Water Problems Lead to Big Repair Costs for Minnesota Science Museum

By BRIAN BAKST | June 29, 2015

The Science Museum of Minnesota, a major tourist attraction that opened its new, $100 million home just 15 years ago, has serious water infiltration problems that could leave state taxpayers with a hefty repair bill.

Museum leaders have approached state officials and legislators with a $26 million construction request, half of which could be borne by the public. Dealt one legal setback already, the museum may still appeal a judge’s ruling that blocked it from seeking damages against an architecture firm that designed the museum nestled in a St. Paul bluff and a company that helped build it.

Museum senior vice president Mike Day said there’s no danger to the public. More than a million visitors, including loads of schoolchildren, flock to the hands-on exhibits and giant Omnitheater every year.

“There is no structural integrity loss. The building is safe,” Day told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “However, we want to be in front of this so the building preservation doesn’t become some kind of an emergency.”

Museum crews have been battling water problems since the year the 370,000-square foot space opened, requiring fixes while the building was under warranty. But Day said the scope of the intrusion and damage wasn’t realized until a third-party engineering review in 2012 uncovered deficiencies. During a harsh 2014 winter, the museum had to close the Omnitheater for nine days because of moisture that seeped in. Short-term repairs are being undertaken until money for the substantial rework is secured.

Day said quarterly tests are being done to make sure no mold or airborne concerns arise.

The museum’s request for state bonding bill help surfaced in late May, just days before the Legislature adjourned its regular session. Democratic Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul introduced legislation that mentioned the problems inside the building walls.

Hausman said she wanted to get the discussion started and put the project on the radar of committees that will tour project sites this summer and fall. She described the museum as a statewide asset and its water issue as urgent.

“You don’t want to take a chance that the problem will get any greater,” she said.

But the big request puts St. Paul leaders in a tricky spot. Earlier this month, the city council listed four priority bonding requests it will try to advance in the Legislature, including a $52 million bridge reconstruction and $14.5 million for Como Zoo exhibits. The Science Museum project has support but on a secondary list.

Tonya Tennessen, a spokeswoman for Mayor Chris Coleman, said the bridge has to get priority for safety reasons.

State lawmakers pay careful attention to the order communities put on their requests because the Legislature strives for geographic balance in the borrowing plan. Gov. Mark Dayton called the museum repairs a “worthwhile” project on Thursday but didn’t commit to including it in his recommendations for next year, noting it will compete with billions of dollars in proposed projects.

Day said museum leaders don’t plan to raise admission to cover repair costs. They expect to come up with half of the repair costs internally or through fundraising or possible drawing on a facilities reserve account.

The legal fight hasn’t been fully resolved either.

In 2013, the museum sued Delaware-based AECOM Inc., which had acquired original design firm Ellerbe Becket. A masonry company was also sued as well as the project’s general contractor, which reached a confidential agreement with the museum to resolve claims.

In court papers, museum officials allege that the designer and contractors cut corners and worked to conceal the extent of the defects when making follow-up repairs. The defendants have denied the allegations and said museum leaders haven’t proven their claims.

In April, Ramsey County District Judge William Leary ruled that the museum waited too long to bring a case, embracing AECOM’s defense.

“The persistent and pervasive presence of water intrusion over a period of years could only have led to the conclusion that (the Science Museum) needed to conduct an investigation,” Leary wrote, “the very investigation that led to its discovery of the construction defects.”

On June 15, the museum filed a notice with the Minnesota Court of Appeals to preserve that option. It has 60 days to file the actual appeal if the museum board wants to go that route.

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