Putting up with the convention center’s problems

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Monday, July 2, 1990, Page 1D

By Peter Binzen

From his 28th-floor office at 1101 Market St., Harry M. Perks has a splendid view of the biggest construction project in Philadelphia’s 308-year history.

The view is splendid, but what he sees isn’t. By this time, the site from 11th to 13th Streets, between Arch and Race, should be crawling with workers toiling under contract to the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, of which Perks is executive director.

The authority’s $523.4 million convention center is scheduled to open in January 1993. That’s just 30 months from now.

So far, one contractor, Robert Hawthorne Inc., has excavated most of the site and another, Case  International Co., has sunk footings for foundations. Contracts have been let for underground mechanical and electrical work.

But of $212.5 million in projected “hard” construction costs, only about $11.6 million has been awarded. The site has been cleared of everything except a Reading Co. viaduct, yet it’s hardly a beehive of activity.

What Perks, 62, glimpsed from his office window last week was not the beginnings of “the box,” as everyone calls the convention center, but a bare expanse of good urban earth.

And that burned him up.

“Public-works projects are not as simple as private ones,” Perks, who formerly headed Day & Zimmerman Inc., one of Philadelphia’s largest engineering firms, said with commendable understatement. “It’s amazing how a few people can block them.”

After years of wrangling over money and politics, the Convention Center Authority finally seemed ready to start construction several months ago. Then in May, a coalition of predominantly white male contractors filed a federal court suit against the authority’s minority-contracting  policy. The contractors said the authority’s formula was patterned after the city’s own minority set-aside law that U.S. District Judge Louis C. Bechtle had struck down in April.

The municipal policy was intended to remedy past discrimination by the City of Philadelphia. It set aside specific percentages of city contracts for companies owned by minorities and women. The U.S. Supreme Court barred such remedial quotas in a Richmond, Va. case last year.

In calling for “meaningful and substantial participation” by minorities and women, the authority’s affirmative-action policy makes no mention of set-asides or quotas. It is not remedial in nature but is aimed at making sure that prime contractors don’t discriminate, Perks said.

The authority’s bid specifications set percentage goals based on the differing availability of black and female subcontractors for electrical, plumbing, mechanical and other construction work.

The contractors say the authority’s policy, like the city’s, is illegal and should be thrown out. The authority defends its program, saying it’s based on a state plan that was recently upheld by a federal judge in Harrisburg. Now, black groups are rallying against the contractors. Absent meaningful affirmative action, they have threatened to shut everything down.

The contractors’ case also was assigned to Judge Bechtle. Pending his ruling, the authority is free to go ahead with its work. But Harry Perks, sorely beset on all sides, said the litigation has cast a cloud over the entire project. In an interview last week, he couldn’t conceal his disappointment over the contractors’ suit.

“Jesus, how greedy can you get?” he asked, rhetorically. And of affirmative action’s impact on contractors, he noted: “That’s not going to make or break them.

“I believe our plan is constitutional,” Perks added. “But whether it is or isn’t doesn’t make a difference if [contractors] don’t want an affirmative-action plan.”

He’s especially frustrated by the fact that the convention center means jobs for thousands of Philadelphians and, if it is successful, vastly increased revenues for the city. He views it as strictly a “win-win situation” that ultimately will benefit everybody.
With the affirmative-action plan in trouble, however, the entire project is jeopardized.

“There are no injunctions or restraining orders,” Perks said, “but when you’re in litigation, you move more cautiously.”

On June 14, the authority took bids for about $25 million worth of work. Two bids came in from electrical contractors, three from concrete firms and four each from mechanical and structural-steel contractors.

“I don’t consider that [number of bids] a hell of a lot of interest for a big public project,” Perks said. “I think there’s some evidence people are anxious not to get involved in controversy.”

The bids are now being analyzed. “We don’t feel we got a good response,” Perks said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
And of the project itself, he added: “It’s just not a nice, clean job.”

Perks who was named to the $140,000-a-year post in February, did have promising news concerning the removal of hazardous chemicals from the Reading Terminal train shed.

The shed is to become the convention center’s grand entryway. With its environmental cleanup 22 months behind schedule, the authority and the Reading have been at odds over how much more work needs to be done. It’s a key issue that must be resolved before the city’s purchase of the shed, the Reading Terminal Market and surrounding properties can be completed.

“I think we’ve got it ironed out,” said Perks, who has been pushing hard for resolution of the matter. “The Reading is mobilizing to clean [the train shed] up, and I think the job will be done in five or six weeks. That issue is pretty much behind us.”

Initially, Perks, who previously served as Mayor Goode’s streets commissioner, faced opposition in his bid to fill a 29-month vacancy as the authority’s executive director. Board member Stephen J. Harmelin, a Center City lawyer, as among those who argued that the board should have cast a wider net for candidates.

Now, he’s in Perks’ corner. “I think he’s done a good job under very difficult circumstances,” Harmelin said. “If our society would simply let him do his job, we’d get it up on time and on budget. I wish we were giving him more of a chance to do what we brought him on to do.”

“From my point of view,” said board member David Brenner, who proposed Perks for the job, “he’s been terrific. He’s a good, solid citizen, and he really is unflappable.”

Carl E. Singley, an attorney for the authority, termed Perks “a skillful navigator” who has done “a superb job” dealing with the political, legal and technical obstacles.

Perks is no stranger to controversy. He was key operative at the School District of Philadelphia during its most tumultuous period. That was from 1966 to 1969, when Mark. R. Shedd was the very progressive and controversial superintendent of schools while former Mayor Richardson Dilworth was the reform-minded, hard-charging board president.

As deputy superintendent for administrative services, Perks was responsible for “everything but instruction.” He presided over a $300 million school building spree and would have stayed on the job if the voters had not killed the program by rejecting a key bond issue.

His eyes light up as Perks reminisces about the irrepressible Dilworth. “There was nobody like him,” he said. “As a leader, he was second to none. Once he picked you, you felt protected. You didn’t have to play political games or worry about who your friends were because you had the only friend who was important.”

Leaving the school district, Perks returned to Day & Zimmerman, where he served as president for seven years and gained an equity interest in the company.

In this period, he struck it rich. “Between 1976 and 1983,” he said, “I made more money than I thought was humanly possible.”

Taking early retirement, he sold his stock and went to golf school. He soon grew restive, however. By this time, his close friend, Richard C. Gilmore, who had worked with him at the school district, had become city finance director. Perks told Gilmore he wouldn’t mind being streets commissioner.

“On Thanksgiving Day 1984,” said Perks, “I got a call from Mayor Goode. Imagine – Thanksgiving Day. This guy works all the time.” One thing led to another and in February 1985, Perks was sworn in as boss of the streets. He stayed in the $55,000-a-year job until September 1988 and received generally high marks for his efforts.

Perks remembers them as “three great years.”

And of Wilson Goode, the city’s much-maligned chief executive, he says: “I think he’s the most underrated mayor this city has ever had. I don’t understand why they’re on this guy’s butt. In my opinion, he’s about as good a mayor as you can dream up. A high moral threshold. No patronage. An excellent agenda. Picks outstanding people. I have a hard time faulting him in any way.”

As Harry Perks tells it with a smile, “divine providence” has played a big part in his own life. Consider his plight in 1948. He was 20 and fresh out of the Navy. His wife, Gladys, was pregnant with the first of their four sons. Perks registered at Drexel Institute of Technology, thinking to study there under the G.I. Bill of Rights. But that hope was dashed by an increase in his apartment rent from $20 a month to $90.

With such a stiff charge, there was no way Perks could attend college. He gave up the idea and started looking for a job. Then, by “divine providence,” a letter from his wife’s cousin in Florida just happened to tell of a college in South Carolina where veterans’ housing could be gotten for $21 a month.

Perks took a train to Charleston, rented an apartment at that figure, enrolled at The Citadel and, with the GI bill paying his expenses for 36 months, went on to graduate first in his class in the school of engineering.

From The Citadel he went to Yale on a full scholarship for graduate work. And then to a brilliant career at Day & Zimmerman, starting in 1952.

“Divine providence” helped, Perks says. He could use some of it now.

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