Off Hill, CVC Is ‘Truly Impressive’

Posted September 2, 2005 at 5:55pm

Depending on whom you talk to, the story of the Capitol Visitor Center has been either a sad saga of mismanaged expectations and frightening levels of overspending, or a tale of determination in the face of never-before-seen technical and construction challenges.

On Capitol Hill, you’ll most likely hear the former version of the story.

Dating back to at least the early 1990s, when the project was first being formulated by Congressional leaders, and continuing through today, Members have voiced skepticism and concern over everything from cost overruns and completion deadlines to inherent design failures.

The CVC budget has ballooned in size since Congressional leaders broke ground in 2000 while approving a budget of $265 million. In testimony earlier this summer, Government Accountability Office representatives said the project could now have a final price tag as high as $559 million.

And opening dates for the facility continue to be pushed back. GAO officials recently put the project at nearly two years behind schedule. While planners have now set September 2006 as their target date for completing the facility (the project’s original contract awarded in 2002 set the completion deadline for inauguration day 2005), concerns have recently been raised with the feasibility of that date, making an early 2007 opening a distinct possibility.

But while the rhetoric of budget overruns and unmet deadlines dominate discourse of the CVC on the Hill, elsewhere one is likely to find a different evaluation of the largest and most expensive addition in the history of the Capitol.

Just talk to Chris Coons, county executive of New Castle County, Del.

This past April, Coons and a number of New Castle officials visited the CVC construction site to learn about the new center as they moved forward with their own $45 million public safety building project for the county, which broke ground in May.

We were “blown away, we were truly impressed with the complexity of the building site, with the ways it was being integrated into the work site of the Capitol and how it fits into a major historic property,” Coons recalled of the visit. “Although it dwarfs our project in complexity and size we had some common questions and common issues.”

Coons called his tour of the site an “inspiring” visit.

“On the bus ride down we were all talking about how hard it was going to be and all the challenges we were facing with our project. But when we left the CVC we were saying, ‘Wow, if they can address these enormous construction and security and cost effectiveness concerns than we can get [our project] done.’”

The People’s Project

Leading Coons’ tour that day was CVC spokesman Tom Fontana, who, so far this year, has ushered some 200 tour groups in, around and through the three underground stories of the CVC site.

Fontana said that from the day Members first broke ground on the project, CVC planners and Architect of the Capitol officials committed themselves to making the project as accessible as possible.

“That’s something a lot of other sites don’t do, open their doors to the public. This project belongs to the people,” Fontana said.

He said visitors from across the country and around the world come to the Hill to take a lesson from the CVC on everything from securing a major public project to the latest in guest accommodations.

Last October, a delegation of about a dozen senior officials from the Iraqi Ministry of Construction and Housing visited the CVC site.

“They have a lot of experience in building large opulent palaces … but what they were interested in was the technology and equipment and materials being used. They wanted to know about the latest technologies to do it faster and more cheaply,” said Chris Hanson, director of codes and standards for the American Society of Civil Engineers who hosted the Iraqi delegation on its trip to the United States.

Visitors “are coming here a lot of times before their projects begin and they do often say that’s something they’ve overlooked in their planning,” Fontana said.

Coons said his group visited the CVC with a specific interest in site security issues as the New Castle public safety building is being built directly next to the county’s police headquarters.

“We have similar site constraints,” he explained. “We’ll have all sorts of people moving on and off our construction site, which is immediately adjacent to one of our most secure facilities.”

At the CVC, site security has been the realm of the Capitol Police “from the dirt up,” Chief Terrance Gainer said in a recent interview. “We’ve worked closely from a security aspect from the beginning.”

In testimony this past spring before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Gainer said it takes about 80 officers to guard the construction site and that, when the CVC opens, his department will require an additional 62 officers to fully police the half-million-square-foot facility, though Gainer said that number could fluctuate.

The chief said that when his officers finally begin the process of occupying the new facility before it opens, “the first thing is to understand the lay of the land. There will be some improved technology in there that officers will have to become familiar with but I don’t think you can undervalue having an experienced officer in there.”

But hiring the new officers needed for the CVC could present budget problems for the Capitol Police.

The fiscal 2006 appropriations bill allotted $249 million in funds for the department, up from $241 million in 2005. But the appropriation was still $41 million short of the $290 million requested by the Department and much of the funding increase had been justified as money needed to hire new officers.

“I think the challenge we have is to police the entire complex within budget … [but] we won’t compromise security over budget issues,” Gainer said.

‘Nailed Down’

Another challenge for planners in designing and building the CVC is to find a proper balance between security and public accessibility, and many visitors to the site feel that’s another area in which the CVC is breaking new ground.

Sylvie Tilden is the senior manager of commemorations and public art for Canada’s National Capital Commission, the corporation tasked by Parliament to build and develop the Capital Region in Ottawa. Tilden’s organization has played an important role in the ongoing 25-year renovation effort that is taking place on the Capital Region’s Parliament Hill, where the government is considering creating a new visitor center. A feasibility study was recently completed that established the need for the new visitor center and planners are currently looking into the possibility of building the structure underground.

In March, Tilden came to Capitol Hill to study the CVC’s vision for managing visitor services as well as the efforts employed to minimize disruption within the Capitol during the construction process.

“They certainly have it nailed down in Washington. We were in awe,” Tilden said.

“Overall the way they manage visitors has been very well thought out in terms of taking care of their basic needs, making them feel comfortable and ensuring good flows.”

One of Tilden’s jobs for Parliament Hill is to animate Canada’s Capitol and bring it to life for visitors. After touring the CVC she praised the plans for its virtual theaters and large interactive museum space, which will occupy visitors who would otherwise be waiting in long lines outside the building during the height of tourist season.

“Having all the different theaters where people feel they can still have the experience if they don’t actually make it into the Capitol for an actual tour, that is something that needs to be addressed on our end,” Tilden said. “There is a limit on how many people we can let in and the aim of our future center is to figure out how to still deliver some type of experience to those who make it up there but can’t go in, offering them alternatives like virtual tours or the cinema experience.”

And while the Canadians already know the National Capital Commission would most likely run visitor services and interpretive programming in their new center, the governance structure of the CVC is still up in the air a year out from its scheduled opening.

In the fiscal 2006 legislative branch appropriations bill, conferees removed a Senate provision that would have allowed the Architect to create an executive director post to oversee the visitor center. Instead House Members pushed for a “governance board” with hired staff to oversee the center.

“All I can say is the House and Senate are moving aggressively to formulate a governance structure,” Fontana said.

While Fontana said that it makes sense to have a governance structure in place before the CVC opens because “you can think of a million things that need to be ironed out from a functioning level to ensure you have a smooth transition,” he added that “right now the [Architect of the Capitol] has very little to say in the operation of the facility, but it doesn’t effect our construction schedule.”

And as the CVC moves closer to completion — and since visitors no longer need ropes and ladders to get into the project site as they did in the early stages of the project — Fontana said he expects his tour volume to increase. For those who take a tour, the lessons learned are both the good and the bad of largest addition in the Capitol’s 200-year history.

“I think it’s going to be a great addition to the Capitol,” New Castle County’s Coons said. But, he added, “if there was one lesson I took away as county executive it was once the building is designed, let it be built. Don’t go back in and redesign and redesign and redesign. My sense is that there’s been a number of redesigns and that’s contributed to the cost overruns and delays.”