Developers are asking pointed questions about the bidding rules for renovating downtown's vacant Donovan Building, and while the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. rejects the criticisms, those questions are on point.
The complaints are that the development corporation carefully crafted a request for proposals that favored Benderson Development, with which it already has a relationship. The conditions in the RFP would lead any reasonable person to that conclusion. For example:
Most RFPs of this scale typically allow four to five months to complete, while this one provides only two months. That benefits Benderson, which is already working on the project.
The project would have to be under way by December and completed by December 2013, which coincides with the expiration of the lease currently held by the Phillips Lytle law firm, which wants to move into the building. Phillips Lytle has a partnership arrangement with Benderson and also represents the Canal Corp.
The RFP requires a $250,000 deposit from developers at the time of bid and, if selected, a $1 million deposit that would be forfeited if the project began late. Critics say that requirement will drive away other developers.
The RFP lacks objective criteria for judging the proposals.
Altogether, these unusual requirements suggest an effort to keep the work in Benderson's hands. Benderson may be a fine developer, one that would be well suited to this project. But the point of RFPs is to ensure the public that its money is being spent in a way that provides maximum benefit. Circumventing that process does not serve the public well.
It also opens the doors to lawsuits that could slow the project. Indeed, if Phillips Lytle wants to move into a renovated Donovan Building by January 2014, the project needs to proceed without the kind of hitches that questionable bidding arrangements are likely to produce.
The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has a large task to manage and its path has been difficult, with the Bass Pro fiasco costing years in the life of the project. It's easy to understand why corporation leaders are anxious to get the project moving, but there are processes that need to be followed through competitive bidding by as large a group as possible. If it needs to rebid this project, it should do so promptly, before a court orders it done months from now.