One of Mayor Hayward’s campaign promises was to build new community centers at Woodland Heights and Legion Field, so when a request for qualifications (RFQ) went out last year for the design of the Woodland Heights center, it looked like progress was underway. Then in June, two weeks after proposals were received, a letter was sent out to all the respondents saying the process was being restarted.
Thank you for your firm’s response to the RFQ 11-020 for A & E [Architectural & Engineering] Services for the Construction of a Community Resource Center in Woodland Heights. The Mayor has directed that all responses to the RFQ be rejected. City staff failed to follow City policy which requires professional service or selection committee members to be appointed by the Mayor.
A new RFQ will be issued in the near future and your firm will be notified of the new opportunity.
This raised some eyebrows. There have been enough sordid tales from Pensacola’s past — of selection committees being manipulated by politicians to favor particular vendors — to make people wonder, “what’s going on here?”
Flash forward a few months. A new architectural RFQ had gone out, this one covering both the Woodland Heights center and the resource center / Westside branch library at Legion Field, with construction budgets of $3 million each. Assuming a ballpark range of 10% for architectural and engineering services, that’s a potentially $600,000 or more design job — a major project in such lean times. A whopping eighteen firms responded with proposals, and charged with scoring all of them were four selection committee members:
- Bette Hooton, president of the West Florida Public Library Board of Trustees
- Patricia Oliver, dean of architecture at the University of Houston
- Tony Pleskow, principal architect of PleskowRael in Los Angeles
- Karl Weingarten, a radiologist in Augusta
Bette Hooton’s inclusion makes sense — after all, the library is chipping in $1.5 million from its capital fund for the Legion Field branch — but what about the others? How did a dean of architecture from Texas, an architect from California, and a radiologist from Georgia get roped into scoring proposals for a couple of community centers in Pensacola, Florida?
The answer, it turns out, is Councilman Brian Spencer. A well-known architect, principal of the SMP Architecture firm, and long-time advocate for revitalizing downtown, Spencer was eager to use his position on the council to foster good design in city projects. He knew that being elected would preclude his firm from any city government contracts — which, in the current real estate market, was one of the few remaining wellsprings of work.
“My firm partners had to be willing to sacrifice any possibility of touching any city-related work for four years,” Spencer remembered of his decision to run. “I said, ‘you all, it means not a penny can flow in our direction.’”
Having served on council a year now, he also sits on the Community Maritime Park Associates board, has volunteered his expertise to city projects like Admiral Mason Park, and is the recently elected chair of the Community Redevelopment Agency.
“I never wake up in the morning now that I’m on council and go, ‘I can’t think of a thing that needs to be done,’” Spencer said. “I just think, everywhere you look, there’s opportunities to make this place great.”
Spencer was familiar with the city’s past reputation for, as he euphemistically put it, “constructing selection committees that could better predict an outcome,” and one of his goals was to change that selection system. Instead of scoring proposals based on how many similar projects a firm had done, he wanted them judged on the quality of the design. Instead of filling selection committees with council members, he wanted firms to be reviewed by their professional peers — people who knew what they were looking at. So when he learned that Purchasing Director George Maiberger had already sent out the first RFQ and lined up a selection committee, he was upset.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. All this campaigning, all this work, and one of the things that means most to me, I’ve already missed the boat?’” Spencer said. “So I called the mayor, who was very sensitive to the dilemma and I think — with authority, but without toppling the apple cart — said, ‘wait a minute, this got out the door too fast,’ and pulled it back in.”
At the mayor’s directive, Spencer helped craft the language of the second RFQ. He was proud that the new scoring criteria were weighted not by how many similar institutional projects a firm had worked on, but by their “proven capability to combine artistry with economy.”
For the selection committee, Spencer contacted his architect friend Tony Pleskow, whom he knew from their days at Tulane’s School of Architecture. Pleskow does a lot of work for the City of Los Angeles and is chair of the Culver City Planning Commission. When I reached him by phone, Pleskow said he was happy to serve on the committee as a favor to Spencer (though he “almost cried” when he saw the huge number of proposals).
Pleskow in turn recommended Patricia Oliver as another member of the committee. Before leading the University of Houston’s College of Architecture, Oliver was a senior vice president at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. She has worked with many notable architects, including Frank Gehry, and served in several leadership positions with the American Institute of Architects. Both men were thrilled to have someone of her professional stature involved.
“The goal is to get the best possible projects built for your community,” Pleskow said. “If you can bring people from within the field to evaluate submissions, the citizens will get a better product for their tax dollars.”
Dr. Karl Weingarten, who used to practice medicine in Pensacola several years ago, was another recommendation from Spencer. Though not an architect, Spencer described Weingarten as being very familiar with architectural design.
“If you looked at his personal library, it will be nothing but architecture books,” Spencer said. “There are a lot of people who are not chefs who will have 500 cookbooks, and in their spare time they’re researching and following cooking techniques. So you don’t have to be an architect to appreciate and understand good design.”
But here’s where it gets complicated. All three of the out-of-town selection committee members — each of them directly or indirectly recommended by Spencer — gave top ranking to DAG Architects, the Destin-based firm of former state senator Charlie Clary. And DAG’s Pensacola office shares a suite in the Thiesen Building with Spencer’s firm SMP. (The above photo shows the door to their offices.)
SMP and DAG started sharing space at 40 South Palafox after the double gut punch of the bursting real estate bubble and the larger global recession forced both firms to constrict. They talked about joining forces for certain projects — like the maritime museum, before Spencer joined the city council — but it never happened, and the two firms remain separate entities.
“We’re literally, in a linear type office, we’re on one end, they’re on the other,” Spencer said. “We have separate copiers. We have our own separate servers, separate computers. Our IT guy is not their IT guy.”
Still, it’s a tricky area. City code says that vendors bidding on city work “shall be prohibited from engaging in any communication pertaining to formal solicitations with a member of the Pensacola City Council or any member of a selection/evaluation committee for RFQs, whether directly or indirectly or through any representative or agent.” That could create a conflict if the committee members knew about the SMP/DAG connection, but Pleskow assured me they did not.
“I had no idea,” Pleskow said. “It was made very clear that there could not be any communication between any of us.”
Both men acknowledged the coincidence of the three first place votes for DAG, but chalked it up to a similar appreciation for design.
“The reality is, their work is just good,” Pleskow said.
The scoring sheets themselves show evidence of a lively and engaged scoring process. Oliver in particular pulled no punches in her critiques. (Among her comments: “Grim presentation.” “Poor derivative design.” “Shocking that they were even included.”) Pleskow’s scores are written in several ink colors, with notes and annotations scribbled in the margins — not what you’d expect from a process with a predetermined result.
“If anything, I was trying to do just the opposite: depoliticize the whole process,” Spencer said. He contrasted it with the old system, where council members would often score and rank the proposals themselves and would have to worry about currying favor with potential donors. “What if a council person is sitting there on a selection committee and they’re thinking, ‘Next time I run, I bet that firm can raise me $10,000 because of their political clout. I’ve got to be careful.’”
“I don’t want any of that influence in the selection process,” he said.