The Capitola Library under construction.
The still-under-construction Capitola Library.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Six-figure mistake: Flaw in Capitola Library plans sparked delays, cost taxpayers at least $580,000

The architecture firm hired by Capitola to design its new library made a critical mistake by setting the building too close to high-voltage wires next to the property line, officials say. Now, city leaders and taxpayers are getting a handle on what that error is costing.

The new Capitola Library should be ready to open by summer after two and a half years under construction.

But the library was supposed to be finished a year ago, in February 2020.

And — despite the project appearing on track to come in slightly under budget — a crucial design flaw that led to the bulk of those delays will cost taxpayers, Capitola leaders learned this week.

Just how much? At least $582,402.

That’s the amount the city council agreed to pay on Thursday for extra work caused by the design flaw. Public Works Director Steve Jesberg called it “one of the more painful” expenses related to library construction.

Beyond the $582,402, there might be other extra library-related payments to come, according to city officials, though they’re expected to be of a smaller scope.

‘Something that should have been discovered’

The problems began when Noll & Tam, the Berkeley-based architecture firm hired by the city to design the new library, placed the building too close to electrical poles and high-voltage power lines near its property line.

Eaves that extended out from the roof of the 11,700-sq. ft. library in original renderings ended up crossing over into two separate safety buffers around high-voltage electrical wiring along Wharf Road.

The Capitola Library under construction.
The Capitola Library under construction. Electrical wiring that ran along the library site had to be restructured so the building wouldn’t enter no-build buffers set by regulators.
(Courtesy city of Capitola)

The project broke ground in November 2018, but it wasn’t until six months later, in April 2019, that a contractor discovered the issue. By that point, construction was 10% complete.

Shortly thereafter, on May 23, 2019, Jesberg briefed the City Council on the issue, saying, “Certainly we, staff, feel this is something that should have been discovered during the design stages, whether it was by the architect or the civil engineer or electrical engineer all working on the project.”

To fix the problem, Pacific Gas & Electric had to reconfigure the electrical poles so that wires ran out over Wharf Road instead of inward toward the library. At the time, city officials thought, at worst, the library’s opening date would be pushed back to October 2020.

In reality, PG&E’s work to reconfigure the poles didn’t finish until that time, setting back the overall timeline for library construction by about eight months.

renderings of Capitola power lines near the library
This May 2019 rendering shows how the Capitola Library’s original design placed it too close to electrical poles and high-voltage power lines.
(Courtesy city of Capitola)

To make room for the rearranging of electrical wires, parts of the library also had to be redesigned, including the eaves that would have extended out toward the power lines, which also contributed to construction delays.

The structure of the roof had to be reconfigured, and the city had to pay to protect the project site through another winter — an unexpected expense that included controlling stormwater and setting up pricey rented scaffolding.

Another $325,000 in extra charges possible

The $582,402 payment approved this week is for those changes to the building. It doesn’t include the expense of what the city paid PG&E to reconfigure the power lines; that work was lumped together with other work PG&E had to do to provide service to the library site, so the cost isn’t known, according to Jesberg.

Apart from the city council approving the $582,402 payment, Capitola staff also expects the city to pay at least another $325,000 for a mix of delay-related expenses and “very typical” design changes.

Despite those increases, the project is still projected to be under budget by about $500,000. Delay-related expenses were offset by quick construction by the project’s general contractor, Otto Construction, which rearranged the building schedule to get as much done as possible while PG&E was rewiring the power lines, Jesberg said.

The Capitola Library site under construction in May 2019.
The Capitola Library site under construction in May 2019. Around this time, a contractor discovered how close nearby power lines would come to the eaves of the building’s roof.
(Courtesy city of Capitola)

Can any money be recouped?

In 2019, Capitola began a series of private meetings with Noll & Tam about the power line conflict, and any potential “errors and omissions” involved — a condition that could make the city eligible for repayment from the architecture firm’s insurance company. Those conversations are ongoing, but so far, “there is no resolution,” said Jesberg, who declined to give additional details due to the possibility of litigation over the matter.

Noll & Tam officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

While it’s unclear whether the money can be recouped, it is clear is that the design flaw pushed back other parts of the project, “I think we probably would have been done, if not in May, then certainly the summer of 2020,” Jesberg said. “It just took significant time to come to an affordable solution to work around and have PG&E do their design work and their field work.”

The library is a rare public building project for Capitola, the only one Jesberg has worked on in his two decades at the city. The $15.8 million project is being largely funded by Measure S funds used to revamp public library branches countywide.

Although Measure S money makes up the core of the library’s funding, Capitola has also devoted $1.55 million from its general fund to the project, and donors have given at least $600,000 to see the vision become reality.