Frost science museum hit with construction lien, lawsuits from contractors

Rendering of the finished museum (Credit: Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science)
Rendering of the finished museum (Credit: Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science)

After years of delays, a fundraising crisis that prompted a county bailout and the sacking of its board of directors, the new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science seemed back on track to open its doors in downtown Miami by the end of this year.

But now a new legal drama has begun in the museum’s troubled saga. Construction firms who worked on the project have launched two separate lawsuits against the museum’s design team, alleging numerous defects in the overall plan held them back from getting their work done on time.

The first to be filed this month was a federal suit from Suffolk Construction, the museum’s former general contractor, and Baker Concrete Construction, a subcontractor that Suffolk hired to pour the building’s concrete shell.

Its claims are mostly the same as the ones Suffolk made in 2014, when the contractor was unceremoniously fired from the project after its schedule suffered months of delays.

The suit alleges Suffolk and Baker were repeatedly given incomplete plans from Rodriguez & Quiroga Architects Chartered and Fraga Engineers, the museum’s design team. Those plans also contained “numerous” design errors and conflicts, the suit says, which were repeated in later revisions. Some of those alleged deficiencies cited in the suit: the pump system for the museum’s crown jewel, a 500,000-square-foot saltwater aquatic tank, incompatibility between the plumbing box and the buildings “living core,” as well as a host of other issues.

As Suffolk’s Executive Vice President Jeffrey Gouveia told the Miami Herald at the time, those errors and subsequent revisions lead to months of almost complete inactivity on the job site during 2013.

The suit alleges two counts of negligence and is seeking unspecified damages. A request for comment to museum officials was not immediately returned. Rodriguez & Quiroga deferred requests to the firm’s attorney, who could not be reached by deadline.

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Just a few days after Suffolk and Baker filed their complaint, another subcontractor, Formrite Construction followed suit. The company was also brought on by Suffolk to install masonry for the project, and to help fulfill the museum’s requirements of hiring local businesses.

And just like Suffolk and Baker’s suit, Formrite’s legal missile is aimed squarely at the museum’s design team. The construction firm alleges that Fraga and R&Q’s shoddy design work left Formrite unable to access certain areas on the job site where they were hired to lay concrete blocks. That led Formrite President Antonio Obregon to order his workers off the site in June, prompting a notice of default from the museum after the company didn’t return to work a month later.

Since the museum of science assumed the subcontractor’s agreement once Suffolk was fired in 2014, it’s also been named a defendant in Formrite’s suit. On top of that, Formrite filed a construction lien against the museum’s ground lease with Miami-Dade for its bayfront development site at 1075 Biscayne Boulevard.

The company is seeking $800,000 in damages, including nearly $141,000 in unpaid labor and materials.

These suits are the latest in a series of hardships to erupt during the science museum’s years-long development. A fundraising shortfall earlier this year left doubt over whether the project could pay its $5 million to $7 million monthly bill to its contractor, with Miami-Dade ultimately approving a controversial $45 million bailout to bridge the financial gap. Philip and Patricia Frost fired the museum’s board of trustees in the crisis’ wake, and Julian Thomas, its former CEO, stepped down several months later. After it all, museum executives still plan on opening by the end of this year.

“This was supposed to be a rather short job,” said Alex Barthet, Formrite’s attorney from the Barthet Firm. “Based on what I am aware of, it is highly unlikely that they will hit that [end-year 2016] target.”