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Committees clash over architect for Nashua school project

Union Leader Correspondent

September 06. 2013 10:33PM

NASHUA — School and city officials have bucked the Construction Projects Committee’s recommendation for an architect for the Broad Street School renovation and saved the city $114,000 in fees.

The Joint Special School Board Committee last week rejected the proposal to hire Lavallee Brensinger Architects, the firm that designed both the city’s high schools, and opted instead to go with Harriman Architects. The JSSBC, which includes both the school board and the Board of Aldermen, objected to Lavallee Brensinger because its $546,000 proposal for the job was one of the two highest bids on the table.

And some members of the JSSBC were troubled by an 11th hour offer by Lavallee Brensinger that came in before the vote to cut their fees by $21,840.

“I’m pleased we gave the contract to an architect with a great track record at a good fee,” said Board of Education member Dennis Ryder, who is also a member of the Construction Projects Committee.

Ryder had criticized the construction committee for what he called “a poor job in architect selection.” He was not only concerned about the fees, he also felt the Construction Projects Committee was limiting its choices and continually doing business with just one or two firms.

“The committee members expressed a preference in the local company simply because they’re local,” Ryder said during a school board meeting in August. “So that means we’re never going to get somebody from outside to come and bid on our schools.”

Alderman Brian McCarthy made the case for hiring Lavallee Brensinger, reminding members of the Joint Special School Committee that they were not required to choose the lowest bidder. He also said the firm has had a long and successful history of construction projects in Nashua.

“We used Lavallee for this (Nashua High North), the other high school and some other projects. All of those projects came out sensational,” he said.

But not all the members of the special committee agreed that Lavallee Brensinger’s designs have been sensational.

“Some parents have been critical of (Nashua High North), saying it feels gloomy. I agree with that,” said Board of Education member David Murotake. “This building is gloomy. It feels like a prison. The ceilings in the hallways are black; there’s a lot of structure overhead.”

McCarthy said some of those design elements were the result of significant cost- cutting measures.

Board of Education Chairman David Hallowell said he preferred Harriman Architects over Lavallvee Brensinger because of the unique approach the firm took to redesigning the entrances at Broad Street School.

“If Lavallee were to win their vote, I’m sure I’ll be happy with their work,” said Hallowell. “But I thought Harriman really did the leg work to really think about the problem, and I think it’s really good for us to have another architect in the stall to do these projects.”

There were also other problems surrounding the choice of an architect for the Broad Street School renovation. Alderman David Deane was concerned that Lavallee Brensinger had reviewed its fees and reduced them by $21,840.

“I don’t think it’s right,” said Deane. “Was there fear that this issue would come up and there was a possibility they wouldn’t land this contract? Is that why this letter was sent out with a reduction in the base cost? And were the other firms that were interviewed given an opportunity to reduce their cost as well?”

Deane suggested that Lavallee Brensigner was aware of the rumbling about its high bid, and cut the price to make sure they won the contract.

But McCarthy said that Lavallee Brensinger had always be open to negotiating its fee, and the firm assumed that after being selected by the Construction Projects Committee that its had the job.

“I don’t think it was intended to influence the bid process,” said McCarthy, who nevertheless added he wished the firm had waited before offering a new fee.

The Joint Committee voted 8-4 to pass on Lavallee Brensinger with Aldermen McCarthy, Richard Dowd, Mary Ann Melizzi-Golja and Michael Tabacsko voting in favor of the Construction Projects Committee’s pick.

The Joint committee then voted unanimously to hire Harriman Architects to design the Broad Street School renovations.

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