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Execs point fingers at each other at CenterBuild ‘gripe session’

Scottsdale, Ariz. — Blurred lines of responsibility, lousy communication and outrageously tight schedules arose as the top complaints among shopping center executives during a mutual finger-pointing session Dec. 5 at the 2001 ICSC CenterBuild Conference.

The four panelists leading the discussion all had the same explanation for these problems: the other guy.

The session — titled "Architects, Developers, Contractors, Tenants — What They Don’t Like About Working Together" — was designed to provoke a lively, honest discussion. It did.

"Contractors are taking on more and more responsibility for the coordination of the overall project, and that pisses me off," said panelist Lenn Cannatelli, a senior vice president at The Whiting Turner Contracting Co. of Irvine, Calif. "We’re responsible for everything. We have to drag people to the finish line kicking and screaming."

Cannatelli said many contractors feel frustrated with developers and owners who demand timely, cost-effective completion of projects, but fail to carry out their own responsibilities. When that happens, he said, contractors end up having to pick up the slack. "The owner relaxes, and we’re screwed."

Cannatelli told the room of several hundred conference participants that owners should keep careful track of a project’s progress. Too often, owners are surprised to hear about problems. And when a snag does arise, they’re often ready with an excuse. "They’ll say, ‘Don’t worry. The anchor tenant will take care of that one," Cannatelli explained.

Developers feel the pinch

Contractors aren’t the only ones feeling harried and overburdened. Developers, too, face growing pressure to open on budget and on time. Panelist William Garvey, executive vice president of development for Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, said this is particularly true of public companies.

"Publicly owned developers are no longer in charge of their own destinies," Garvey said. "Time is a problem, and I don’t see that problem getting any easier."

While Cannatelli blamed developers for sometimes shirking their responsibilities, Garvey faulted architects and tenants for causing cost overruns and delayed project openings. Ambitious architects often fail to consider the true cost of their designs, and some mall tenants wait far too long to design their stores and get the appropriate building permits, Garvey said.

"Architects need to understand the vision of the developer," Garvey said. "They need to design for budget." (Provoking laughter from the crowd, Garvey added, "I’ll admit that sometimes they aren’t given that budget.")

But there are easy ways for architects to improve the accuracy of their cost estimates. "You need to design the project working with a contractor," said David Lindsey, a vice president with Seattle-based Nordstrom. "If you’re doing this right, the contractor should be right there from the start."

Developers must also give architects as much information as possible to avoid overpricing and unrealistic expectations, Cannatelli added.

Communication is key

For their part, architects face the challenge of designing environments where, too often, "form follows leasing," said panelist Tommy Quirk, founding partner of D’Agistino Izzo Quirk Architects of Somerville, Mass.

Decisions made because of leasing can hurt the integrity of a project’s design, and, in turn, its long-term success, Quirk said. He also complained of developers’ over-reliance on "value engineering." By spending all their time trying to cut costs under the banner of value engineering, developers end up wasting both time and money.

In addition to feeling pressed for time like never before, architects tire of being besieged by endless Requests for Information (RFIs), Quirk said.

The deluge of time-consuming RFIs often comes from parties who haven’t looked carefully enough at original plans. And those plans usually contain the answers to their questions, Quirk said.

All four panelists cited the need for greater communication among parties involved in a project. One major problem, they said, involves a lack of coordination between major tenants’ architects and those of site architects dealing with the local codes.

Lindsey pointed out that some architects aren’t paid site administration costs and therefore don’t feel any responsibility beyond completing their drawings. Paying architects more, and demanding that they work together so that their respective plans mesh, could eliminate delays and overruns, Lindsey said.

— Staff reports

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