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Weitz Finds More Than it Bargained for During Neiman-Marcus Project

Wed March 22, 2000 - Southeast Edition
Sheila Irvine

It’s a block from the Atlantic Ocean, a tropical storm and a hurricane passed by during construction, and the zoning restrictions are enough to make a grown man cry.

Building the Neiman-Marcus department store on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, FL, has been an “interesting feat,” according to Gary Hennings, vice president of the Florida Division of The Weitz Company Inc., which tackled the project.

Hennings, project manager, Jon Tori, superintendent Larry Thompson and architect Gene Lawrence talked about the challenges they faced during the project that began in April of 1999 and is expected to be open for business in the 2000-2001 shopping season.

To begin with, they had to dig a 7.6- by 80.8- by 35.4-meter (25 by 265 by 116 ft.) hole to accommodate a two-story underground parking garage on a lot a block from the ocean.

The underground parking facility was necessary because there is no parking available on the three-block Worth Avenue business district which is home to exclusive shops such as Tiffany’s, Van Cleef and Cartier.

The 4,366.4-square-meter (47,000 sq. ft.) store’s parking garage has to be underground because the Palm Beach officials “have a lot of requirements. They want everything hidden and concealed,” said Hennings.

Other challenges included:

• Keeping the sandy hole open by placing 500 reinforced concrete pilings, cheek by jowl, 18.3 meters (60 ft.) into the ground. Weitz could not use steel pilings because zoning laws precluded the noise driving those piles would make. Weitz used an American Crane auger pile rig to make those holes, Thompson said.

• Another set of 200 pilings were sunk in the center of the hole before the basement floor could be poured, in order to keep the water table from pushing up the building.

“The problem is not the ocean coming in to flood the site,” said Lawrence.

The problem, he said, is the pressure the ocean puts on the groundwater table, causing the level of the groundwater to rise.

• To remove the 10,972.8 meters (12,000 yds.) of debris from the pit, all the equipment had to be lowered into the pit with cranes, Thompson said. To do that, Thompson said ,required two 144-metric-ton (160 ton) hydro-cranes — Grove and Link-Belt, which picked up buckets from down in the hole, which had been filled by a John Deere backhoe, two Bobcats and a Caterpillar loader.

• When Tropical Storm Irene came through Florida and Hurricane Floyd passed nearby, the equipment all had to be removed from the pit, placed on lowboys, transported across bridges (Palm Beach is on an island) and removed from the areas that high winds threatened.

“We had to pull everything out of the hole — including two Caterpillar rubber tire backhoes, and the drill rig,” Thompson said. “It took us two days to dismantle everything.”

• The Weitz Company had to receive special permission to work between Nov. 15 and May 1 because no construction is allowed in the area during that period.

• Also, due to zoning restriction, Weitz had to pour 4,572 meters (5,000 yds.) of concrete (500 truckloads) on a Sunday because the company was not permitted to block off the street during business hours.

• Furthermore, workers could not drive to the job site because of limited parking and had to be bused across the bridge from West Palm Beach.

“We always have to do things the hard way,” Hennings said.

“It wasn’t a project for the faint of heart,” said Lawrence of The Lawrence Group-Architects.

The huge pour on Oct. 17, 1999, after the storms blew through, began at 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning and continued until 4 p.m. that afternoon, Tori said.

Those involved are quick to credit others for the success of the project: “Rinker Materials was great,” Hennings said. “We had 75 trucks running from four different batch plants.”

“If one person made it happen, it was our superintendent Larry Thompson,” said Tori, senior project manager for Weitz.

“Dames and Moore were truly instrumental,” said Lawrence. Dames and Moore are geotechnical engineers, who dealt with the water table and shifting sands.

“It was amazing,” Tori said. “The storm went through, and the next day, there were 30 guys back in the hole, installing rebar.”

“It was quite an achievement,” Lawrence said. “Most projects, when they get to the top floor, hold a ’topping out’ ceremony. I said we’re going to have our topping out when we pour the first floor.”

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