- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

The District has fired a construction firm that was renovating a century-old fire station designed for horse-drawn water wagons. The move delays indefinitely a project that a contracting officer says has hurt delivery of fire and emergency medical services to upper Northwest neighborhoods.

Firefighters stationed at Tenleytown’s Engine Co. 20 on Wisconsin Avenue have been housed in a trailer provided by the firm, D.C.-based HRGM Corp., for more than a year. It is not clear how they will be affected.

In a July 3 letter obtained by The Washington Times, the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement told the company’s president, Ramesh Butani, that the contract was being terminated effective July 14 for “unsatisfactory performance.”

The letter from contracting officer Karen M. Hester contradicts what D.C. officials have said repeatedly: that closing the station has not led to diminished service in Northwest neighborhoods.

“Due to closing of the Tenleytown firehouse in June 2002, the citizens and visitors to the Tenleytown area have endured inadequate fire and emergency medical services,” the letter states.

Engine 20 responds to emergencies in the upper Northwest neighborhoods of Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights, Spring Valley and Tenleytown. Its response area includes American University, the National Zoo and the National Cathedral.

Three standing walls at the abandoned construction site are all that remain of the original station. D.C. contracting officials said the project is 23 percent complete.

The July 3 letter also said the construction company’s failure to underpin properly the remaining walls and to protect the site from water runoff poses a safety risk to Tenleytown residents.

Fire officials say Engine 20, built in 1900, is at least a year and a half from completion. The 12-month project, scheduled for completion last month, called for increasing the size of the station, rebuilding its ventilation and plumbing systems, and widening its undersized bay doors.

The doors were designed to accommodate horses, but, in 1913, the station was retrofitted for motorized vehicles.

In a Feb. 26 letter to the contracting office, Mr. Butani stated that the city had breached terms by changing significant portions of the building design after the contract had been awarded.

The construction company’s $2.9 million bid was placed in September 2001, but the firehouse was designated a historic landmark by the city’s Historic Preservation Office in March last year.

Mr. Butani declined to comment yesterday, citing pending litigation. But he had stated in the letter that D.C. officials had “threatened” to cut off the company from further business if it did not accept the original contract amount.

The company’s Web site, www.hrgm.com, lists several past projects for the District, including renovations to the Metropolitan Police Department’s 4th District headquarters. Recommendation letters from the city’s Office of Property Management and the D.C. Public Schools also have been posted online.

Mr. Butani wrote that the possibility of losing business in the District and a promise that the company could be reimbursed for additional expenses through change orders convinced him to proceed with the project. He, however, accused city officials of dragging their feet for four months in issuing revised plans and obtaining new permits after the historic status was granted.

He said the city’s property management office also failed to adequately address problems that came up during construction, such as the discovery of contaminated groundwater and an asbestos-laden roof.

In the letter, Mr. Butani had asked for $1.9 million to cover the additional costs. The city agreed that renovating the building after it had been designated historic would cost more, but officials approved only $407,000 and extended the project deadline to December.

The company appealed the decision, and Miss Hester wrote a precautionary letter to Mr. Butani notifying him that he was obligated contractually to continue working until the city’s Contract Appeals Board issued a decision. The letter was written May 15, seven weeks before the decision to terminate the contract

Meanwhile, firefighters stationed at Engine 20 have been working from the trailer in the parking lot of the Naval District Washington complex on Nebraska Avenue. They have no restrooms inside the trailer. Truck 12 and Ambulance 20 have been moved to nearby stations. This, residents said, has increased response times.

Miss Hester said in the termination letter that residents and businesses of Tenleytown “have to depend on the Bethesda-Chevy Chase rescue squads for ambulance service.”

However, D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the closure “has not significantly impacted service.”

Mr. Etter said the crew of Engine 20 will remain in the trailer until the members are forced to leave or until alternate accommodations can be arranged.

The station, built in the Italian renaissance style, was designed by architect Leon Dessez, who also designed seven other D.C. firehouses, as well as the vice-presidential mansion on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. His work was part of a turn-of-the-century beautification movement for city municipal buildings.

Three firefighters at the Tenleytown station have died in the line of the duty.

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