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Federal courthouse keeps up costly ways

The latest fix calls for new windows on two floors of the 9-year-old building in Tampa. Who gets the tab is unclear.

Published April 4, 2006

TAMPA - The Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse opened nearly nine years ago, months behind schedule and $6-million over budget.

A water line broke mid construction and flooded the downtown building. A worker was crushed to death while installing a 1,500-pound palm tree. The judges' benches were too low and had to be raised, bringing the building's total cost to $64.5-million.

Now, an additional million dollars' worth of work is needed.

The windows on the top two floors of the 17-story building leak and have for years, said Gary Mote, spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings.

Akima Construction of North Carolina started reinstalling the windows in January and should be finished within "60 to 90 days, at the minimum," Mote said.

Last week, scaffolding filled the hallway outside Judge Elizabeth E. Kovachevich's 17th-floor courtroom. A sign greeted visitors when they got off the elevator: "Caution. Men Working Overhead."

It was unclear whether taxpayers or the original contractor, Clark Construction Group LLC, would cover the $1-million bill.

"We're working with the contractor, and we're going to seek any remedies necessary," Mote said. "We're just trying to get the building airtight right now."

Mote said the windows were installed in a process known as "interior glazing," in which the windows can be replaced from the inside rather than the outside.

"It was just deemed better to do it that way, because in the future, glass replacement is easier," Mote said. "And it's an aesthetic thing."

Tony Gallivan, a Clark Construction executive, said the large windows on the top floors were assembled in pieces and installed.

"There should be no leaks," he said.

The company performed work at the courthouse about a year ago, recaulking windows and repairing the roof, he said. The work fell under warranty.

Mote said there is "ongoing dialogue" between the government and Clark Construction. Akima was hired to do the latest repairs to get the work done quickly. Gallivan did not know the windows were being replaced until contacted by a reporter.

Clark Construction, a 100-year-old Maryland company, is no stranger to large local government projects.

It was the contractor for the $20-million "war-fighting" planning center at Special Operations Command on MacDill Air Force Base. Last year, the company got the contract to build the $67-million, six-story parking garage at Tampa International Airport.

In 2000, Clark finished a $32-million addition to the Pinellas County Jail a year behind schedule. Clark sued the county for $4-million in back pay, saying the delays were because of about 500 change orders, nearly 175 of which were not paid. The county settled by paying $1.75-million.

The window problems were the latest for the courthouse, the site of many prominent trials, including that of terror suspect Sami Al-Arian and former Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake. It serves one of the busiest federal court districts in the nation.

A stately building on Florida Avenue, it has cherry wood judges' benches bordered by black granite, a five-story glass atrium and white marble walls at the front of each courtroom. The judges' chambers have showers, and the courtroom ceilings rise 18 feet.

But there were problems from the start.

Officials discovered the soil and groundwater were contaminated by petroleum, and a cleanup cost more than $500,000.

After construction began, someone realized that the judges' benches were built too low. Raising them cost $1-million.

And now, the windows.

--Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 4, 2006, 03:00:35]

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