The Westlake story
the need for coordination, cooperation and communication
On October 20, 1988, after more than 30 years of public discussion, false starts and numerous legal battles, the $250 million Westlake Area projects opened. Over 100,000 Seattlites were there to celebrate the occasion. The Westlake Area Project consisted of simultaneously constructing a 23-story office-retail complex, a new city park, relocation of a monorail station, and the complete rebuilding of a major street due to construction of an underground transit station— all within a two block area in downtown Seattle, Washington.
The purpose of this article is to describe the complexities and diversities of the Westlake Area Project, and how effective project management, utilizing formal planning methods and controls, clear communications channels, and interagency cooperation contributed to making this controversial and complex project a reality.
The Westlake Area in downtown Seattle, Washington has traditionally been perceived as the symbolic, as well as the geographic center, of the City. Special attention began to be focused on the area in the 1950s when Westlake Avenue was closed to create a pedestrian mall. Although many plans were presented, little was done in the area until the early 1960s when a large portion of the site was used as the southern monorail terminal during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair to transport visitors from downtown Seattle to the fairgrounds.
Looking north at the two-block construction site in the early stages of sub-structure of the 23-story office-retail Westlake Center. The left circular building in the background is the Westin Hotel. The staging area in the foreground is the future Westlake Park. Note the construction crane near the 5th Avenue side of the site.
Several alternatives were proposed for the Westlake Area over the next three decades by various interest groups. As a result, development of the area was continually embroiled in controversy and litigation. By 1986, after this lengthy period of acrimony, lawsuits. and false starts, a joint public-private venture was adopted as a means of overcoming these controversies. An approved and funded redevelopment plan was adopted for the Westlake Area which incorporated four separable projects: (1) Westlake Center, an officeretail complex; (2) Westlake Park, a new City park; (3) relocation of the monorail station; and (4) the rebuilding of Pine Street because of the construction of a 1.3 mile underground tunnel through the heart of Seattle by the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro)
To emphasize the complexity of the overall Westlake Area Project, all these projects were being constructed within a congested two block area of downtown Seattle. Numerous private firms and public agencies were involved, and the critical constraint imposed was that the project(s) had to be completed by October 20, 1988, less than two years.
Realization of the Scope
The Westlake Center included a 24-story office structure, two levels of underground parking and a four story retail structure. Because of the design requirements of the City, the retail portion of the building also connected at the lower level to the Metro transit station at the first level to an existing retail building; the second level to an existing hotel; and, most difficult, at the third level to the newly located monorail station,
The Westlake Park, although the smallest of the individual projects in size, developed into the most difficult problem. The surface of the Park was to be in a three color Salish Indian basket weave design. Each of the granite pavers had to be laid individually. In an attempt to make the 25,000 square foot park appear larger and to give the entire area some continuity, the decision was made to include the granite pavers in a portion of three streets that were adjacent to the Westlake Park; Pine, Fourth, and Fifth streets, as well as the Westlake Center plaza. A difficult 25,000 square foot paving project was expanded into a more difficult 90,000 square foot paving project.
“The first order of business was to create a team spirit. ”
The Monorail Station had to be completely redesigned due to major engineering problems created by the redesign of Westlake Center. The new station, although still located on the third level of the Westlake Center, had to be moved from its central location to the east side of a building along Fifth Avenue. The original two-track monorail system was also narrowed at a point north of Westlake Center, a change that would allow only one train at a time to enter the Westlake Station. The westbound train could be easily accommodated by this change, however, the east-bound train could only be accessed by movable ramps, although simple in concept, required new technology be developed.
The Metro Downtown Seattle Transit Project, the largest of the individual Westlake Area projects, surprisingly, was the least affected and changed very little from its original design. The Downtown Seattle Transit Project (DSTP) is the construction of a 1.3 mile tunnel under Third Avenue and East on Pine Street, literally through the center of Seattle. It is proposed to improve the heavy traffic and circulation of buses in downtown Seattle. Pedestrians will access this $453 million project from five underground transit stations that connect major shopping avenues, the convention center, and various districts. DSTP completion date is September 1990.
One of the stations, the Westlake station, is located under Pine Street and will connect three major department stores, the monorail, and the Westlake Center from the mezzanine level. Buses will be located at the platform level, one level below the mezzanine.
A significant problem for Metro was aligning the mezzanine of the station to the lower level of the Westlake Center project since this project was being squeezed from the upper level by the monorail project.
The Rebuilding of Pine Street. a major east-west connector in the heart of the city involved the cut and cover construction of the DSTP tunnel and underground Westlake Station. This necessitated the complete rebuilding of Pine Street including locating and re-establishing all of the utilities in this downtown area. All the utility agencies and companies needed to be involved and coordinated.
Early in the planning process, it was agreed to with the retail owners that although the Westlake transit station could not be finished by the October 20, 1988 completion date, Pine Street would be opened for pedestrian traffic by this date.
To complicate matters further, contractors would not be allowed to close streets for extended periods of time because of the impact on retail trade, and there were no large staging areas around the site. Moreover, since the site was located in the center of the retail core, at least minimal pedestrian and vehicular traffic had to be maintained at all times.
Because construction of all the projects would be going on simultaneously, one of the most critical aspects of completing the Westlake Area projects would be construction scheduling. Although all the participants agreed to cooperate to make the integrated schedule feasible, they were skeptical that all these projects could be completed in the 22 months which had been allocated. Most believed that a construction period of three to four years would be required. They were somewhat dismayed when told that this constraint was not negotiable.
Creation of a New Position
Because of its historic involvement and the planning expertise that was required, the project management responsibility in the planning phase of the project was placed in the Projects Section of the City’s Department of Community Development (DCD).
The Seattle Engineering Department would assume leadership of the project when the construction phase of the Westlake Park began. The overall project planning responsibilities including financial and policy decisions, however, would still remain with DCD through termination of the project.
Looking north on 5th Avenue as the construction work on the underground bus tunnel proceeds alongside the Westlake Center even as the superstructure for the monorail station takes shape above, alongside the third floor of the retail complex. Note the construction crane on the left and the Westin Hotel in the background.
The primary responsibility of the DCD Project Manager was to coordinate the Westlake Area Project activities with the activities of other City departments, Metro, and the developers of the Westlake Center. This included developing a master construction plan for the Westlake Area. Multiple agency objectives, time, resource, and policy constraints were all integrated in the master plan. The master plan simplified the task of keeping the Mayor and City Council informed of construction progress and for reassuring them that their October 20,1988, deadline would be met.
The DCD Project Manager (PM) position also included responsibility for supervising the City’s Westlake budget, preparing grant requests, monitoring permit application and approvals, and working with the City’s legal staff in negotiating legal agreements.
Establishment of the Westlake Coordinating Team
Success of a project as complex, and involving as many public and private entities, as the Westlake Project required a compatible and cooperative team and the assignment of specific responsibilities to each team member. The Westlake Coordinating Team, headed by the DCD Project Manager, was established to discuss and develop an integrated construction plan. The Team consisted of project managers from individual agency projects and representatives of Westlake Center, Metro, the Seattle Engineering Department, the Department of Construction and Land Use (the permitting agency), and a project management consultant. Other agency managers were brought in as they were temporarily affected by the Westlake Project.
COMMUNICATION: THE KEY FACTOR
One of the most important aspects for success of this project, because of its complexity and diversity of players, was communication. Jointly developing priorities and a workable plan that was approved by all members was important. The first order of business was to create the team spirit.
Communication is essentially a social affair. At its simplest, communication is the transmission of signals or signs between human beings (although this definition can be expanded) through audible, visual or factual methods.
Speech and writing are only two of our systems of communication, Communication also includes habits of gesture such as movements of the hands or face. With nods, smiles, frowns, handshakes. and other gestures, we convey thoughts and, thus, communicate
The Coordinating Team proved how public and private partnership can work to ensure project success.
Brian Kasen Resident Engineer Downtown Seattle Transit Project
A conversation forms a two-way communication link; there is a symmetry between the parties and messages pass to and fro. There is a stimulus-response, remarks lead to other remarks and the behavior of the individuals becomes (hopefully) concerned, cooperative, and directed toward the same goal. This is true communication. Because of the complexity and constraints of Westlake, this type of communication was not only necessary— it was imperative.
The DCD Project Managers knew the key to success in this project was effective communication. The project would succeed if the DCD Project Manager could coordinate and influence individual project managers to cooperate with the DCD Project Manager.
One of the problems facing the DCD PM and the team was to establish the kind of foundation, procedures, and the program that would maximize the possibility that all would work together. All had to understand the priority of time and commitment. An appeal system was also established to resolve conflicts if and when they arose.
Because each project manager believed their project was the most important project to be completed in the area and, therefore, had priority in scheduling, construction, etc., reactive and emotional behavior initially occurred when a project manager was informed that other priorities existed.
Although most project managers were accustomed to formal communication channels, the DCD Project Manager relied heavily on informal and, therefore, more personal channels of communication. Formal, written communications were kept, but at a minimum, as were formal meeting agendas, meeting notes and other written forms of communications.
Review meetings were scheduled for each Monday afternoon. The purpose of the meetings was to notify everyone of the status of the project and to enable tean members to discuss progress, discrepancies, and emerging problems.
In the beginning, these meetings were a divine test of wills. Although each project manager understood the necessity of working together, most were concerned with their own individual objectives and constraints. However, over time project managers began using the meetings as an opportunity to develop ways of making the construction of each project more efficient. All of the team members reported their concerns and expectations at the meetings, and the team began working as a unit.
The Coordinating Team became effective when they clearly understood the objective and scope of the project. After a short period of time, individuals began trusting the professional abilities of other team members through team meetings and open discussions. Before you can solve problems, you must know what the problems are. The Westlake Committee gave us a forum to raise and resolve major planning and construction issues before they reached crisis level.
Seattle Engineering Department
The PM utilized approaches from several theories of project management. From the rational school, decision making was based on formal systems, structures and objectives which maximized time resources. The system/functional theory was used in the areas of finance, marketing, and planning and other areas where process is paramount.
In the Westlake Coordinating Team meetings, the behavioral model of communication was extensively utilized. This theory is based on incorporating human behavior patterns. informal organizations, recognition and immediate conflict resolution to get results.
The technological model of communication in which facts, data and other information is presented in a neutral environment was used by the project management consultant.
Many of these barriers were resolved not only by the communication skills of the PM but also through the listening skills. Both cognitive and affective listening skills were utilized along with verbal skills such as openness, equality, empathy, humor, problem solving and trust.
Since plans aid coordination and communication and provide a basis for control and avoidance of problems, it was important to emphasize key interfaces and focus on interface performance. The meeting was one way to inform everyone of the status of the project, what was expected of them, and what others were doing. Deviation from plans constituted early warning signals and allowed the DCD Project Manager the opportunity to quickly correct the area of concern.
The role of the project management consultant was to ensure, through the master schedule, that all processes were logically related such that all the projects operated as a complete system. The integrated master schedule, which was based on the Critical Path Method (CPM) technique, was used as the guide throughout the project. The master schedule was an especially important means of continuously monitoring the project to the end and of informing everyone on the team what was expected of them and what others would be doing. Major project milestones were identified, monitored, and progress reports were submitted to the PM on a timely basis. The integrated master schedule provided a basis for controlling activities and providing early warning of potential or impending problems.
Although written information was kept at a minimum, each meeting of the team was carefully planned. Meeting agendas were discussed well in advance with both the project management consultant and other project managers. The major visual communication tool used was the integrated project schedule which was updated weekly.
By the end of the program planning phase, an integrated construction plan had been developed. Everyone understood the priorities and project plan. The DCD Project Manager and the consultant had proven these projects could all be constructed simultaneously in the limited space and in the time which was available. It was now up to the contractors to implement the plan.
As the Westlake Area Project moved from the planning phase into construction of the Westlake Park, oversight responsibilities for the project shifted from DCD to the Seattle Engineering Department (SED), where more expertise in construction management was available. The Westlake PM’s responsibilities were, thereafter, largely confined to policy, budget, and contractual issues which continued to be important components of project activities.
While the preconstruction planning process had resolved many operational and managerial problems, this process did not nor could not create a construction utopia. Many technical problems had to be resolved in the field. The integrated schedule continued to be used as a monitoring tool throughout the construction process. Critical decisions such as scheduling material deliveries consistent with the limited staging areas and expedited work schedules; analyzing and, in some cases, revising contractor work schedules; and simply managing the construction process among several general and subcontractors required a high level of technical expertise in both construction management and engineering .The team planning process and the use of the CPM Schedule throughout the project helped overcome huge obstacles to the successful completion of the project.
An enjoyable respite in a busy downtown environment. The Westlake Park paved in a three color Salish Indian basket weave design captures the eye and the art of the Northwest as it ties together the various structural elements of the Westlake Center Complex.
The important lesson learned from this project was that successful planning and control is more a function of attitude and commitment of the team members than the routine applications and tools. A project whose team spends sufficient time developing clear objectives and a thoughtful quantitative plan that team members agree is viable, has a higher probability of success than a project where plans are developed by only one or two team members alone.
This should not be an either/or situation, however. The combination of strong commitment of all team members and good tools is the best possible situation, reducing the probability dramatically of the likelihood that all too frequent project failures are caused by planning and control differences.
As construction projects, especially in the urban environment, become more involved with the social, economic, and environmental issues as well as physical constraints, effective use of communication is no longer an option but a prerequisite of getting the job done.
The Westlake experience also taught us that team building and effective communication should begin very early in the process. Regular meetings with the entire team (engineers, architects, public administrators, etc.) were a critical element. An integrated project schedule showing all program elements should serve as the master plan for the project. This schedule should be agreed to by the team and updated on a regular basis. Although the designation of a point person must be identified early in the process, each team member must feel a part of the larger group effort and have a basic belief in the professionalism of their peers. Team members must be given the authority and responsibility by their respective agencies and employers to make critical decisions within the team.
However, because issues do arise which cannot be resolved within the team, an objective method of conflict resolution should be established. Finally, the team must be willing to try various forms of communication until the right “fit” occurs. The ultimate goal of communication is to allow people to express ideas, concerns and solutions in a non-threatening but assertive environment.
An effective project manager must be skilled in understanding the organizations within which they are working, be proficient in using basic scheduling and monitoring tools, and have access to professional skills relevant to the efficient completion of projects being undertaken. The project manager must also have the ability to influence others. Since project managers typically have little direct control over specific project activities, effective persuasion is often necessary to get things done; that is, they must be good politicians.
Expertise from urban planning, architecture, engineering, law, business development and management, and other disciplines, is commonly required to resolve some of the complex problems encountered. Utilizing diverse expertise does, however, confront project managers with problems in communications and consensus building. As evident in the Westlake Area Project, politicians must also be kept informed of project activities, and called upon periodically to resolve specific issues. Success in all these areas is a function of attitude and commitment as well as technical ability in the application of planning tools.
Plans for projects based on consensus of interdisciplinary teams are more likely to be successful than plans developed by individuals or small groups of professional planners. The generality of this conclusion is obviously related to the complexity of the projects. This is not a plea for “gilding the planning lily” and suggesting that more resources than necessary should be used to plan projects. It is more in the nature of a warning that failures are commonly caused by planning deficiencies, and that these deficiencies are, in turn, associated with insufficient professional (technical) advice or, perhaps more importantly, poor communications among professionals who are providing inputs into the planning process.
Celebrating the completion of the project and the end of the disruption of business and traffic in the heart of the downtown Seattle.
The techniques and applications for project planning discussed in this article were clearly effective, as evident in the presentation of Westlake Center, Westlake Park, and the new monorail station at Pine Street to the citizens of Seattle on October 20, 1988, to the accompaniment of brass bands, balloons, and congratulatory political speeches.
The successful completion of the Westlake Area Project is a compliment to the men and women who were willing to try new and innovative approaches to project management, and to work as a team with a clearly defined objective. One of the more important contributions to knowledge that they gained from this experience is that the field of project management must be prepared to accommodate interdisciplinary activities and that a narrow technical perspective may be inadequate to overcome obstacles commonly encountered.
Karen J. Mask is owner and president of KJM & Associates, a project management consulting firm with offices in Seattle, Washington and Dallas. Ms. Mask has written articles on the benefits of CPM scheduling and teaches seminars and classes on Project Management Techniques.
Judith S. Kilgore is the former Westlake Project Managerfor the Seattle Department of Community Development (DCD). She is currently manager of the Project Management Section of DCD. Ms. Kilgore is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and is listed in Who’s Who of American Women.