Miami-Dade County

Builder suing Miami’s Frost Science Museum over unpaid bills for construction work

The Frost Science Museum has been open for nearly a year, and it’s already been visited by almost 1 million people. But it’s not finished, and the nonprofit and the general contractor are fighting over who should pay to complete the work.

The museum faces a lawsuit from its main contractor claiming the nonprofit unfairly held back payments and left construction work undone as budget strains forced it to cut costs in the final months of building the mostly tax-funded $300 million project in downtown Miami.

Skanska, a construction firm with headquarters in Sweden, claims the Frost essentially shut off payments in November after receiving its final occupancy permit from Miami. But even with the permit in hand, tasks remained within the 250,000-square-foot tribute to science — and the dispute centers on who has to pay for them.

Frost refused Skanska’s “extraordinary efforts” to bring the museum “project to final completion” because the nonprofit wanted the company to do the work for free, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

“The public is enjoying Downtown Miami’s newest museum, but the workers who built the building haven’t been paid in full for their labor. Skanska and its subcontractors — including many small and local businesses — are owed millions,” Skanska USA general manager Michael Brown said in a statement.

Frank Steslow, the museum’s president, described the outstanding construction tasks as mostly minor finishes and fixes discovered after the museum opened in May 2017 with a temporary occupancy permit. He said Skanska’s contract requires the contractor to cover the work under its warranty, and that Frost isn’t about to overpay for a project built with nearly $200 million in county dollars.

“We have an obligation to the county and to taxpayers to ensure that the value of the work that was bought and paid for was received,” Steslow said. “We take that seriously.”

The suit asks a judge to order the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science to pay Skanska for its supervisory work finishing up the project’s to-do list and to release funds set aside for some subcontractors. The filing does not reveal the dollar amount that Skanska claims it is owed for the work.

Frost is already in litigation with its original contractor, Suffolk Construction, which the museum fired in 2014, two years after starting one of the most complicated construction projects in the Southeast.

In the suit, Skanska described taking over a construction site plagued with mosquito-infested standing water, unpaid subcontractors and a cash flow squeeze severe enough that Skanska deferred some charges to give Frost time to secure more loans.

Concerns about the Frost’s financial future only escalated after that, with the museum’s fundraising plans falling short and Miami-Dade stepping in to fill the gap. Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2016 agreed to add $49 million to the $160 million in county funds already pledged to construction of the museum, but on the condition that the nonprofit forgo a planned $4 million yearly operating subsidy.

Frost executives said they could make up the day-to-day loss after its lending costs dropped from the infusion of extra construction dollars from the county. Steslow said attendance has exceeded expectations, and that the first year’s results bode well for the bottom line.

“We’re doing great. We surpassed 800,000 visitors,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier with where we are.”

Both sides in the construction dispute describe the outstanding items as relatively minor, and not ones that the typical visitor would notice. Steslow said some exterior walls are discolored, some doors are losing their finishes, and some electrical outlets don’t work. An August 2017 letter from Skanska lists 7,000 “punch-list items” that the museum’s architect said still needed to be completed. Skanska said that since the museum had been open for months, many of the requested fixes qualified as wear-and-tear items the museum should pay for.

The one notable flaw involves the decorative conical wall surrounding the museum’s signature 500,000-gallon aquarium. In a March 5 letter to Steslow, Skanska senior vice president MacAdam Glinn described the problem: Panels at the ceiling-level floor of the aquarium — the “oculus opening” — don’t line up properly. Glinn said Skanska was instructing the subcontractor in charge of the project to fix it, but noted the company’s agreement to step in as Frost’s second contractor gives it the right to be paid for supervisory work until the task is finished. He didn’t predict an easy fix.

“As you know,” Glinn wrote in the letter filed as an exhibit in the suit, “the conical ceiling is a complex architectural feature that will require procurement of specialty long-lead items and significant coordination of the remedial work.”

In his interview, Steslow acknowledged the flaw but described the problem as a cosmetic one. He dismissed the Skanska suit as a minor challenge for the well-received museum.

“Quite frankly, this is a little bit of background noise to me, for what was otherwise a very successful year,” he said.