Colorado Convention Center in Denver

The Colorado Convention Center in Denver.

The city of Denver has begun the long and complicated process of resetting the Colorado Convention Center expansion. Officials also announced Friday that Fentress Architects was being booted from the project — even though they say the firm did nothing wrong.

Denver leaders late last year accused two private companies — Trammell Crow and Mortenson — of wrongdoing in the bidding process for the $233 million construction project.

The city now is searching for a new program manager to replace Trammell Crow, and it soon will restart the search for a construction company. As part of that change, the city is moving to a new development model — one that excludes Fentress Architects, the firm that has designed some of Denver’s biggest projects.

The city said Fentress is an “important partner” for the city but had to be excluded as matter of fairness. Curtis Fentress, principal of the firm, was blindsided by the news.

“It’s the loss of a major contract — probably $10 million of fees this year, and it was approximately 25 percent of our backlog,” he said. “Breathtaking, huh?”

City officials say that Fentress wasn’t responsible for the scandal that jarred the city and threw the project into disarray in December.

Instead, they’re the victim of a logistical change: The project will use a different management system that doesn’t require an independent architect, according to project manager Adam Phipps.

“The City is dismayed that the actions of others have resulted in this situation,” wrote Eulois Cleckley, executive director for the Department of Public Works, in a letter to Fentress on Friday. “Thank you again for your hard work on this Project. We appreciate your understanding as we work through this difficult situation.”

It’s a significant and surprising change. Fentress designed the main convention center building in the 1980s and its second phase in the 2000s, and it was deeply involved in the planning of this latest expansion. Fentress also designed Denver International Airport’s tented terminal.

The convention center project will switch to a “conventional design-build,” which means that a single company or entity will be responsible for finishing the plans and building the structure — and Fentress won’t be allowed to join the competition.

“We will continue to use the product that they have produced to date in that procurement,” Phipps said. “They will no longer be the architect moving forward.”

Under the previous “hybrid design-build” approach, Fentress would have stayed aboard and worked with whichever builder was selected. The change was about how the city can “best and most efficiently get back on track,” Phipps said.

Fentress said he was surprised by the city’s letter. “We’re not pleased with not being able to continue as the architect. What they told me is it was part of their risk management,” he said.

Cleckley’s letter said the architects’ previous involvement and knowledge of the project would give it an “unfair advantage” in the new competitive procurement process.

“This was not an easy decision for the City,” Cleckley wrote.

The scandal began when a city employee discovered the unauthorized — and still unexplained — addition of an executive boardroom suite to the project’s early plans, according to city officials.

The discovery of the change led to bigger allegations: City officials accused Trammell Crow, the program manager, of leaking information that could help another contractor, Mortenson, win the lucrative construction contract.

Both companies have promised their cooperation, though Mortenson has disputed the city’s case.

The expansion faces significant delays as a result of the scandal: The city had hoped to hire a builder early this year. Now, the builder might not be aboard until early 2020, Phipps said.

The city hasn’t announced a new timeline. Originally, the project was slated for completion near the end of 2022. And every lost month is lost money for convention centers, which book events up to 10 years out. The main center will stay open through construction, but it’s unclear when the new space will be available.

“Our hope is that we can minimize it to the greatest extent possible,” Phipps said.

The Denver District Attorney’s Office is investigating the case, a spokesperson confirmed Friday. The state attorney general’s office also is involved, Mayor Michael Hancock has said.

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