The architectural and engineering firm tasked with the controversial Belmont Bridge redesign has abruptly gone out of business, forcing the city to seek a new contract in a project that’s already seen years of debate and absorbed more than $1.2 million in public funds.
Norfolk-based MMM Design Group announced in a September 9 letter to city Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert that it had already closed its doors the week before. Its Charlottesville office, located beneath the city’s Market Street parking garage, now stands vacant.
“For the past several years, we have been struggling to restructure MMM after the downturn in the economy, however, staffing issues, coupled with certain recurrent financial obligations that could not be effectively addressed have left us with insufficient cash flow to continue operations,” read the letter, signed by Wylie R. Cooke, Jr, and provided to C-VILLE through a Freedom of Information Act request. Cooke had been serving as the company’s executive vice president and director of architecture, and was the city’s point person at the firm on the bridge project.
The company’s demise came as a surprise to city staff. Just a week and a half before the closure announcement, Cooke was exchanging e-mails with the city’s urban designer, Carrie Rainey, about how to better include input from the public and a newly hired partnering design firm on the Belmont Bridge project. The Charlottesville City Council had only just approved MMM’s plans for a $17.2 million design a month before, a decision that was blasted by many members of the community who had called for a more expensive underpass option and had criticized the city for a lack of transparency in selecting the winning bid.
“We definitely want to get it right this time,” Cooke wrote.
In a September 22 memo to city manager Maurice Jones, Tolbert explained that MMM was tied to Charlottesville through more than just the bridge project. The firm held one of the city’s on-call engineering contracts, which meant it was ultimately responsible for a number of smaller projects, including a traffic signalling update and an inspection of the Beta Bridge.
“That work will still get done,” Tolbert said, because those projects were already in the hands of subcontractors.
The Belmont Bridge, however, is another story. Several members of MMM have already formed a new company to take on some of the firm’s outstanding projects, but “they’re not capable of doing this one,” said Tolbert. “This is outside their league.”
Tolbert was unable to immediately provide details on the total amount spent on the redesign so far, but a 2012 Capital Improvement Plan update shows the city had already put $1.25 million toward the bridge project. Tolbert said the city has paid MMM approximately $465,000 for work on the new bridge. Some of that work will not be usable, he said, but that would have been the case even if MMM was still onboard; a portion of the firm’s design efforts had centered on a now-abandoned plan to build a bridge with a shortened span. Surveys, environmental review, and traffic studies already conducted by MMM are still relevant, Tolbert said in his memo, which means that’s all work that the city won’t have to pay for twice.
Still, he said, “it’s frustrating to have to go back and find a new firm.”
That process will start with a new request for proposals, or RFP—step one in soliciting bids for any publicly funded project. The eight-member Belmont Bridge Steering Committee, formed in July, will help select a winning proposal, Tolbert said, and the city is committed to incorporating broader urban design principles as the project moves forward.
Jim Rounsevell, an architect who championed his own plan for an underpass to replace the bridge, has long been critical of MMM’s design, and said the fact that the firm is now out of the picture is “a step in the right direction.”
But he’s still critical of the city’s approach to the project, which he thinks doesn’t do enough to take public opinion into account. The city should have fired MMM two years ago, he said, “when the public went bananas over a bridge that was being shoved down their throats.”
He’s not faulting MMM, he said. “There was an RFP that was put out, and they complied with it, and they did what they were instructed to do. The fault is with the city and how they have conducted this. It’s reprehensible.”