UI panel picks replacement architectural firm for Natural History Building

URBANA — The University of Illinois has chosen a Chicago architectural firm to oversee renovation of the Natural History Building, six months after conflict-of-interest concerns prompted the UI to void the old contract with BLDD Architects.

The university is recommending LCM Architects to complete the design and management of the $70 million project at a cost of $4.6 million — $300,000 more than BLDD would have received.

A state board last spring had criticized the university's handling of the contract originally awarded to BLDD, a Champaign firm with ties to a UI employee.

The rebidding has delayed the estimated completion date for the project by a year, which could cost the UI $1 million or more, officials said Monday.

The UI Board of Trustees Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities Committee reviewed the proposed contract with LCM on Monday, and the full board will vote on it on Jan. 24.

Partially closed since 2010, the 120-year-old Natural History Building. 1301 W. Green St., U, has been slated for a much-needed renovation of its classrooms, laboratories and offices. Experts determined in June 2010 that 40 percent of the building was structurally unsound.

The university awarded a $368,000 contract to BLDD for a conceptual plan in 2010, and later $4.3 million for further design and management work.

The Illinois Procurement Policy Board raised questions about the contract after learning a university architect who manages construction projects, Jill Maxey, was previously employed at the firm and was married to Bruce Maxey, a principal at BLDD. The firm disclosed the relationship to the UI, but the procurement board did not learn of it until last spring, more than a year after the firm beat out 32 others for the initial contract.

The procurement board voted to void the $4.3 million contract with BLDD and, under fire from state authorities, university trustees agreed in July.

State officials conceded there was no "pay to play" involved. BLDD disclosed the relationship, and the university said Maxey was not involved in the project.

However, in the procurement board's probe, emails surfaced showing Jill Maxey was kept in the loop on the project. That prompted board members to believe the contract should be rebid or go to the next lowest bidder, to ensure fairness and avoid any appearance of a conflict. The UI eventually opted to start over.

Michael Bass, the UI's senior associate vice president, said the university closed out its contract with BLDD last summer, paying the firm $368,000 for the conceptual plan.

The UI then sought new proposals from interested architectural and engineering firms, asking them to submit information about their qualifications.

A total of 35 firms responded; BLDD was not among them, Bass said. The other three finalists from the original round of bids - BauerLatoza, Holabird & Root, and HBRA Architects, all of Chicago - did submit proposals again this fall but did not make the short list, he said.

A four-person university committee — none of whom served on the previous selection committee — reviewed the firms' submissions and chose five finalists, officials said. LCM was the top-rated firm, Bass said.

The work involves reviewing the conceptual plan already completed by BLDD (and which the university now owns), making any changes if necessary, and then developing schematics, preparing construction documents and overseeing construction.

LCM is handling another project on campus, the $12 million Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education to be built in Urbana. The firm is being paid about $1.5 million for that work. LCM has also handled several projects at the UI Chicago over the past decade, though this is one of largest contracts the firm has received, said Barbara Falconer, director of business development and marketing.

"We're very thrilled to be a part of this very important project at the university. We're eager to get going on it," Falconer said.

The Natural History Building project is now scheduled to be completed by July 2016, a full year behind the original plan, Bass said.

Each month of delay could increase costs by $92,000, or about $1.1 million for a full year, Bass said. However, the $70 million budget already has some cost-escalation built into it, he said.

The full financial impact won't be known until bids for construction and other work come in, he said. So far the construction environment is "pretty good," he said. "People want business."

Borrowing costs could rise, with rating agencies threatening to downgrade the state's credit rating again after legislators failed to address the pension crisis. The UI's rating has remained four notches above the state's, but that could change if the state situation worsens, he said.

The Natural History Building project is being paid for with $18 million from a student fee for deferred maintenance and $45 million of institutional funds — money the university sets aside primarily from grants and contracts. The UI hopes to receive a $7 million gift for the remainder.

Bass said he's confident no problems will arise with the latest selection process. A state purchasing officer sat in on interviews with the firms. State procurement officials declined comment until the process is final.

"It certainly appears to me we've been following the appropriate procedures and are back on track," UI Trustee Edward McMillan said Monday.

Jill Maxey, meanwhile, was reassigned and no longer works in procurement. She is associate director for space analysis for the UI Division of Management Information.

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