By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Could nearly 300 University of Hawaii at Hilo students find themselves homeless when they arrive on campus this fall?
That scenario appears to be a possibility, according to an engineering firm that continues to raise questions about whether the campus’ new, $28 million dormitory building will be complete by its August deadline.
In a letter dated May 16 to SSFM International’s Robert M. Yamada III, the construction manager for Phase I of the University Village project, Mitsunaga & Associates Inc. project manager Gary Nakatsuka claimed that a number of build quality and safety issues with the building could stall its opening, balloon its budget and present serious safety issues.
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, UH-Hilo Director of University Relations Jerry Chang said Hilo administrators couldn’t speak on the allegations and referred all questions to the system’s Office of Capital Improvement.
He did agree, however, when asked if he and other campus administrators were concerned about having enough housing for students when they arrive in the fall.
“It’s a big concern,” was all he would say.
Among his complaints, Nakatsuka says that “unapproved, lesser-grade” windows were installed throughout the building, possibly placing the university “at risk of having to remove and replace the windows should the windows be found to be noncompliant with the building code requirements of this project.”
He added that such a finding could prevent the building from obtaining a certificate of occupancy, and thereby delay its ability to house students when they arrive on campus.
Nakatsuka’s letter also highlights a decision to do away with plans for a perimeter security fence and access control gates around the building, as well as all trees from the landscaping and all appliances from the building.
“The safety of the students is always a top priority of the Student Housing Director and his staff, and the perimeter fence was a requested item from the early design meetings;” he wrote, “especially since the site is across from the main campus and because it was not known (and it is still not known) when the separate campus-wide security camera system would be implemented on this site.”
He noted that the cost of the fence had already been accounted for in the final project budget in December 2012, making it “curious as to what led to the deletion of this very important feature from the project scope at this late stage.”
Meanwhile, Nakatsuka claims he has not received a response to requests to Albert C. Kobayashi Inc., the building’s general contractor, for moisture testing. Mitsunaga engineers believe the builing’s frame was exposed to rain early in the construction process and could be growing mold, he said.
“Moisture tests were requested of the General Contractor prior to the installation of the drywall due to concerns of mold growth within these wall cavities,” Nakatsuka wrote. “As of this letter, we have not received copies of the requested moisture test data collected by the General Contractor and submitted to SSFM. We still have our concerns of potential mold growth within these walls.”
Other concerns included the possible improper venting of bathrooms, the use of spray paint against university policy, cost overruns associated with a “swirl” floor tile pattern versus a simpler checkerboard pattern, as well as “cheap and unfinished” looking exterior corridor ceiling finish and paint.
In February, Dennis Mitsunaga, president and owner of Mitsunaga & Associates, which serves as the building’s plan and design contractor, provided testimony to state legislators in support of a bill that would give the university system’s procurement responsibilities to the state Department of Accounting and General Services. In that testimony, he alleged that the then-current head of procurement, UH Director of the Office of Capital Improvement Brian Minaai, had potentially wasted millions in taxpayer dollars through mismanagement, including by offering jobs to friends and political allies.
Minaai was placed on paid administrative leave in March, and the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation into the alleged misconduct. A representative with the Attorney General’s Office could not provide Thursday an update on the investigation, saying that she must withhold comment during an ongoing investigation.
When contacted about the allegations on Thursday afternoon, Maynard Young, who is filling Minaai’s role at the Office of Capital Improvement while he is on leave, said that the construction project remains on schedule. He declined to answer any further questions, however, referring all inquiries to the university’s public relations department.
Lynne Waters, UH associate vice president for external affairs and university relations, responded to an email but was unable to provide answers to a number of questions as of press time early Thursday evening.
Phase I of UH-Hilo’s University Village broke ground on June 22, 2012. Located across Kawili Street from the campus’ main entrance, the facility includes housing units in apartments and suite-style residence halls for apprximately 300 students.
It is the first new housing unit to be built at UHH since 1989, and is anticipated to go a long way in addressing what administrators have called a severe housing shortage on campus. There is currently room for only 600 students on campus, serving a total enrollment of over 4,100.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.