Monday, July 21, 2003

The District last week 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 the city’s procurement office, in terminating the contract, said has led to “inadequate” fire and emergency medical services for neighborhoods in upper Northwest.

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

In a July 3 letter, the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement told the company’s president, Ramesh Butani, that the contract would be terminated effective July 14 for “unsatisfactory performance.”

The letter, signed by contracting officer Karen M. Hester, contradicts what D.C. officials have said repeatedly: that closing the fire station for renovation has not led to diminished service to upper 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,” states the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

Engine 20 responds to emergencies in the neighborhoods of Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights, Spring Valley and Tenleytown.

The 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 city’s 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 renovation of 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 enlarging the station, rebuilding ventilation and plumbing systems, and widening bay doors for modern equipment

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

In a Feb. 26 letter to the procurement office, Mr. Butani said the city breached terms by changing significant portions of the building design after the contract had been awarded to his construction company.

HRGM’s $2.9 million bid was placed in September 2001, but in March 2002 the firehouse was designated a historic landmark by the city’s Historic Preservation Office.

Mr. Butani declined to comment yesterday, citing pending litigation. But his letter contended 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,, 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 public school system 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 station gained historic status.

Mr. Butani said the Office of Property Management 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 asked for $1.9 million to cover 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, 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 ruling. The letter was dated May 15, seven weeks before the city notified the company of the decision to terminate the contract.

Firefighters stationed at Engine 20 have worked out of a trailer in the parking lot of the Naval District Washington complex on Nebraska Avenue. The trailer has no restrooms.

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 of the station “has not significantly impacted service.”

The crew of Engine 20 will remain in the trailer until they are forced to leave or other accommodations can be arranged, Mr. Etter said.

The station, built in the Italian renaissance style, is the work of architect Leon Dessez, who 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 municipal buildings.

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

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