BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last month, the City of Portland announced that Whelton Architecture had been selected to design its newest fire station and one of its most prominent: Station 21 at the east end of the Hawthorn Bridge along the Willamette River. The contract was to include a new 10,000 square foot boathouse for the fire bureau. Whelton Architecture had previously won the commission to design the David Campbell memorial outside the station.
But this week, as reported by Angela Webber in the Daily Journal of Commerce, the city announced it was rescinding that award to re-interview and reconsider the four short-listed candidates. (Ten firms responded to the initial request for proposals issued by the city.)
The decision to retract the commision follows a a letter of protest sent by William Hart, a principal at Carleton Hart Architecture, one of the four shortlisted firms.
In his letter, Hart said the selection process did not follow the one outlined in the city’s request for proposals. Once a short list of four firms was selected (including Hennebery Eddy Architects and Peck Smiley Ettlin Architects along with Whelton and Carleton Hart), the city had stipulated the four firms would “start from zero” at the interview phase. But, as Webber explains, "documents from the selection process showed that proposal-phase scores relating to diversity and cost were carried through to the interview phase and adjusted for some firms, though those issues were not even discussed in Carleton Hart’s interview."
The city acknowledged its mistake by rescinding the award. “We’re going back to where (the process) deviated from the process outlined in the RFP,” Abby Coppock, management analyst for the city’s Office and Management and Finance, told Webber.
On the surface, this is simply the discovery of a procedural error that may either lead to Carleton Hart winning the job, Whelton being re-commissioned, or perhaps another firm. Yet it's tempting to consider the larger meaning here, or at least the surrounding set of conditions.
First, there is the added importance of and emphasis on public commissions during and beyond the Great Recession. According to the American Institute of Architects' latest Architecture Billings Index, released yesterday, demand for architectural design fell to a new yearly low in May. The Index, which indicates construction volume, decreased slightly to 47.2 last month from 47.6 in April. The benchmark for the index is 50, so any number above that indicates an increase in billings and anything below a decrease. April was the first month in 2011 that the index moved below 50. The regional buildings index was at it highest in the Northeast at 51.2, followed by the Midwest at 51.1, the South at 48.3, and the West at 47.7. So the West is experiencing the slowest growth in the nation. And most of the lost revenue and commissions in recent years have come from the private sector. It makes jobs like a city fire station all the more important, especially to small firms like Whelton and Carleton Hart.
Second, one may use this confusion over the Fire Station 21 commission to look at the city's RFP process overall. Does Portland have a system that encourages the city's most talented firms to apply for public commissions? Whelton is a talented firm, and part of the city's criteria or goal ought to be to give young architects with talent opportunity to forward their careers. They also did a great job with the winning Campbell memorial that will be built adjacent to Station 21. But most of Whelton's experience consists of single-famiy home additions and design competition entries, and all from approximately the last five years. Carleton Hart has more experience, with projects dating back to the mid-1990s. Carleton Hart designed the renovations of Fire Stations 8, 19 and 20 for the City of Portland in 2003-2004. Yet its last local AIA design award came in 1998.
This question about RFPs and Fire Station 21 also comes after the city's competition for the David Campbell Memorial was criticized for only allowing Portland State University architecture instructors to compete.
It's entirely possible that either Whelton or Carleton Hart would design a superbly beautiful, sustainable fire station. Yet do this RFP process or the city's RFP and RFQ (request for qualifications) processes overall truly reflect a commitment to hiring Portland's most acclaimed and experienced firms?
Besides the Fire Station 21 commission, it's important to assure that opportunities for city buildings, be they through the Portland Development Commission or various city bureaus, meet a variety of design excellence standards. If Portland is to become the international design capitol it seeks as part of a broader effort to establish itself as a souce of creative-class innovation, we've got to make city projects superlative and beyond reproach.
"It's really an amazing site and an amazing opportunity to craft something for the city," Aaron Whelton of Whelton Architecture told the DJC's Webber when his firm's Station 21 commission was announced in May. "It's unique in its context. I don't think there are any other buildings nearly as prominent along the east bank."
CORRECTION NOTE: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Carleton Hart had not designed a fire station before; apologies for the error.