It’s been almost three years since a large swath of North Dallas took a direct hit from an EF3 tornado, and in some spots—the Preston Royal intersection, for example—things are finally getting back to normal.
But in other areas, there’s still a great deal of work to be done. The shopping center at Marsh and Walnut Hill is still a fenced-in moonscape. Buildings between Marsh Lane and Midway Road are still under construction—including the brand-new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Walnut Hill International Leadership Academy that replaces Cary Middle School and Walnut Hill Elementary, Thomas Jefferson High School, and the new Career Institute North that is being built in the former Walnut Hill Elementary location.
Last Thursday, two City Council agenda items spoke to how much permitting delays, the pandemic, and other construction woes have slowed down progress. The city finally approved the expenditure to replace three traffic signals that were damaged or destroyed by the tornado. It once again addressed the construction of a new Fire Station No. 41, which was damaged beyond repair when the tornado hit the Preston Road and Royal Lane area.
The lights at Midway Road and Killion Drive (right by the former Walnut Hill Elementary), Lenel Place and Walnut Hill Lane (adjacent to Thomas Jefferson), and Preston Royal Center will be replaced to the tune of $1.26 million dollars.
The lights at the former two locations haven’t seen a lot of traffic in the past three years because Walnut Hill Elementary students have been attending at the formerly-shuttered Tom Field Elementary site. Thomas Jefferson students have been at the former Edison Middle School site. Middle schoolers have been either at Franklin Middle School, Medrano Middle School, or (in the case of sixth graders) parceled out among several local elementary schools.
All of that will change, however, as all three schools open for students and teachers in the next few months, which means functioning traffic signals will be really important as carpool lines begin forming. (Construction is ongoing at all three locations, and the district has stated it has a goal of opening Thomas Jefferson and Walnut Hill in the fall.)
But residents will have to wait a little longer for a replace the fire station. The day after the tornado, DFR spokesman Jason Evans said the station’s firefighters were responding from Station 35 on Walnut Hill Lane for the time being. The city posted a request for proposals to build a new Station 41 at 5920 Royal Lane on July 7, 2021.
In the RFP, the city’s office of Bond and Construction Management said the new station will be 8,248 square feet. According to a city-provided addendum that outlined questions asked about the project, the city is “tracking a cost estimate realized through the design phase of $4,208,000.”
By November 2021, the city had approved a contract with Post L Group, the winning bidder. But in the months that have passed, labor costs, supply chain issues, and cost overruns have plagued the process, and when Post L asked for the city to pay more, the city balked.
Councilwoman Gay Donnell Willis, who represents the district where the station sits, told her fellow councilmembers that she’s been monitoring the process and fielding calls from residents, but that a lot has transpired to make the whole effort slow-going and more expensive.
“I just want everyone to be aware that the effects of COVID are real with regard to labor shortages, with getting this designed, with procuring the materials that are needed, with waiting on these materials in the delay,” Willis said. “No one is more disappointed than me because I’ve got lots of concerned people.”
I asked Willis later if building permit delays were part of the issue.
“The request was filed on Aug. 16, 2021. (The) permit was issued April 15, 2022—8 months,” she texted back. “There were storm drainage issues that are now resolved. That likely contributed to some of the delay, however to what extent, I’m not certain.”
Council member Cara Mendelsohn asked City Manager T.C. Broadnax if he thinks this additional delay is a result of inefficiency on the city’s end. To that, Broadnax and Adriana Castaneda from the Office of Bond and Construction Management said it’s not a result of efficiency or inefficiency, but COVID-19 caused timeline delays that are not foreseeable in the future.
The city is continuing the search for a contractor to take on this project by re-advertising and seeking the best-value proposer.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax told the council that it wasn’t a matter of inefficiency in the bond and construction office, but said COVID impacted the issue.
“There have been a lot of things that were out of our control,” Willis told the council. “They don’t make fire stations like they did in the 1950s.”
The contract includes a cost escalation cause, which allowed the city the ability to rescind the contract. Willis said that the clause “is probably good business in normal times, but this time it kind of bit us.”
Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry told the council that the city went back to three contractors who put bids in with the city—Post, and two more. Ultimately, though, Post L’s request for $700,000 in material cost increases that it said it needed to continue the project in good faith proved to be too much for the city. Negotiations with other contractors who submitted bids on the original RFP fell apart, too.
What’s to prevent this from happening again, since the cost of materials and labor in particular won’t be going down anytime soon? Al-Ghafry said that the timing of the project made it a bit of a unicorn—it started during a disaster, and then the pandemic happened and everything that was already going at a crawl almost completely stopped.
“It’s something we need to watch better,” he said.
In the meantime, a temporary station nearby will be online next month. The city will be putting the new station back out for bid, with the hope that this time that new building will actually happen.