have cast doubt on whether city officials are competent to develop and manage such a large project. Accordingly, city officials have spent much of the past two years on the defensive, touting the project and the integrity of the housing program.
“This was not meant to be evasive but nonetheless was a mistake that should not have happened,” according to a statement on the city’s website, which has a page devoted to Burlingame.
“We understand the sense of outrage from friends and neighbors after they saw such numbers in the media,” the website states. “However, this was a mistake in a brochure, not a mistake in accounting or building Burlingame.”
As city officials prepare for the final phase of the development, they are changing how it will be planned, built and delivered. They also recognize the uphill battle they face when it comes to public perception; they continue to repeat that the first phase of the project was delivered on time and on budget at $52 million.
“It was the brochure and the politics in town,” said Assistant City Manager Barry Crook about the lingering effects of the controversy.
Also debated in the community has been the city subsidy of $350,593 per Burlingame unit. The costs grew beyond initial projections partly because of changes made by different city councils, including $2 million for interior upgrades and $3 million in sales-price adjustments after would-be buyers complained that the units were too expensive.
Officials say the subsidy is in line with other affordable housing projects, even ones built by the private sector. Still, the City Hall team leading the next phase of Burlingame recognizes that more and clearer communication with the public needs to occur at every step along the way – not only to keep critics at bay but also to keep potential partners aware of costs, direction and planning efforts.
“People want information and to be educated,” said Chris Everson, the city’s affordable housing project manager, adding that the electorate will eventually vote on a multi-million dollar bond to finance the project.
“Maybe the city didn’t do a good job of explaining all of the costs,” he said of phase one.
Officials are reluctant to give an estimate of how much the development will cost because there are many decisions that need to be made that will affect the bottom line.
“I hesitate to put out preliminary numbers to create another brochure moment,” Crook said.
Based on recommendations from citizen committees and an independent audit of Burlingame’s first phase, a completely different approach is being taken this time. The city will be in the driver’s seat and officials will have more control over costs, quality and everything in between.
While it’s been discussed for the past year that the IPD model will be used this time around, it has largely flown under the radar in the community-wide discussion.
In phase one, the city used a “design-build” model, in which the government held a design competition and the council awarded a contract to the winning team, Shaw Builders, Poss Architecture and DHM Design.
“The design-build is a bit of a black box,” Everson said. “The council is buying a product from them.”
Scott Summers, associate principal with Phoenix-based Rider Levett Bucknall, is a team member for Burlingame phase two and his firm is serving as the owner’s agent. He said the city’s previous design-build method isn’t as effective as IPD.
“Using a design competition is very dangerous because it’s a beauty contest,” he said.
The IPD model allows the owner, in this case the city, to be more involved and the process is much more transparent.
“We’re not going to let them go off on a tangent and spend too much,” Everson said. “By the time we have a guaranteed maximum price [bid] and the plans, there won’t be any surprises.”
The IPD model incorporates third-party oversight, with the owner’s agent serving as an extension of city staff.
He said his firm will focus on costs and the project’s schedule, among other things.
“We’ll be watching the contractor’s costs and where there are efficiencies and what subcontractors are used,” to ensure local workers are employed on the project, Summers said.
The architect/design team will be led by Boulder-based Oz Architecture and will lead the effort in preparing the 16 acres for infrastructure and the 20 buildings that are planned to be built.
Centennial, Colo.-based Haselden Construction will be responsible for pre-construction services, consulting with the architect on building design. Haselden will be responsible for providing the city with a guaranteed maximum price (GMP).
Crook characterized the city’s relationship with Haselden up to the GMP point as a “dating process,” and that if the price is not acceptable, a new contractor can be selected.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion that they will build the project,” he said.
Everson said the city team and the owner’s agent will be able to analyze the contractor’s estimated costs line by line.
“It’s going to be an open book,” he said.
Golden, Colo.-based Engineering Economics is expected to be hired as the commissioning agent, which will serve as an extra set of eyes on the project and ensure quality control.
The firm also will look for efficiencies during the project, commenting on how the design team is doing and when the project is complete, the commissioning agent will test the systems before the final payments to the contractor and the rest of the team are released.
“When we take possession, we will know everything is working,” said Steve Bossart, project manager for the city.
Team members are scheduled to meet this week as a kick-off to the planning effort.
The first phase of Burlingame has received international attention for its energy efficiency measures.
The city set out to adopt standards developed by the U.S. Department of Energy Building America program, which mandates that 50 percent energy savings be realized in the units, based on 1990s construction standards.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) tested one unit in each building for two years to gauge energy usage. Last summer, NREL presented a paper at the International Conference on Energy Sustainability, which reported that Burlingame achieved 41 percent energy savings.
“We got involved largely because it was a project designed for affordable housing,” said Bob Hendron of NREL, based in Golden, Colo. “A lot of our projects are designed for rich people.
“Burlingame was intended to be more down to earth, and that made it appealing to us.”
Bossart said using cement board instead of wood for the structures’ siding and ensuring the building envelopes were airtight achieved most of the efficiencies.
“Through design we achieved it without it costing any more,” he said.
Lumber and labor reductions varied from $700 to $2,400 per unit. It’s estimated that decisions made on how the buildings were built saved about 50 acres of forest, Bossart said.
The team plans to build on what has already been done at Burlingame and make improvements based on suggestions from NREL and other consultants.
Bossart said improvements to the design for snow on roofs and sidewalks will be addressed in phase two, as well as shading of the buildings.
It’s likely that the city will be scrutinized heavily during the next phase of Burlingame and so far, in typical Aspen fashion, there are differences of opinion. But observers who were involved in the citizen committees after phase one seem satisfied that their recommendations are being followed.
Ward Hauenstein, a former member of the constructions experts group assembled by City Manager Steve Barwick, said the city seems to be taking a “lessons learned” approach to the project .
“What I’ve seen, I’ve been impressed,” Hauenstein said. “The elephant in the room is the funding.”
The city has asked Pitkin County and other entities like the school district and the hospital to be partners in the next phase, but none have committed yet.
Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley said, “we’ve made it clear to the city that we are not interested in partnering with them in Burlingame … The political burden is something that the city needs to take on.”
City officials will continue to attempt to convince potential partners that Burlingame is a solid investment and the crown jewel of the affordable housing program.
The need for affordable housing is still great and the units will be built in phases, depending on demand. Completion could take up to 10 years.
“We are well aware of the market demand for our product,” Crook said.
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