Getting OK to implode the Harmon proving to be monumental task

MGM Resorts International’s plan to implode the Harmon tower at CityCenter faces unusual obstacles. The tower, discovered to have building errors, is at the center of litigation between MGM and the project’s general contractor.

Harmon Hotel

The Harmon Hotel at CityCenter, which sits empty and unfinished and now serves as a giant billboard, is seen Friday, July 29, 2011. Launch slideshow »

When owners of old casinos are ready to pull the plug, they head to Clark County government offices for a demolition permit, detailing how and when the building should be taken down so as not to harm neighbors.

Implosions, of course, are eminently popular.

MGM Resorts International says it wants to implode the stunted Harmon hotel, which remains incomplete at half its intended height after an engineer discovered building errors during construction three years ago.

But plans to take down the Harmon are facing unusual obstacles.

Among them: The building is at the center of litigation between two corporate giants with wide influence in Las Vegas — the gaming company and the general contractor that was hired to build the Harmon along with the rest of CityCenter. District Court has told MGM not to lay a hand on the Harmon, which stands as the largest piece of court evidence in town, possibly holding the answer to whether it was wrongly designed, or whether those designs were wrongly implemented.

Yet, the county in July leaned on MGM for an action plan to prevent the potential collapse of the Harmon in an earthquake, a risk cited by MGM’s structural engineers. MGM’s answer: Let us implode the building. And now the county and MGM are discussing just how to do that, even while MGM is suing general contractor Perini Building Co. for shoddy construction.

Perini, which has sued MGM for more than $200 million it says is still owed for work on CityCenter, says the building is structurally sound and poses no safety risk. The contractor accuses MGM of seeking demolition as part of a litigation strategy to make Perini look bad and destroy evidence that could hurt MGM in court.

While the litigation slowly plays out, MGM is pursuing a demolition permit from the county. And this will be a particularly dicey proposition: taking down a hotel so close to other structures at CityCenter as well as the Cosmopolitan next door.

Before granting a demolition permit, the county requires assurances that dust and flying debris won’t endanger buildings or people, said Neil Opfer, a construction management professor at UNLV.

That won’t be an easy task given the Harmon’s prominence overlooking the center of the Strip, although it’s doable, Opfer said. But the county is obligated to grant a permit once it has such assurances in hand, he said.

And that will give the appearance that the county is cooperating with MGM in the demolition of the Harmon — first, by pushing MGM to decide what to do with the building, and then working with the company on how to safely raze it.

“They don’t want any part in this,” Opfer said of the county. “The last thing they want is for the building to be torn down and for MGM to say, ‘The county said we had to tear it down.’ ”

“Whatever the county does, someone is going to come back and say they should have done it this way or that way,” added Jack Juan, a construction defect attorney with Marquis & Aurbach in Las Vegas. “This is a no-win situation for the county.”

Clark County representatives won’t comment on the demolition plan, citing the litigation between MGM and Perini.

MGM Resorts spokesman Gordon Absher said last week that taking down the building was the “fastest and safest way to resolve public safety concerns created by the structural defect issues.”

MGM said it could take more than a year to investigate the Harmon’s structural problems and another two to three years to fix them, if repairs were even possible.

The demolition plan forwarded to the county proposes taking down pieces of the adjacent podium structure to prevent damage to the Crystals mall, which lies below and south of the Harmon. The experts assembled by LVI Environmental Services of Nevada to take down the building have demolished multiple hotels in Las Vegas, including the Aladdin and Stardust. According to its website, LVI’s parent company has “successfully tackled the nation’s most challenging facility deconstruction and abatement projects,” including dismantling the damaged Deutsche Bank building in lower Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks. The demolition process is expected to take at least six months.

After receiving the plan, Clark County’s Building Division Director Ron Lynn responded in a return letter to MGM last week that he needed more information before making a decision. Lynn has requested a meeting with MGM’s consultants, saying the information provided by MGM didn’t explain how the data influenced the company’s analysis of the building.

Alan Feldman, another MGM Resorts spokesman, said the company doesn’t view that response as any reluctance by the county to make a decision on the Harmon.

“These are very complex calculations and analyses,” Feldman said. “It makes sense” that the county would request more information, he said.

In a statement Wednesday, Perini said a demolition would be more dangerous for the public than to leave the building standing.

“The relatively minor construction issues and the more substantial MGM design issues can be corrected at a nominal cost as compared to demolishing the building,” the statement read. “These repairs can be designed, permitted and completed in a far shorter period of time than MGM’s engineers claim they need just to evaluate the building. Demolition of the Harmon would create an inherently far greater risk to public safety than the implementation of the straightforward repair we have proposed.”

Perini says it has discussed its objections with the county and expects to go to court to block further attempts by MGM to take down the building.

Juan said the battle over Harmon will probably keep the structure standing for many months to come.

“I think the county is going to be sensitive to everybody’s interests,” including those of MGM’s neighbors, Juan said. “They’re not just going to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ based on what MGM wants. I anticipate this to be a longer process than perhaps others expect.”

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  1. What is the District Court thinking? You can't haul the Harmon Tower into Court. Most Courts will not countenance their hallowed courtrooms, going to the scene, and looking at the actual subject under discussion. What value does keeping it standing during the proceedings have when its as-built condition can be thoroughly preserved for trial by way of photographs and data?

  2. Why not a novel approach - attach rocket engines to the sides and blow it into space - maybe figure out some way of detaching it at lower floors - maybe blow through the supports with explosive and do it all either on New Year's Eve or next 4th of July.

  3. This appears to be a "lose-lose" situation to all parties concerned, regardless if the Harmon is repaired or demolished. If repaired, the condo-hotel would only be 20% (at best) occupied, based on the current occupancy rate of existing Vegas luxury condo-hotels. And, of course, if imploded, there is NO occupancy.

    Hopefully, the redeeming value and lesson learned for all mega-resort builders, is that there is much, much more to Vegas than just high-end, high-cost self-contained mega-communities. The current upgrading of various gaming/entertainment venues (TI, the Trop, the Plaza, et al. [and yes, even Riviera] and plans for the new non-Ferris Wheel projects (particularly 'LINQ) prove that moderately priced, common-folk establishments are sorely needed and desired.

    Good Luck MGM!

  4. The "good" reality, based on what I've read on UNR geology/seismology website documents, is that the largest credibly expected earthquake for the Las Vegas Valley is a 6.5 emanating from a fault on Frenchman's Mountain or Black Mountain. In contrast the Northridge Earthquake was a 6.7 with abnormally high "ground accelleration" which no one is predicting for Las Vegas Valley. The academic geologists' stated frequency of such an earthquake on Frenchman's Mountain or Black Mountain is once every 15,000 to 35,000 years.

    When the Northridge Earthquake occurred a lot of reinforced concrete buildings in areas with unstable soils collapsed or were severely damaged. Cal State Northridge Campus, Northridge Mall Bullock's store, an old medical office building on Granada Hills, and surprisingly roughly 3 high rises on the west side of LA,, two in the 405 Freeway corridor and one in Santa Monica.

    Given what I know now, in cool weather, I am willing to sit on a bench or chair on the sidewalk in front of the Harmon Tower for several hours, without fear of an earthquake occurring or the building collapsing on me.

    The District Court here has some very good judges. I am hopeful that the judge will independently select a "Special Master" who is an independent structural engineer with in-the-field experience from the Northridge Earthquake, and have that Special Master make a report to the judge on whether the building needs to be torn down immediately, from a public safety point of view. Normally, the cost of such a Special Master is split 50/50 by plaintiff and defendant.

    My experience, in 25 years of landslide and geological litigation, as well as with damaged buildings from the Northridge Earthquake, is that I have never met an engineer, architect or geologist who wouldn't say what the person paying him wanted said.

    As a result, if I were the judge, I'd ignore both parties' "experts", pick my own, make the parties pay him, but not let MGM or Perini or their expert talk to "my" expert. I hope that's what the judge in the Perini v. MGM case does.

    But hey, this is Las Vegas, where juice is more important that science, law or any other rational discipline, so who knows what is going to happen.

  5. Fix it already,,,,,

  6. I'm a structural engineer with over 30 years experience in building design similar to Harmon Tower, in many jurisdictions including California. I'm not involved in Harmon Tower, but I know some of the parties involved.

    CynicalObserver has missed the point. Leric Goodman is correct in saying that the as-built condition of Harmon Tower can be fully documented for use in all pending civil litigation, which is the only thing before the court and will continue for years, and that any demolition can be allowed to proceed. I doubt the courts will block demolition proposed by MGM for long. That would be tantamount to denying the owner just use of its property and could further increase Perini's substantial exposure. After all, MGM owns it, and they can demolish it if they want.

    The issue before the courts will never be whether Harmon Tower needs to be demolished for public safety, but simply the extent to which Perini's failure to construct it in accord with the contract documents has hurt MGM. Therefore, there is simply no need, and never will be, for a "Special Master" who's a qualified independent structural engineer to be appointed by the court to decide that issue, as suggested by CynicalObserver. Matters of public safety are strictly a regulatory matter of the Building Official and the registered structural engineer-of-record. No court can usurp that legislated authority. And in any case, such a "Special Master" certainly wouldn't need "in-the-field experience from the Northridge Earthquake" in order to be qualified. Qualifications run much deeper than such a superfluous requirement. The technical and contractual matters before the court are much more complex than a domestic custody issue, so leave any appointment of "Special Masters" to those simpler proceedings.

    I also strongly object to CynicalObserver's claim that he's never met an engineer, architect or geologist who wouldn't say what the person paying him wanted said. If that's true, then he must not have met many, or perhaps he's confused them with lawyers. I know, because I am one. While it's true that, like any profession, some such individuals exist (it's even almost mandatory among lawyers), as a matter of professional license regulatory requirement, an engineer's primary obligation in all jurisdictions is to protect the public, even if it's to the detriment of his client's financial interest. No reputable licensed engineer would accept a forensic assignment without first divulging that to his client. I've never had a client refuse to accept that precondition.

    (continued)

  7. (continued)

    While more than one of the parties involved may be culpable, I suspect that Perini will bear the brunt of the responsibility. I'm not surprised that they want to block MGM's demolition, because that will likely increase Perini's ultimate financial liability. Surely the building can be seismically repaired to be safe (any structure can be, but it's often cost-prohibitive), but whether such a building would still suit MGM and the intended use is problematic. It's unusual that an owner would elect demolition over repair, but such is their right if the repaired structure would be significantly different than originally intended.

    It's been suggested that MGM wants to demolish to recoup more money from Perini and eliminate hotel rooms for which there is no market. That may be true, but it's just too bad for Perini. They should have delivered the building to MGM that they originally promised. Half of the building's originally designed stories already had to be deleted. I've seen a lot of big project problems over the years, but this one still astounds me.