Regents move ahead on trolley building

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By Martin Salazar

New Mexico Highlands University regents have selected an Albuquerque firm to create the design for the historic trolley building, which will eventually house the university’s media arts program.

Baker Architecture + Design was selected for the project last Friday. Regents spent several hours discussing the project and interviewing a total of three finalists for the design phase. The other firms interviewed but not selected were Dekker/Perich/Sabatini and Autotroph.

Highlands’ trolley building, located on 12th Street and San Francisco, was built in 1903 in the Romanesque architectural style. The 15,975-square-foot building was the trolley barn for the city’s trolley system. Las Vegas and Albuquerque were the only cities in New Mexico with trolley systems at the time.

The dilapidated building is listed on the State and National Registry of Historic places.

At last week’s meeting, Fries said the building is currently a shell with two walls that appear to be in good shape and which the university hopes to preserve.

The cost of the project has been pegged at about $10.5 million. The university has already acquired $8.3 million for the renovation, and will likely have to downsize its original plans to lower its cost.

Voters last year approved a bond package that included $6 million for the Trolley building. Earlier this year, state lawmakers appropriated another $2.3 million for the project, and Gov. Susana Martinez signed off on it.

This is the first major construction project the university is taking on since it completed its student center on Eighth and National. That project was plagued by a series of problems and went significantly over budget and was more than a year behind schedule. Regents eventually fired the general contractor on the project and hired Franken Construction to complete it.

But regents and other university officials haven’t forgotten that experience. In an effort to avoid those types of problems the university is tackling the trolley building project differently.

Regents, for example, have made it clear that they plan to be actively involved in every aspect of it. The university has also hired an owner’s representative firm to look out for its interests on the project. Progressive Construction Management will be keeping tabs on both the design and construction phases of the project.

The firm has played a similar role in a number of high-profile projects. It is Virgin Galactic’s on-site representative overseeing various aspects of the design and construction of the $225 million Spaceport America.

PCM is headed by Ian Harmon, who told regents last week that he started the firm because he didn’t feel that owners were being represented properly by architects or contractors. He said that because his firm is neither the architect nor the contractor, it has no motivation other than protecting an owner’s interests.

Harmon said his firm would be the university’s eyes and ears on the trolley building project and hold architects and contractors responsible for any errors or omissions.

“I know there have been issues in the past here,” Harmon said. “I don’t foresee that happening on our watch.”

Because the trolley building is a historic structure, the university will face additional hurdles in restoring it. Harmon said his firm has experience with those types of projects. But he said that because there’s not much left of the original building, the state Historic Preservation Office’s involvement in the project will likely be minimal.

Harmon said that the project essentially involves building a brand new building with two historic walls attached to it.

Regents were initially scheduled to go into executive session to interview architects for the project. But at Regent Jesus Lopez’s urging, the board opted to conduct those interviews in open session.

Harmon told regents he initially had concerns about the Baker firm because it is small and he wondered whether it would be up to the task. But he said that after interviewing the firm, he felt confident that Baker could handle the job. He said they were passionate about it and said they would bring in additional people to help.

The Baker firm was also familiar with the project because the university had previously hired it to handle the programming phase of the building — essentially what the needs of the media arts department are and what kind of space would be needed. University officials stressed that the Baker firm was not involved in developing the RFP for the architectural services.

Harmon said the design phase of the project would take nine to 10 months to complete. Construction, he said, would likely take another year.