Designers of the Nicollet Mall overhaul unveiled new money-saving pavement materials Wednesday that they expect will help deliver the project within its original $50 million budget.
The city was forced to switch to poured concrete — instead of thousands of brick-like pavers in the initial plans — after garnering a single bid in December that was $24 million over the construction budget. The city also now expects Metro Transit to pick up the full cost of a dozen transit shelters on the mall, freeing up about $4 million in the budget.
James Corner, whose firm, James Corner Field Operations, is leading the design effort, said the design team focused on making one big change instead of many small ones. Concrete can result in a monolithic look if done poorly, Corner said. To vary the surface, he suggests adding texture to certain sections of the sidewalks and using three or four different gray tones.
"We decided that rather than trying to cut a little bit out of everything — cut the trees down, cut the furnishing down and cut the lighting down and cut everything down — that we'd pick one thing that we thought would be the drastic cut. And that is the paving surface," Corner said. "I actually don't think it's bad as long as we can keep the refined finishes."
But City Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents half of downtown, said the changes reflect a "bait and switch" from what nearby property owners were initially asked to fund.
"We told everybody what it was going to look like without being able to confirm, via the staff, which in my opinion is you, whether or not we could procure the materials and the people who could do the work," Goodman said to the project team.
The total project budget is $50 million, largely funded through state bonding money and assessments on nearby property owners, including office buildings, condos and Target Field. The construction budget is $35 million. Non-construction costs include a $4.5 million design contract, a $2.4 million construction management contract and $1 million for public art.
Following the city's decision to rebid the project in an effort to attract more offers, the landscape architecture firm surveyed three road contractors. Corner said they've received a wide range of cost estimates for the new surface design, but he is confident the city will receive more reasonable bids this time.
"It shouldn't be foreboding for even the most basic road constructor," Corner said. "We are trying to dumb everything down so we don't scare anyone away."
The nearby property owners, who are collectively paying for $25 million of the project, are most concerned they'll be charged more in assessments, which isn't the case, said Kevin Lewis, executive director of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Minneapolis. The project team reiterated Wednesday that it will not go over budget.
Goodman raised concerns that the new surface material does not reflect the grandiose vision originally pitched to the city, state and community.
"I would say this is the difference to me between doing something really great and doing something that's better than it is now," Goodman said. "And I guess everybody can live with 'better than it is now.' "
Peter Brown, the city-hired consultant leading the project, said "nobody was more frustrated than us" and "we were caught flat-footed." But he said the same principles are still in the design and they are committed to seeing it through.
David Wright, who chairs the Nicollet Mall Implementation Committee and is U.S. Bank's vice president of asset management, said the change is dramatic but necessary.
"We have a $25 million nut that needed to be cracked open," Wright said. "I'm not too concerned that many people are going to be walking down the street looking … at the pavement. They want to see liveliness. They want to see people. They want to see green. They want to see lighting."
Utility work, which is technically separate from the redesign project and not a part of this budget, has already begun on the mall. The city will solicit new bids in March, with the expectation that work will be complete by November 2017.