Just as the efforts to revitalize West Ashley started to take shape in the last few months, Charleston City Council voted Tuesday to reject a contract with the nationally-recognized planning firm selected to develop the West Ashley Master Plan. The vote dealt a setback to a project many feel is the city's top priority.
Dover Kohl of Coral Gables, Fla. – best known locally for planning the I’On subdivision in Mount Pleasant - was picked from a dozen others by a selection committee last month that included three council members and five city employees.
City Council was expected to approve the nearly $500,000 contract Tuesday, but it failed 9-4 after an hour-long debate during the Ways and Means Committee. At issue were the process used to select the firm and the contract's dollar value.
Those who voted for the contract were Mayor John Tecklenburg and council members Mike Seekings, Rodney Williams and Peter Shahid. All others voted against it.
City Councilman Bill Moody said he wanted the West Ashley Revitalization Commission, the 19-member task force appointed by the mayor, to review the top three bidders and make a recommendation to City Council. Shahid, the commission's chair, was on the selection committee.
Moody also questioned whether other top firms considered in the process had offered the city a better deal, suggesting Dover Kohl was about $150,000 more expensive.
“I don’t know what we’re getting for that,” he said, adding later that he “had no question that Dover Kohl was a great firm.”
Most other council members appeared to agree with Moody’s concerns.
Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said he didn’t know why the city wanted to hire an outside firm to do the plan in the first place, since the city has a planning department.
Gary Cooper, the city's director of procurement, told City Council that the city used the same process to select Dover Kohl as it has for many other contracts. He called it a “clean process.”
He also advised that taking a different approach to reviewing applications might jeopardize the integrity of the selection process, which other firms could then challenge.
City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey said the selection committee couldn’t legally reveal what others had bid on the project until a contract has been signed.
“In my professional opinion… for an area of this size, it would not be uncommon to charge a million dollars or more,” he said. “This firm’s number is appropriate.”
The West Ashley Master Plan has been described as one of the most ambitious planning efforts in the city's history and is expected to serve as the guiding document that city officials will use to create zoning rules and guide public investment ion the city's largest suburb.
City spokesman Jack O’Toole said after the meeting that the selection committee had not chosen the most expensive firm to do the plan.
“Although the city’s policy forbids discussion of specific numbers at this point in process, we can say that several bids were significantly higher than the one brought to council tonight,” he said.
Dover Kohl gave an overview of its vision for West Ashley at a Revitalization Commission meeting earlier on Tuesday. Josh Martin, senior adviser to the mayor, said none of the members questioned the process used to select the firm or how much it would be paid.
He said council members Moody, Keith Waring, Kathleen Wilson and Marvin Wagner - who voted against the contract - were at that meeting and also did not raise those points when asked if they had any questions for Dover Kohl.
Mayor John Tecklenburg said Tuesday night that the whole process of revitalizing West Ashley had already been delayed too many times by City Council, and urged the 12-member body to move forward with the contract.
While all city officials seem to agree that revitalizing West Ashley is a priority, they often disagree on how to do it. Earlier this year, City Council opposed his original appointments to the West Ashley Revitalization Commission because they thought City Council should pick its members. Months later, they reversed that decision and handed the job back over to the mayor. His appointments were approved in late September.
“A hallmark of my first year of activity was to try to get this revitalization commission going and work on other initiatives in West Ashley. There seems to be a disconnect here,” he said. “I just hate at this point to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and we’re going to lose more months and end up with a little more confusion and frustration moving forward.”
The city's selection committee may try to renegotiate the project price with Dover Kohl, since it was deemed the most responsive bidder. City Council’s decision to reject the contract could also have other consequences that the city’s attorneys will sort out in the days to come, O’Toole said.