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Permitting Questions Remain at Spanish Fort Town Center

Fri October 14, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Kerry Lynn Kirby

Despite two tropical storms, a hurricane and a group seeking to stop the project, site preparation work on the roughly $100 million Spanish Fort Town Center project is proceeding on schedule, according to the developer.

Work started June 20 on the giant retail complex, which will be anchored by a Bass Pro Shops and JC Penney and include stores, restaurants, a hotel, office buildings and car dealerships, said John Farrow, senior project manager for Cypress Equities, the retail development and acquisition affiliate of Dallas-based Staubach Retail.

The retail complex, which developers say will span 1 million square feet and is being partly paid for with public funds, is slated to open in 2007.

Hoar Construction of Birmingham, AL, is overseeing the vast transformation of the 260-acre hilly site, which includes wetland areas that were the center of a lawsuit brought by Bay Area Responsible Growth Alliance (BARGA), a group that emerged to fight public financing of the shopping center shortly after plans were announced.

BARGA sought an injunction against the project on grounds that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit to fill the wetlands without requiring sufficient investigation of the impact it will have on the local environment.

The developer contends BARGA is not an environmentally concerned group but is simply a front for Bass Pro Shops’ competitors in the Mobile and Pensacola, FL, area, who fear the huge complex will hurt their business, Farrow said.

When the judge ruled the group would have to reveal its membership as part of discovery, BARGA withdrew the action, he said.

All along BARGA’s main concern has been financial, whether or not it makes sense for municipalities and other governments to invest substantially in a retail project like the Spanish Fort Town Center, said BARGA representative Jarrod Massey.

But the group’s membership is very diverse, including not only retailers but also concerned individuals who live in and outside Spanish Fort, Massey said. And some of the members have reservations about their identities being disclosed, which the group was respecting in withdrawing the lawsuit.

Still, BARGA did have concerns that the project was permitted in violation of federal law because the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t follow its own regulations in the permitting process, he said.

Although BARGA removed itself from the lawsuit, the fight may not be over, Massey said. He said he understands some organizations are considering taking up a similar suit.

BARGA contends there should have been a full-fledged environmental impact statement rather than a less-intensive environmental assessment before the permit was granted.

Farrow called the group’s allegations that the corps failed to follow its own regulations “nonsense.” The company went through the normal process and addressed all the concerns the corps had before the permit was issued, he said.

Everyone involved with the project is concerned about the environmental impact, he said. The wetlands were taken into account in the original design for the project.

Silt fences are just one of the components of the storm water management plan, Farrow said. The design includes a very elaborate system to keep sediment from getting into the wetlands.

One of the corps’ concerns was keeping sediment from flowing into Joes Branch, which joins with D’Olive Creek before running into Mobile Bay, he said. That concern was addressed.

The controversy did not affect the timetable of the project, which was started as soon as the permit was issued, Farrow said.

Montgomery-based W.S. Newell Inc. won the first two contracts for the job: the earthmoving portion, including clearing the trees and moving the dirt, and utilities installation, Farrow said.

Craig Sims, project manager for Newell, said he expected the number of workers to grow to 70 before the end of August, with more workers being added as the job ramped up.

They’re working a single 11.5-hour shift on weekdays and an 8-hour shift on Saturdays, he said.

The hilly topography poses a challenge in construction, Farrow said, but it was worked into a dramatic multi-elevation design.

“It’s going to be an impressive site, not just dead flat” he said.

At this point, workers are clearing the ground and grading the site, which requires a significant amount of earthmoving, Farrow said.

“It’s going to take a year to grade the site,” he said.

The earth is mainly sand and sandy clay, which is not unusual for the area, Farrow said. And it’s a balanced site, meaning the 3.5 million cu. yds. (2.7 million cu m) of dirt that needs to be cut from some areas will be used as fill in other areas.

“We’re not bringing anything in; we’re not taking anything out,” he said.

By mid-August, there were 55 pieces of heavy equipment at work on the site, but the number is constantly growing, Sims said. He expected to have as many as 75 pieces working when the job is fully ramped up in October.

Equipment working on the site includes an army of Caterpillar machines. Among them, according to Sims, are 10 dozers being used to push scrapers: two D10s, two D9s, three D8s and three D6s. Two of the D6s are LGP (Low Ground Pressure) wide-track dozers that are used to build slopes.

Other Cat pieces include: two 140H motorgraders that are being used for maintenance on the hard road and fill areas; two 815 compactors with push blades on their fronts, used to compact the fill; a 980 rubber tire loader with roof rake attachment, used for stockpiling brush and debris; a 963 track loader; and a 613 water tanker with a 5,000-gallon capacity, which is being used to water the hard roads for dust control and to water the fill to get it to the right consistency to work with.

There are also nine Cat 631 scraper models, mostly E series, and five Cat 637 scrapers, which are being used for the mass earth work; a Cat 375 excavator; a Cat 330 excavator; a Cat 257 track-mounted loader with fork, bucket and trenching attachments, which is being used to unload trucks on the silt fence crew; and a Cat Challenger rubber-tracked dozer with a disc attachment, which is used to process and dry material.

Most of the Cat equipment was purchased from Thompson Caterpillar, with locations in Montgomery, Birmingham and Mobile, Sims said. The company can be relied on to provide good service, he said.

“We’ve been business partners for a long time,” Sims said.

Several pieces of Volvo equipment, including three A30, four A35 and three A40 articulated trucks, are working on the job, Sims said.

They’re being used for common excavation, hauling topsoil and mulch, and excavating ponds in low-elevation areas of the site, he said.

Groundwater is a concern in the job because the elevation is 10 to 15 ft. in some areas, Sims said, and the Volvos are being used because they can run in areas where other equipment can’t.

Other Volvos include a 360 excavator and L90E rubber-tire loader with interchangeable bucket and fork attachments, which are supporting the laying of the storm drain, he said.

Sims said the L90E is one of his favorite pieces of equipment on the job.

“It’s a very versatile machine,” he said. “It’s smooth as silk.”

The Volvo equipment was bought from ASC Construction Equipment, which has locations in Montgomery and Mobile, Sims said.

There are also two Komatsu excavators, a 220LC and a 300LC, which are being used for clearing and grubbing, demucking and loading articulated trucks in low areas; a Link-Belt extended-reach excavator; and two Hitachi 750s with 3 1/2-yard buckets.

They’re also using a John Deere 9520 agricultural tractor with a box blade for hard road maintenance, Sims said. It runs continuously on the hard road to keep it smooth and also for dust control.

After the site is prepared and the water, sewer and storm drainage systems are installed, they’ll begin building the roadways and parking lots, followed by paving and Í?building construction, Farrow said.

The next package up for bid will be pavement-related, including curbs, roads, pavement and striping, he said. There also will be separate bid packages for construction of two bridges, site lighting and landscaping.

The subcontractors are being chosen through a competitive bid process, Farrow said. The lowest bidder of prequalified candidates gets the job.

Hoar got the job overseeing site work and building construction through negotiation based on a successful retail project it did with Cypress Equities in Birmingham, he said.

It’s a fast-tracked design project, meaning the project is designed in phases so that work can begin before all the components are designed, Farrow said.

Going that route probably got the project under way six to nine months faster, he said.

“Of course, this time of year, weather’s a major challenge,” Farrow said.

Tropical Storm Cindy blew through the area right before the project started; after it started, Hurricane Dennis and Tropical Storm Emily affected the area, he said.

Farrow said there also have been “extremely strong rain events,” which are normal for the Mobile area in the summer.

They’ve been able to stay on schedule despite the weather by working weekends to make up rain delays, he said.

“I think they’re doing a great job,” Farrow said.

Some rain actually helps when working with the pure sand, which responds well to aerating and drying, Sims said. Only in the clay-type sand does it become a problem.

A total of two and a half weeks have been lost due to weather, which sparked the Saturday shift.

“It’s pretty taxing on people, working those hours in the heat,” said Sims, who said they’ll eventually go back to five 11 1/2-hour days.

The project’s scope was planned based on a marketing study that convinced the developer the area could support a mixed-use site featuring not only stores and restaurants but also a hotel, office buildings and car dealerships, said Farrow, who called it a “synergistic approach.”

“It kind of all works together,” he said.

The Bass Pro Shops’ overall design will include the company’s signature water features, like ponds for fly fishing demonstrations, he said.

Building of those stores will be done by the respective companies and isn’t factored in the project’s $100 million cost estimate, Farrow said.

He said the developer is hoping to start opening stores in spring 2007.

“A project of this size, stores will open in phases,” he said.

In addition to providing desired businesses, the project will benefit the community by including roadway improvements that are needed anyway to handle population growth, Farrow said.

Improvements include a number of dedicated turn lanes to the project along U.S. 90 as well as creating additional left turn lanes onto Interstate 10 and U.S. 31, he said. They’ll also build two new intersections with traffic signals at entrances to the site.

That job will be put out for bid in a separate package, Farrow said.

He said the contractors don’t expect to have to close any roads, and they’ll coordinate with the Alabama Department of Transportation to minimize the effects on traffic flow. CEG

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