Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2014

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CONSTRUCTION:

CityCenter inspectors told: Easy on the paper

It’s not a policy change, official says, to first report flaws verbally to contractor

Beyond the Sun

Click to enlarge photo

Pedestrians pass by the Harmon, left, part of MGM Mirage's CityCenter project, and the Cosmopolitan, right, on the Las Vegas Strip in March.

County officials have instructed building inspectors at CityCenter to be more selective in using paperwork to document potential flaws in the massive MGM Mirage project.

According to an inspector who said he was present for a meeting about a month ago, a county supervisor told CityCenter inspectors to rely more on verbal communication with contractors and less on the written correction notices and notices of violation used to track structural problems that the county orders contractors to fix.

The Las Vegas Sun and the Las Vegas Review-Journal have since January written extensively about numerous construction violations that followed discovery of serious flaws in the project’s Harmon tower. The newspaper stories have been based primarily on correction notices and notices of violation, which the county keeps in a searchable database and provides to the media and public upon request.

Last fall an engineer discovered that contractors had incorrectly installed 15 floors of reinforcing steel in the Harmon. That discovery and other factors prompted MGM Mirage to redesign the Harmon as a much shorter building than originally conceived.

Work recently restarted on the hotel tower after following the redesign and county approval of new plans.

Ron Lynn, director of development services for Clark County, and county spokesman Dan Kulin said supervisors told inspectors to use more care in issuing notices after the county realized that some notices were overly broad and didn’t address a specific problem as they should.

Lynn said department procedure is to first verbally communicate problems to contractors on site before resorting to a paper trail.

A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he interpreted the instructions to mean “back off, back off” when it came to writing notices about problems at CityCenter.

Lynn said that was not the intended message. Inspectors were not told to be less aggressive and are not issuing fewer notices, he said.

“If the inspectors were not following policies, then it’s appropriate to remind them and to give them guidance,” Lynn said. “That’s part of supervision.”

The correction notices and notices of violation were, until recently, available on a county Web site, as well as on a computer terminal at the county building. The county recently removed all notices from the Web-accessible database — leaving the county computer terminal as the public’s only option for viewing them.

Lynn said the notices were removed from the Internet after the county received a complaint that a particular document — unrelated to CityCenter — contained information that shouldn’t be public.

After the complaint, the county asked the district attorney to review the accessibility of the documents, Lynn said. The DA cleared the practice of placing the notices on the Internet and the county plans to soon put the documents back online, he said.

Neil Opfer, an assistant professor of construction management at UNLV, said the notices provide an important record to ensure a project is eventually built according to approved plans. But he has also been on projects where building inspectors regularly gave verbal instructions and only issued written notices if the instructions weren’t heeded.

“If it’s just a verbal instruction then that could fall through the cracks,” Opfer said. “We write things down so we remember them later. If we eliminate the written record, it seems that could be problematic.”

Lynn said he did not believe inspectors were issuing fewer notices on construction problems at CityCenter or any other project. For example, the department issued a notice of violation on June 2, after discovering what could be more serious problems at the Harmon.

Private inspectors found that reinforcing steel within a load-bearing wall on the 23rd floor was not inserted according to county-approved plans. The error was found before the concrete was poured and was promptly corrected.

But the contractor told county inspectors that the same practice had been used on the fifth through 22nd floors of the Harmon, which were covered in concrete, Lynn said. That would mean the load-bearing walls were built according to an engineer-approved drawing, but not according to county-approved plans, Lynn said.

A person with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said based on early evaluations, even if a problem does exist it doesn’t need to be corrected because the building is much shorter than originally designed and therefore won’t require as much reinforcing steel.

Perini Building Co. officials said they have tested the lower floors and found they were built correctly. They will soon be presenting that evidence to the county.

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