Relationship of builder, residents less rocky

Crews building the state's new Department of Information Services data center needed to cut off city water on South Capitol neighborhood resident David Verbon's street a few months ago.

So Verbon, who lives across the street from the large project east of the state Capitol Campus, called a special project hot line to ask if he could use the site’s portable toilet during the outage.

“The response was kind of overwhelming. They put up a porta-potty at the end of our driveway and some cases of water,” Verbon recalled recently, still surprised by the neighborly response by contractor Howard S. Wright and developer Wright Runstad.

Another time, contractors put a job trailer across the street from Verbon’s house, and it had four windows that faced directly into his home. He called again, and “the next morning they had put opaque glass in the windows.”

About four months into the $255 million project to build a data center and a new DIS headquarters east of the Capitol, Verbon is among a handful of neighbors who say the project is turning out to be more interesting, and a better neighbor, than they had expected.

Verbon said there was an annoying episode in September when night work went beyond 10 o’clock for several nights and woke his family up at 2:30 one morning, but overall, he is happy with the way things are going — something a few other neighbors vouched for. It’s an early indication that the project’s rocky start with neighbors is reaching a better footing since a July legal settlement with the South Capitol Neighborhood Association that required DIS to set up a hot line for residents with concerns.

“When we start a project, we have a lot of concerned people,” said senior project manager Paul Snorsky of Howard S. Wright, adding that people typically don’t understand what really is going to occur. But lately, there hasn’t been much complaining, although floodlights left on at night triggered some calls, he said.

Of larger concern is a looming fight over how much nighttime construction the city of Olympia will require for a major traffic roundabout. The circle is set to be built next year at Jefferson Street and 14th Avenue, and night work would make it easier for drivers to navigate the area during the day.

Wright Runstad representative Cindy Edens said the decision on when to do the work is the city’s to make, and contractors are looking for alternatives to limit the effect. But night work is unavoidable, Edens said, unless the city agrees to shut down Jefferson Street for a widening project and installation of the roundabout.

Edens said Wright Runstad intends to ask the city for a permit in January. The city’s spokesman regarding the issue did not return a call or e-mail about the matter this week.

“The idea of them working on that all night is not attractive,” said neighbor Heather Lockman, who endured some vibrations in her historic home a few months ago. That was when the site was being excavated, and contractors were compacting the earth to stabilize the clay-soil base with what are called “stone columns,” built 15 to 40 feet into the ground.

On the other hand, Lockman said, DIS has been responsive to problems that have arisen. Work crews quickly put a timer on a spotlight that had been left on one night recently, she said.

The project could become more visible when huge pieces of steel are delivered to the site in late January or February. Some of the steel floor girders are 30 feet long, and some unspliced steel columns are 50 to 60 feet, Snorsky said.

Jeanne Marie Thomas, an officer with the neighborhood association, said the association is keeping an eye on the project, and she thinks there has been more night work than expected. She said there is an effort afoot to limit how long that goes on.

Other neighbors say they are enjoying the project some of the time, and are waiting to see how the neighbor-DIS relationship evolves.

The state and neighborhood association have been working for a few years around the inevitable friction caused by the project. The construction site takes up most of the 8 acres known as the “Wheeler lot” between Jefferson Street and Wheeler Avenue. It used to be an area of paved parking lots with trailers and a few small office buildings.

As part of a legal agreement between the state and neighbors, the state set up the hot line. The state also agreed to expand its study of traffic effects from the DIS headquarters and data center, which are expected to house 900 people.

The state has committed to creating parking for visitors and users of the DASH shuttle operated by Intercity Transit. Under the agreements, the state must make sure sidewalks and the roundabout are safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Also, it will reimburse the neighborhood group up to $7,500 for signs to mark the historic area.

DIS also arranged to have nearly 30 scarlet oak trees dug up from the site and relocated temporarily in boxes on the east end of the job site.

The mature trees are to be replanted around the headquarters and data center, which are scheduled for state use starting in September 2011.

“The final product is going to be a great complement to the surrounding area and much better than acres of asphalt with trailers on it,” Joanne Todd, a DIS spokeswoman, said.

DIS project manager Sally Alhadeff showed off the oaks and transplanted clusters of burning bush last week as she stood with a reporter on the boom of the taller construction crane.

“They look fabulous,” Alhadeff exclaimed from 250 feet in the air.

As Alhadeff took in the view, sounds rattled up from the big pit that is the construction site – the roar of bulldozers pushing gravel, idling dump trucks that spit exhaust between trips hauling rock, and other equipment. Piercing those sounds was the metallic clicking and pounding from carpenters who assembled forms for the concrete walls that are beginning to outline the shape of the data center.

The view was a reminder that despite the good intentions, there still is plenty of heavy lifting and construction to be done, and neighbors remain on the edge of a major disruption to their lives.

Neighbors have not raised the only voices of skepticism about the project. State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, has questioned the wisdom of the approach that DIS is taking to technology by building a large, centralized data-server facility.

Earlier in the year, Carlyle wrote to Gov. Chris Gregoire with objections, asking her to get a second opinion on the project.

He contends that the plan to consolidate state computer servers in a data center near the Capitol is intended to serve an old technology, and he thinks the state might be better off replacing on-site storage with remote storage facilities in Eastern Washington.

But DIS insists its approach makes sense and is similar to what Microsoft and other major corporations do to store their corporate data close at hand.

And in this case, the consolidation will let the state reduce its 42 “raised-floor” sites for data centers in Thurston County to fewer than 10 in the five years that follow the project’s completion, DIS director Tony Tortorice has said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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