The essence of time

At 80, Pete Verna began building his dream project — a 21-story condo tower. Was it too much too late?
By Frank Maley

I’m gonna ask you a couple of silly questions,” an emergency responder tells the small, gray-haired man settled into a metal chair on a sidewalk. “Do you know what today is?”

“Today is Monday.”

“Do you know who the president is?”

The old man stares blankly, then looks away, trying to remember, but 10 awkward seconds pass and the name doesn’t come.

“Do you know your birthday?”

“January 22, 1926.”

“Do you know what month we’re in?”

“I said Jan — oh, month. December. No, September.”

“All right. You don’t want to go to the hospital?”

“Nothin’ happened.”

“OK. Just making sure. I’ll let you keep thinking about the president, OK?”

“Obama!”

“Oh, there you go. That just lets us know you’re in your right mind. You say you don’t want to go to the hospital? That’s good to know.”

He walks away, and Pete Verna waits, a bit impatiently, for police to come and ask their questions. Earlier, he had arrived at his office 30 minutes late for an appointment, dressed in a flannel shirt, dark slacks and tattered brown slippers. Heading home in his red Explorer, he had tried to cross five lanes of traffic on East Boulevard, just south of downtown Charlotte, and clipped a car, causing it to spin out. Stopping in the middle of the side street, he had gotten out and shuffled slowly, leaning on his beat-up brown cane, to a corner where the owner of a nearby restaurant had brought him a chair. A bystander had hustled over to turn on the vehicle’s hazard lights.

Before long, a police car pulls up. A cop gets out and approaches. “How you doin’ there, young man?”

“I’m fine.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Well, I didn’t see her.”

“Where were you coming from?”

“I was coming down Cleveland, crossing the street.”

“Is your car capable of being driven?”

“Oh, yeah. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

The officer goes to check it out. He finds cosmetic damage to the grill and bumper and estimates it will cost $1,000 to fix. As Verna waits for the police to finish, two men come out of the restaurant. One sticks out his hand. “Pete, I’m Reitzel Snider.” The CEO of First LandMark U.S.A. Inc., a real-estate investment company, has met Verna on several occasions but doesn’t want to embarrass the older man if Verna doesn’t remember him.

“Hey, Reitzel.”

“I hope you’re not shook up too badly.”

“Nothing at all. I’m so mad at myself that I did it.”

The other man extends his hand. “I’m Hugh McColl. How are you doing?”

“Hugh, how are you?”

“Fine.”

Suddenly, a voice calls out. “There’s a snake up in the bird cage, right here up in this tree!” The retired CEO of Bank of America Corp., now the largest U.S. bank, says, “Oh, my lord, is it a real one? I think I’ll go look.”

“I’m glad you’re OK, Pete,” Snider says. He and McColl, having just finished their lunch, walk around the corner to watch a black snake finish its meal, gray feathers sticking out of its mouth.

Just an hour earlier, the old man had waxed on about how he has led a lucky life, full of fortunate timing and happy coincidence. Over six decades, Peter J. Verna Jr., who as a poor boy in New Jersey never thought he would make it to college, built a name as one of the South’s top structural engineers — a guy people called for tough jobs, an expert witness lawyers wanted on their side. He developed a lighter concrete used around the world. He had a hand in designing or building 40 million square feet of structures, including such Queen City landmarks as the old convention center and the main branch of the public library. “I’ve built probably more buildings than anybody else in Charlotte.”

But the last few years, Verna has been anything but lucky, and his timing has been terrible. His dream project — the one that would have been his crowning achievement, the one that took him more than 15 years to get going — was stopped by its lender in early 2008 only 70% complete. As he waits for police to clear the accident scene, The Park Condominiums tower sits a mile away, exposed to the elements and rusting — a 21-story eyesore that is in the middle of everything but the center of nothing. It stands between the city’s financial district, where tall bank buildings dominate the skyline, and its government ghetto, including city and county offices, courts, police department and a Federal Reserve branch. A few blocks in another direction is Time Warner Cable Arena, home of pro basketball’s Charlotte Bobcats. In the fourth direction, workers put the finishing touches on the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Verna says he doesn’t know why his lender pulled out and wouldn’t give him the final $4 million of his $30.7 million loan, but he concedes that the project was over budget — partly because of a $5 million mistake he made. Three of his subcontractors forced 222 South Caldwell Street LP, the development company he headed, into bankruptcy in August of last year. In May, Verna declared personal bankruptcy.

Many things went wrong with The Park. For one, Verna says, he was caught in a tide of rising material costs. Others suggest that might not have been his only timing issue. Watching Verna shuffle along in his slippers and struggle with a simple question about who’s president, it’s hard not to wonder if he waited too late in life to develop his first multimillion-dollar building.

In his famous poem about old age, Dylan Thomas urged us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But a wise man knows his limits, knows when to accept and bend to the gradual decline that eventually afflicts all who live long enough. Verna was three years younger when construction started. But his son, Jim, who worked with him on the project and would have managed the property, could see him wearing down physically and mentally. “He just had so much going on in his mind and all that, trying to get the loans, get the money together. A lot of ifs, ands and buts on the project itself.”

Verna pushed on, though, and The Park ended up one of his rare failures — one some might remember more than his many successes. More than 80 people lost millions of dollars in condo deposits. The partnership defaulted owing $28.5 million, his lender says. His project, of course, hasn’t been the only one to run into trouble. But at 83, time isn’t on his side. His business, Verna Engineering PC, has been reduced to one engineer doing inspections. “That’s all we’re doing. We don’t do any design work. It’s been a very difficult period.” But then he adds, “I’m hopeful we’ll come back.”

That’s vintage Verna. He’ll tell you how bad things are but won’t wallow in misery. The way he sees it, he was lucky to have been born at all. Germans bayoneted and gassed his dad at Chateau-Thierry near the end of World War I. Pete Sr. woke up three years later in an Italian hospital and came home minus his left eye. For years, he had to remove a growth from the socket about once a month. When the weather got warm, he broke out in pustules — an aftereffect of the gas that left him pockmarked from head to toe. He often took his son along on jobs laying tile and terrazzo. Verna liked to play in a field near his house in Brooklawn, N.J., building dams and tunnels. Even with the disability check his dad got from the government, the family struggled with its finances throughout his childhood. During the Depression, his parents lost the bungalow they owned and had to rent it.

When Verna was 13, the family moved across the Delaware River to a suburb of Philadelphia and with financial aid from his parish, he attended West Philadelphia Catholic High School. He hadn’t figured on going to college and, after finishing high school during World War II, joined the Navy. High scores on an aptitude test he had taken his senior year sent him to Cornell University to study engineering. “I selected civil because my dad was in construction, so I liked that.”

Though just 5-6 and 142 pounds, he played on the football team’s offensive and defensive lines. “Got the Associated Press outstanding guard of the week for the Pennsylvania game, Thanksgiving week, 1944.” During spring practice in his junior year, he turned his right knee. “They wanted to operate on me, and I didn’t want to operate. Two of my friends had knee operations, and both of them died. They bled to death. So I said to hell with that.” He lived with the pain and got around all right, though in the past year he has been using the cane to keep the bum knee from buckling.

Because he was in the Navy, he didn’t get the usual student vacations and sped through his coursework. Discharged when the war ended, he finished his last semester as a civilian, earning his bachelor’s at 20. After a year working for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on a dam project near Sacramento, Calif., he returned to Cornell and received his master’s in civil engineering in 1948. Charlotte-based J.N. Pease & Co. hired him to design Veterans Administration hospitals in Durham and Charlotte. The Charlotte VA hospital was never built, but the one in Durham opened in 1953. “I came to stay one year to do design work. But one year became five years, and I designed lots of other buildings around here and the state.”

They included hospitals in Statesville and Goldsboro and waterworks in Morganton. He left Pease in 1953 to run a concrete plant for Charlotte-based J.A. Jones Construction Co. — another of his life’s fortunate turns. A friend working for Jones had a project stalled when the concrete supplier went bankrupt. President Edwin Jones figured his company was using enough concrete to justify making it. He asked Verna’s friend if he knew anybody who could see if the belly-up business was worth anything. That, of course, was Verna, who recommended against buying it. Jones asked him to come back in two weeks with an estimate of what it would cost to build a competitive plant. A million dollars, Verna told him. “He says, ‘Do you want to run it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll run it.’”

It was Saturday, so the banks were closed. Jones called John F. Watlington Jr., who later became CEO of Wachovia Corp., at home, Verna recalls. “He says, ‘John. This is Edwin. I’m going to send two guys down to see you Monday. Give them $1 million. We’re going to get into the concrete business.’ Had no lawyers, no agreement signed. Nothing. Just a handshake.”

Verna ran the concrete business for J.A. Jones until 1968. Early on, he developed a strong semi-lightweight concrete mix that is still used throughout the industry, according to PCI Journal, a publication of the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute in Chicago. After Jones sold the subsidiary to Gifford-Hill & Co., the new owners brought Verna to corporate headquarters in Dallas and told him they wanted him to head research and development. They already had hired someone to replace him in Charlotte. But he didn’t want to move, so he headed home without a job.

By the time he arrived in Charlotte, he had a new one. His flight went through Atlanta, and he was on the stand-by list for the last leg. As luck would have it, the seat that opened up was next to C.P. “Gabby” Street, principal of McDevitt & Street Co. and one of Verna’s customers. Learning that Verna was out of work, Street hired him as a project manager. Verna oversaw expansions of Greensboro Coliseum and Williams-Brice Stadium, home of the University of South Carolina football team. He stayed about seven years before striking out on his own.

In the early ’80s, he was consulting engineer on First Citizens Plaza, a 23-story building that opened in downtown Charlotte in 1985. In 1988, he pulled together investors to form 222 South Caldwell Street LP, which built a four-story, $1 million parking deck at that address the following year. Before the first car rolled in, he was thinking about what he could build on top of it. He earned a reputation as an all-purpose Mr. Fix-it with high-profile work that included righting the steeple of First Presbyterian Church after Hurricane Hugo knocked it askew in 1989 and fixing problems caused by synthetic stucco. “Pete Verna has become widely known as the ‘Doctor of Sick Buildings,’ respected for his ability to evaluate structural problems and to develop practical and economical solutions,” writes retired Charlotte architect Harold Cooler in his 2009 book, Booster Kuester and Beyond: An Architect’s Memoir.

He ran five small companies: Verna Engineering PC, Verna Construction Inc., Concrete Materials Inc., Verna-Woollen Corp. and 222 South Caldwell. In the early 1990s, they employed 50 to 100 doing construction, engineering and related jobs. Lawyers used him as an expert witness because he could explain difficult engineering concepts in a way that made sense to jurors and arbitrators. “He was extremely confident,” says Rob McNeill, a lawyer with Horack Talley in Charlotte. “He could not be shaken on the witness stand.” But he had a hard time shaking loose enough money to get his pet project under way.

He had a deal lined up with Holiday Inn for a hotel on top of the parking deck, but a consultant told him he would lose money, so he backed out, deciding to build a condo tower instead. But no local bank would lend him the money — he suspects they were financing competing projects. His son says the company wasn’t big enough. “You’re talking about the little guy with big ideas. We’re not a huge company with small ideas. There’s not enough assets in the entire family to cover the loan, so I think they said, ‘Neah, I don’t think so.’” Finally, through a friend in Texas, he got in touch with Madison, Wisc.-based BB Syndication Services Inc. In February 2006, BB agreed to lend the partnership $30.7 million. Construction started later that year.

Over the years, Verna had inspected numerous buildings and developed a mental list of pet peeves. His tower would address at least some of them. He would use ball-bearing hinges on the doors to keep them from squeaking. He would put drains in his decks so rain wouldn’t run off the edge and produce a Niagara Falls effect below. He would put in a special drainage system to prevent back flow in the lower units on heavy washdays. And to keep things tidier, the building would have compactors and elevators that would lower garbage gently instead of residents tossing it down a chute to burst and scatter when it hit the basement. “It would have been great. I had a dozen things that I was doing that nobody else was doing.”

As construction started, Verna told a reporter that people could begin moving into the rooftop units by the end of 2007. But the project fell behind schedule. “Inflation hit into the market,” Verna says. “Cement went up. Steel went up. We had about a 20% increase in costs. That was the biggest deal.” But he also says he let an engineer talk him into a different type of framing than the plans called for. There’s no significant functional difference, Verna says, but there turned out to be a big difference in price. “That was the mistake that cost me $5 million more.” He kept submitting change orders, but BB rejected them. Tension mounted in the latter part of 2007, Jim Verna says. “I’m like, ‘Uh-oh.’ I could just feel it: Something’s going to happen here.”

When BB finally cut off funding and work stopped in February 2008, the Vernas tried to renegotiate the loan, but BB refused. “Eventually, they just basically unplugged the phone and said, ‘Don’t call us.’” Jim Verna says. “We went looking for another source to finish, and nobody would touch it with a 10-foot pole.” BB bought the property out of foreclosure earlier this year for $14.2 million and later sold it to Small Brothers LLC, a Naples, Fla.-based developer for $4.5 million. Until it closed on the deal in October, Verna held out hope that he might be able to pull together enough money to finish the project.

BB disputes Verna’s assertion that the reason for cutting off the money is a mystery. “He knows very well why it didn’t go for- ward,” First Vice President Eric Swanson says. The $5 million overrun might have played a role, he conceded, but declined further comment. “We think the property is now in the hands of somebody that will be able to finish the project, which will be a good thing for the city of Charlotte.”

The Park was just one part of Verna’s grand plan. He holds options on 1.4 acres next door with plans to build a themed shopping and entertainment complex called Gold Mine Plaza. “If I can get some money, I’d like to do it.” Considering how long it took him to get financing for The Park — and the way that project has turned out — it’s hard to imagine who would give it to him. And even if someone does, could he pull off such a project?

As people age, their brains process information more slowly, says Daniel Kaufer, director of the Memory Disorders Program at UNC Chapel Hill. “What would have taken an hour to do when they were 60 may take an hour and a half to do when they’re 80.” But what happened to the The Park might have nothing to do with age, Kaufer says. “People in their 40s can make bad decisions.” Some of those who worked on the project blame Verna’s inexperience as a developer, not his age, says Emma Littlejohn of The Littlejohn Group, a marketing and research consultancy that follows the downtown Charlotte condo market. They say he may have been too passionate about The Park. “You can’t be personal in real estate,” she says. “The successful developers are people who are not emotionally connected to the project. They know the numbers, and they’re driven for the profitability.”

Still, his son believes Verna would have had a better chance of succeeding had he tackled the project 15 years ago. “He used to be able to drive, drink his coffee and give you a 30-minute dissertation on why this thing failed or whatever.” Now “he has to pretty much remain focused on one thing and then jump to the next. … If he were to go back and try to finish this in a consulting position, he would probably be OK with it. But nothing where he would be the mastermind of the whole thing again. If it’s an engineering issue, fine, but not to sit here and try and run every aspect of finishing this thing up.”

Asked whether his energy and ability to multitask might have been faltering when the project started, Verna asks twice to have the question repeated. Perhaps he wasn’t sure he had heard it correctly. Maybe he didn’t get the gist of it the first two times. Or maybe he couldn’t believe he was being asked a question that silly. Finally, he says, “Nah, that never bothered me. I never had any trouble with that.” Told of aging’s effects on some people’s ability to process information, his voice grows louder. “Baloney! That’s baloney!” Dylan Thomas would be proud.