Work is complete on what is likely the largest public works project of its kind: a complete utility and streetscape project in downtown Fort Myers, Fla., headed up by the Fort Myers division of Naples, Fla.-based Kraft Construction, which served as the construction manager. Infrastructure firm Dyer, Riddle, Mills & Precourt, Inc. (DRMP) provided the civil engineering and surveying services for the project.
During a single, four-year project, the entire underground utility infrastructure and the complete streetscape of 52 blocks of the city’s urban core were removed and replaced. The project — an effort funded by the Fort Myers Public Works Department and the city’s Downtown Redevelopment Agency — used the construction manager model to help save the city millions of dollars.
“We don’t know of another community in the country that has undertaken an entire downtown utility and streetscape project all at one time,” said Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Downtown Redevelopment Agency. “Most cities will do it a couple of streets at a time, wait a year or two, then go back and do a couple more. This is one of the largest continuous streetscape and utilities projects that’s ever been tackled.”
Getting the project going was all about timing and partnership. The underground utilities — water, sewer, and drainage — were 70 to 80 years old and had become problematic. Discolored water, line breaks, and sewer backups were common; city officials knew a total replacement would be costly.
Likewise, the city’s streets and sidewalks were in need of a makeover recommended in a redevelopment plan created in 2003 by renowned architect and town planner Andreas Duany. Since the street demolition and removal could be done as part of the utility project, it presented an opportunity for reduced costs for the streetscape improvement.
“The utility project paid to tear everything up, which kept streetscape costs down,” Paight said. While the city handled the utility costs, “Downtown Redevelopment funded all of the brick streets, the lighting, the landscaping, the historic streetlights, the brick-trimmed sidewalks, and street furniture — and both projects were more cost-efficient.”
And to add a special touch, designers recovered, recycled, and then reused more than 500,000 bricks from beneath the asphalt on the existing streets.
Traditionally, the city had awarded utility projects to the low bidder. However, as city officials considered options for a project with this size and scope, they opted to use a construction manager.
“We wanted to make sure everybody knew the entire scope of the project so they didn’t inflate their costs,” said Saeed Kazemi, director of Public Works for the city of Fort Myers. “That’s why we picked a construction manager. They helped us set up a bidding process that would educate the contractors on what was involved and how this could be bid to benefit them and to benefit us.”
The project team selected Kraft Construction, a statewide commercial construction company with 40 years of industry experience.
The project was estimated to cost $60 million — a sobering but realistic figure that reflected Florida’s construction boom and high demand for construction services at that time. City officials made the strategic decision to award the project in phases in hopes that costs would improve as construction demand leveled off.
“We bid phase one at the peak of the construction boom,” said Kazemi. “When we got close to finishing one phase, we bid the next. By splitting the project into phases, we ended up saving money because the construction industry was slowing down and prices were falling.”
More specifically, the decision to utilize a construction manager model rather than the traditional low-bid model, and to split the project into four phases for bids, ended up saving the city more than $4 million.
Bob Koenig, senior vice president for Kraft Construction, and his team were challenged by a complicated network of non-public utilities: electric, telephone, cable, and gas. Kraft coordinated its efforts closely with the Public Works Department and the individual utility companies. While the team was able to work around much of the existing infrastructure, Florida Power & Light used the project as an opportunity to run underground conduit in preparation for a future project that will replace pole-strung power lines with underground lines.
Workers also replaced or added water lines and services; capped existing water mains at both ends of the fenced project area in each sub-phase; and maintained temporary services during construction to enable existing water line removal. The goal was to minimize disruption of service by having only two shut-offs per property owner: one for connection of the temporary service, and another for the permanent connection to the new line. Storm drainage and sanitary sewer piping, structures, and services were also replaced or added throughout the project. In this case, bypass piping and pumping was completed in each sub-phase to avoid sewer or storm back-up on private property.
And, as with any urban utility or street project, there were human impacts as well; more than 140 storefront businesses were affected, as well as a workforce of about 10,000 people.
“We knew we needed to go the extra mile to accommodate downtown businesses and their employees,” Koenig said. “Our focus was twofold: Timely communication and remaining true to the schedule so businesses could plan accordingly.”
“We tried to keep the interruptions or disruptions to a minimum,” said Kazemi. “When you're a merchant and there’s no traffic in front of your business, it hurts.”
To help meet this challenge, Kraft developed a plan that preserved pedestrian traffic throughout construction. Temporary, movable sidewalks retained pedestrian access to businesses, condos, and office buildings at all times during the four years of construction.
Ongoing communication with merchants and building owners was also an important part of the successful formula.
“Kraft did a very good job working with the merchants in each block,” Paight said. “Whenever they were going to tear something up, merchants knew the schedules, so if they had a special sale or event going on, we’d make sure we didn’t close them down on those days.”
And now, with the project complete, the benefits are clear for downtown, its merchants, and the city as a whole.
“It was the city’s first job under a construction manager, and Kraft helped a lot,” said Kazemi. “I will recommend that future jobs with a lot of unknown factors be done this way. With a hard bid, everything has to be negotiated with a change order. With a construction manager, you come up with all the issues before the project, and you try to iron them out as best you can.”
The city has begun seeing renewed interest in retail business and offices locating in the downtown core. During the final months of construction — with streets and sidewalks still in disrepair — a total of 15 new businesses moved in.
And the results of the project are drawing outside attention as well.
“I received a call from Wrangler Jeans company,” Paight said. “They’ve been scouting locations to do some of their catalogs and commercials and absolutely fell in love with downtown Fort Myers. They said it was like a Hollywood stage set. They sent a crew down here and spent four days in front of the businesses, along the brick streets, down along the waterfront. We’re hoping to attract more of that type of activity.”
The project was a success for Kraft, as well. “Our team members really had a vested interest in demonstrating how the construction manager model could benefit the city, the retailers, and the overall community,” said Koenig. “The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Downtown Fort Myers looks incredible — even below the surface.”
Further, the project was awarded “Project of the Year” in the Historical Restoration/Preservation category by the Florida Chapter Awards Committee of the American Public Works Association (APWA), recognizing the managing agency, engineer, and other team consultants, and the contractor who worked together on the project.
Tina Matte is a partner at Gravina, Smith, Matte & Arnold Marketing and Public Relations in Fort Myers, Fla. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.