Downtown Miami

Already months behind, Flagler Street makeover on hold as city fires contractor

Months behind on a major makeover of downtown Miami’s historic Flagler Street, and under pressure from suffering merchants and property owners, city officials have fired the contractor on the project and ordered all work stopped by early June.

The termination increases uncertainty over when the $13 million project, which extends from Biscayne Boulevard to the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, will be completed. City officials say they will explore whether to rebid, a process that could take months more, or move directly to hire one or more contractors to finish the job quickly.

“The voices of the public and business are clear,” said Miami commissioner Ken Russell, who chairs the Downtown Development Authority, a quasi-public agency that sponsored the makeover. “We need to get this done soon.”

On Monday, city administrators and the DDA will begin discussing alternatives, which could include hiring contractors to complete work in one fell swoop rather than in the originally planned 13 phases. The city and DDA recently signed an agreement giving the agency a direct voice in decisions on the project.

“We had a situation that just wasn’t working out,” said Brian Alonso, a local business owner and co-chair of the DDA’s Flagler Street Task Force, which oversaw development of the project and whose members have been sharply critical of contractor FH Paschen’s performance. “What I’m most interested in now is, what happens next? Now that they’re out of our hair, what’s going to be the plan?”

Paschen, which has not publicly commented on the project delays, did not return a message requesting comment Thursday. DDA members and Flagler merchants have complained that the Chicago-based contractor, which has offices in South Florida, moved at a snail’s pace, understaffed the job and suffered from repeated managerial turnover that hampered progress.

The makeover entails a complete reconstruction of street and sidewalks to improve Flagler’s pedestrian friendliness and reverse its sliding commercial fortunes. It was supposed to conclude at the end of this year after two years of work.

But Paschen is only now finishing the fourth of the 13 phases. The company had asked the city for an extension of about nine months, blaming delays on a tangle of old utility lines under the street that did not match city blueprints and required relocation or replacement.

DDA board members last year pressed the city to fire Paschen, contending the contract places full responsibility for any underground issues on the firm. But the city instead asked Paschen for an accelerated time line to make up for lost time. Officials said they could not hold Paschen fully responsible for delays because some of the underground utility surprises extended well beyond what had been anticipated.

Assistant City Manager Alberto Parjus, who is overseeing the project, wouldn’t point the finger at the contractor Thursday. The termination letter from city manager Daniel Alfonso, dated Wednesday, cites a “convenience” clause in the Paschen contractor but no specific cause.

“I wouldn’t call it amicable, but there was no fault,” Parjus said of the split.

Paschen started work in front of the county courthouse last year and has been progressing east. The letter gives the firm until Aug. 6 to finish and deliver the fourth phase that’s now underway.

Parjus pledged that the project will move quickly once a decision is made on how to proceed.

“Definitely, I think the project will start moving at a different pace,” he said.

Flagler Street property owners, who agreed to a special assessment totaling $1 million for the project, have complained of lost business and difficulty signing new leases because of the street work.

The project is meant to deliver significant improvements in return for some short-term pain. The plans call for full replacement of existing sidewalks that are narrow, stained, cracked and in many places steeply angled toward the street. The new ones are twice as wide to accommodate new lighting and cafe tables and to stimulate foot traffic. New stormwater drainage will solve flooding issues that plague the street when it rains.

The project is funded by $6 million from a Miami-Dade County economic development fund and $6 million from the city of Miami, in addition to the special assessment of $1 million from property owners.