Repairs planned as San Benito’s $40 million project in 9-month halt

Construction is halted Tuesday, April 18, 2023, at the site of SBCISD's future Performing Arts Center and Natatorium Facility in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)
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SAN BENITO — Officials have yet to set a timetable in which to launch repairs as the San Benito school district’s $40 million bond-funded project enters the ninth month of a construction shutdown.

Earlier this week, school board members met in closed session to discuss the project as a construction team plans to make repairs beneath two buildings’ foundation.

“I want to get a resolution to this matter,” board President Orlando Lopez said Thursday. “We have made a few strides to get this project back on track. We want to make sure it’s a safe and sound structure for the kids. That’s what the community wanted and our kids deserve the best.”

In July, district officials said they had lifted the construction shutdown.

But by late August, then-Superintendent Theresa Servellon’s office described the project as “conditionally halted.”

While the shutdown pushes the project about 10 months behind schedule, Lopez said the district won’t be paying the repair costs.

“It’s contractor-at-risk,” he said, referring to the project’s 2019 contract. “So the pricing on these buildings was locked in before COVID. We’re not going to see the impact of inflation or material escalations and the delay of this project is not going to affect the district.”

In March, Servellon, under the past school board, ordered the district’s biggest construction project halted after architect Mike Alex, with McAllen-based ROFA Architects, found some geopiers, or deeply anchored 2-foot-wide rock columns, misaligned with the foundations’ targets.

During construction, crews installed geopiers about 15 feet into the ground to stabilize the area’s sandy soil.

But Balthazar Salazar, the district’s Houston-based construction attorney, said officials didn’t have to halt the project.

“In the forensic engineer’s opinion, the project could have continued to progress without a stoppage,” he said in an interview.

A sign displays renderings of the finished SBCISD Performing Arts Center and Natatorium Facility Tuesday, April 18, 2023, at the construction site in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Since construction halted, Alex has been working with Davila Construction, the project’s San Antonio-based contractor, along with engineers and attorneys, meeting two or three times a week to develop a plan to repair the buildings designed as the district’s first performing arts theater and aquatics center, Salazar said.

“We re-evaluated the whole project — all the engineering and all the architecture,” he said. “We want to make sure everyone’s on the same page. We want to make sure the remedy is OK with everyone. All the parties involved have been working collectively. Everyone wants to get it done efficiently and safely.”

On Thursday, Salazar stopped short of setting the repair project’s timetable.

“We are real close,” he said. “We are on the cusp of construction.”

For months, the construction team has been studying any misalignment of geopiers with the foundations’ targets.

To help make the repairs, the contractor and architects are planning to increase the size of the foundations’ footings to correct any geopiers’ misalignment, Salazar said.

The footings are 7-by-7-feet concrete support pads placed about three feet under the concrete foundation, while they’re installed about four feet above the geopiers, he said, referring to the performing arts theater project.

“We’re going to increase the dimensions of the footings to correct any misalignment. It’s a small misalignment,” Salazar said, referring to geopiers, which are installed about 10 feet apart.

“Part is the footings, where (geopiers) are off 6 to 10 inches, when the tolerance is six inches,” he said. “So they’re going to enlarge the footings to correct that distance of 6 to 10 inches. They’re load-bearing footings so we want to make sure they’re done the right way.”

The contractor has not installed most of the project’s footings, Salazar said.

Beneath the building planned as the performing arts theater, about 60% of footings have not been installed, he said, while about 80% of footings have not been installed in the aquatics center project.

Meanwhile, Alex described the plan to increase the footings’ dimensions as part of the repair project.

“We’re still investigating,” he said.

Part of a partially constructed facility is pictured Tuesday, April 18, 2023, at the construction site of SBCISD’s future Performing Arts Center and Natatorium Facility in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Since early this year, the project has continued without a manager.

In February, board members voted 6-0 to terminate the Edinburg-based project manager Brighton Group’s contract without cause, with construction about halfway completed.

Since a previous school board proposed a $40 million bond issue in 2018, the construction project has turned into one of city’s hottest topics, drawing fire from its opponents.

In 2018, Lopez helped a previous administration push for the bond issue to fund construction of the $21.3 million performing arts theater, the $8.8 million aquatics center and a $5.7 million indoor practice field, which has been completed.

In a heated election, 54% of voters passed the bond issue.

In October 2021, Davila Construction launched the project to build the performing arts theater and aquatics center.

In February, before officials shut down the construction project, a district report showed Davila Construction was requesting the performing arts theater’s completion date be pushed from July 21 to Dec. 28 while the aquatics center’s completion date be changed from April 14 to Sept. 19.

Officials haven’t announced a new timetable.