October 21, 2013

CT Science Center resolves $10M roof lawsuit

Photo | HBJ File
Photo | HBJ File
The Connecticut Science Center’s magic carpet roof had to be removed and reinforced following design issues.
Matt Fleury, president and CEO, Connecticut Science Center

The Connecticut Science Center in downtown Hartford has quietly resolved a four-year, $10 million lawsuit with a New Haven architectural firm over the design and construction of the building, particularly the infamous magic carpet roof.

"We are happy to have that all resolved, and it allows us to move forward," said Matt Fleury, science center president and CEO.

The science center sued Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects of New Haven in 2009, saying the final design plans submitted for the $165 million construction project were inadequate, which delayed the building's opening 18 months to June 2009.

A key issue was the high-profile magic carpet roof — the building's signature contribution to the Hartford skyline — which was sagging significantly when first installed, forcing it to be removed so supports could be put in place. Other problems mentioned in the lawsuit included inadequate design of the wind girts, which hold the walls in place, necessitating a significant redesign and refabrication of the girts.

Pelli was the primary defendant named in the lawsuit, along with other construction professionals, contractors, and subcontractors. Rocky Hill firm Whiting Turner was the general contractor on the project.

The lawsuit was resolved through mediation in phases with the individual parties involved, said Jane Milas, managing director of New Haven law firm Garcia & Milas, who represented the science center.

All the mediated parts of the settlement were completed earlier this year, and the lawsuit was withdrawn in the spring, Milas said.

"The science center was pleased with the settlement and happy to settle it in mediation," Milas said.

The science center originally asked for $10 million, based on the delays, extra costs, lost profits, and other economic impact associated with the construction problems.

The terms of the settlement reached this year are confidential and will not be disclosed, Milas said, who reiterated the science center was pleased with the final result.

Pelli and Whiting Turner declined to comment for the story.

Fleury said the construction problems created an unnecessary distraction during the science center's first few years in business. Compounding the difficulties was the state's decision in 2010 to scale back a planned $2.5 million contribution to $1.35 million.

"In general, when you have a new organization and you are trying to get your funding and your business plan, that is complicated when you are in the process of recovering funds (from the construction) that you thought you wouldn't have to spend," Fleury said.

Despite the construction problems, the science center had 365,000 attendees in its first 12 months of operation. As the shine of that first year wore off, attendance dropped to below 300,000 in the second year, which was expected, Fleury said.

Attendance recovered and hit 300,000 annually for each of the past two years.

"From an operational perspective, me and my team were focused on creating a world-class attraction, and that hasn't wavered," Fleury said.

The science center receives visitors and school trips from all 169 Connecticut cities and towns, and 15 percent of its attendance is from out of state — mostly western Massachusetts but also New York and Rhode Island.

"That has trended up a little bit as outreach has grown," Fleury said.

The marketing challenge now is that the science center is no longer the new attraction on the block. With a four-year-old brand, the science center team has to come up with new ways of attracting people, Fleury said.

The science center is hosting a special "Bodies Revealed" exhibit through January, which displays 200 real human bodies. The venue is planning for a Halloween weekend on Oct. 26, and opened new exhibits on dinosaur excavation and stop-motion photography.

"We are here to contribute to a vital downtown Hartford and a vital region," Fleury said.

When conceived, the science center was seen as a principal component of the Adriaen's Landing downtown revitalization project, put together by the Capital City Economic Development Authority.

CCEDA has been replaced by the Capital Region Development Authority, which still is striving to encourage downtown economic development by building out more residential housing, increasing attendance at the Connecticut Convention Center, bringing new commercial tenants into the Front Street development, and working with UConn on its move to the Hartford Times building.

"The science center and UConn will have a synergy that will help both," said Michael Freimuth, CRDA executive director.

UConn and the science center could link both physically and philosophically by sharing facilities, resources, and brain power, Freimuth said. Education and research will help build an industry environment downtown.

"That needs to evolve a little more, but that is an initial discussion that has been had," Freimuth said.

Fleury is scheduled to meet with the CRDA board in November to discuss the science center's goals and plans and how they fit into the larger vision for downtown Hartford.

"The key to success here is critical mass," Fleury said. "The residential developments they are working on move us closer to the vibrant street life that we need."

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