|By Liz Benston, Las Vegas
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 25, 2011--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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