Its troubles may have just begun.
The quandary over who has authority over the hotel's construction was created by the structure of the project, a private venture on state-owned land, and a first in the university's history. UL President Ray Authement pressed relentlessly for a hotel at University Research Park for years, hoping to establish a facility that will double as a training program for UL's hospitality students and an added attraction for groups booking the nearby Cajundome Convention Center. After a series of setbacks, he convinced the University of Louisiana Board of Supervisors to endorse construction of the 150-room hotel. The only party to submit a valid bid was S.L. Sethi of Canton, Miss., and his partner, Tommy Vervaeke of Mandeville. Sethi is the developer/owner and contractor, sharing the latter role with Hall Fontaine Construction of Youngsville.
When the 100,000-square-foot Hilton Garden Inn finally got under way, the plans were not submitted to local code officials. Eleanor Bouy, head of LCG's Department of Planning, Zoning & Codes, says the department does not permit and inspect any jobs located on UL's premises. "It would be highly unusual on university property," says Bouy, who told The Independent Weekly she was unaware the hotel is owned by a private investor.
Her office, however, may have jurisdiction over the project ' and liability exposure down the road. In 1993 state law was amended to take away permitting and inspection authority on "state-owned buildings" from Metro Code, the local code authority at the time. (Consolidation of local and parish governments several years later abolished that entity.) However, the amendment did not address any exclusions of local code authority over private buildings on state property. It only placed the duty of state-owned buildings solely in the hands of the state fire marshal, the secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals, and the state's Office of Facility Planning and Control.
Bouy assumed the OFPC, which conducts a comprehensive review of all aspects of state projects, was on the job. However, OFPC Assistant Director Bill Morrison says his office has no jurisdiction over a privately owned building.
The construction project never received a permit. A permit for the $15 million six-story hotel would have cost the hotel's owner about $75,000, confirms Herb Guillory, LCG's building official. Guillory says he was contacted earlier this year about an inspection of the plumbing, but he informed the plumber that his department was not handling the project.
The lack of local and state code involvement has the project's architect and engineers policing themselves. While not uncommon in the construction industry, the practice is not condoned by most construction professionals, who welcome the oversight of third parties as a necessary level of liability assurance, in addition to being the most reliable method of ensuring the safety of a public building's occupants. Many architects and engineers have the same expertise as field inspectors, who undergo intensive training to provide additional scrutiny on codes for plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and fire-protection.
There has been very little of this type of third-party oversight of the Hilton Garden Inn. In fact, construction began on the project in November 2003, before the state fire marshal approved the plans, and the plans were never submitted to DHH, a requirement for buildings with kitchen facilities. (LCG fire prevention officer Travis Morgan represents the state fire marshal on projects in the city limits and says several site inspections have yielded no fire-related problems.)
DHH got involved in January at the request of the Louisiana State Plumbing Board, according to DHH spokesman Bob Johannessen. The plumbing board asked DHH for assistance after it averted a potentially disastrous problem at the site. Notified by a tipster ' project developer/owner Sethi claims it was a disgruntled plumber who was not awarded the job ' that an unlicensed plumber was on the job, plumbing board enforcement officer Joe Leger found what he calls "big problems" with the plumbing. "The guy that did it, he knew nothing," Leger says. "It was all messed up."
The plumbing infrastructure did not provide adequate venting from the first to fifth floor, which would have allowed sewer gas to escape into the hotel's rooms. "Sewer gas is a methane gas. It's dangerous, and it could explode," Leger says. The plumbing job was so botched ' even simple fittings in the sewer system were on backwards ' that all of the work had to be yanked out at quite a cost, Leger says.
Sethi blames the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors, which he claims said the plumber did not have to be licensed. That agency's executive director, Chuck Marceaux, says while there is some dispute over licensing requirements between his group and the plumber's board, there is no question in this instance that the plumber should have been licensed by the state.
The plumbing is now being overhauled ' at a substantial cost to the project ' by a plumber with a valid state license. Leger was back on the site last week and says the work so far is up to code.
Not everyone is as concerned about the issue as Leger. Sethi downplays the extent of the problem, leaving more uncertainty about the quality of other aspects of the project. "There were no problems with the work done [by the first plumber]," says Sethi, who claims the plumbing matter has not caused any construction delays. He blames delays on soil issues and inclement weather.
UL's director of physical plant, architect Bill Crist, also says there were no problems with the first plumber's work, insisting that it's unfair to assess the job because it was not complete. "There were no glaring errors that were going to cause a big issue," he insists.
Crist is in charge of all facilities on campus, and his primary role in the hotel project was ensuring it complied with design regulations of the research park, including exterior finishes, setbacks and adequate parking. He learned between September and October 2004, during meetings with LUS over utility connections, that the project had not been submitted to LCG for permitting. "We assumed they were going through all the means any private project would go through," he says.
Bouy doesn't understand why her office was not contacted as soon as university officials realized the project had not been permitted. Because the hotel is on state land, any LCG involvement in the project, including permitting, would have required clearance from LCG's legal department, she says. At press time, LCG attorney Pat Ottinger was researching the issue.
Crist says the architect and engineers had "stepped up" their roles, so he didn't think local government's involvement was necessary. "We felt comfortable that this project was in good shape."
The major plumbing problems arose several months later.
Roy Hendrick of Baton Rouge, the project's architect, and Dr. Wayne Denton, director of University Research Park, did not return phone calls seeking comment. It's unclear whether UL's contract with Sethi's company includes stipulations for construction administration.
In addition to the plumbing, there could be additional issues facing the hotel. One contractor who asked not to be identified says the interior has been exposed to rain, which may present harmful mold problems; he also questions the steel structure's stability. Additionally, the contractor witnessed roof workers not wearing safety belts, a requirement of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
An OSHA spokeswoman says no complaints have been filed. Sethi takes offense to the allegations that the environment and building may not be safe. "Street talk is cheap," he says. (A worker who was injured in April when debris caught his clothing and he fell three stories is doing well, according to Sethi.)
Sethi says he's built 19 hotels in the past decade and has been in business since 1973, with no major problems. "Safety is No. 1 for everything."
Still, Crist says if there is another project with a private group, it will have independent oversight, much like the $20 million LITE technology center under way at University Research Park. A collaborative effort between government, the university and local industry, LITE has a full-time project manager, in addition to a contractual requirement that the architect, electrical and mechanical engineers do construction administration. The OFPC also approved LITE's plans.
Says Crist, "Before a future project like this [hotel] gets under way, it's going to be my job to ensure that there is a proper inspection procedure in place."
Acadian rep notifies would-be supporters that an April 25 fundraiser for the embattled U.S. rep won’t go on as planned.
While it isn’t all too unusual for public bodies to have hired security present during meetings, the LPSB’s push to do so is arguably a response to the antics of one board member.
“I’m running. Why would I be raising all this money? Just to have to return it to people?”
With incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu watching from afar, and with a united Democratic Party in her corner, the fight to get the GOP officially behind Congressman Bill Cassidy is gaining just as much momentum as it is hushed controversy.
15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque has announced that he will not seek re-election after 27 years on the bench.
The controversial standardized tests are set to be used in third-grade through eighth-grade public school classrooms next year.
The Louisiana Senate has agreed to prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying over chemical plants, water treatment systems, telecommunications networks and other items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana.
It didn’t take long for KATC TV 3 to jump all over the news of a dead body found in Girard Park, but in its rush to produce headlines, the local TV station got sloppy.
Tuesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday, April 15, 2014:
An unholy trinity of civil-society upheavalers whose first names are not Conner, Tanner or Logan are facing charges in Eunice.
Now that lawmakers have shot down efforts to cap annual interest rates for payday loans, supporters for stricter regulations of the storefront lenders are rallying behind another strategy.
The Appropriations Committee held public testimony day, letting people talk about what they like or don't like about Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget recommendations for the 2014-15 fiscal year that begins July 1.
Lafayette police are investigating the death of a 21-year-old woman whose body was found early Sunday in a drainage ditch in Girard Park.
Former Grant parish District Attorney Ed Tarpley says he's running for the U.S. House seat currently held by Republican Vance McAllister of Swartz.
Louisiana-Lafayette got strong starting pitching and timely hitting to hold off Arkansas-Little Rock 6-3 in Sun Belt Conference baseball in Lafayette, La.
Chris Williams knows how to pilfer from the public coffers, this time with a back-pay lawsuit filed three years ago against the Lafayette Housing Authority, which netted the former city-parish councilman a cool five figures.
McAllister's office vowed that he intended to stay in office — for now. As for questions about whether he would stand for re-election in November, those were dodged.
The Green Army's Lafayette brigade has announced it will pay a visit Friday morning to Sen. Page Cortez to urge him to vote against Sen. Robert Adley's SB 553, which the group is calling the "Big Oil Bailout Bill of 2014."
For the sixth consecutive year, Andy Nyman, LSU associate professor of wetland wildlife management, and his service-learning students plan to spend spring break differently from those students flooding the beaches of Florida.
When a BP oil well began gushing crude into the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, fisherman George Barisich used his boat to help clean up the millions of gallons that spewed in what would become the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.
The legislation — House Bill 503 by state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport — passed by an 8-5 vote and advances next to the full House.
The Republican Party of Louisiana has had enough with the philandering hypocrite Vance McAllister. David Vitter? Eh...
A top aide to a Louisiana congressman videotaped kissing a married woman who is not his wife was one of the few people with access to the leaked security footage that exposed the dalliance.
Louisiana would repeal an unconstitutional state law prohibiting intercourse between two people of the same sex, if lawmakers agree to a bill that narrowly received the backing of a House committee Wednesday.