The City Council voted 4-1 last week in favor of the “original design” concept recommended by the New City Hall Renovation Subcommittee that is estimated to cost $6.45 million.
Concerned about the cost, Councilman Greg Brown voted against approving the final design plan and authorizing the preparation of bid specifications, but the other four council members embraced the proposal at a special meeting on Thursday, April 12.
“This is a 50-year decision, and if we’re going to make a 50-year decision, we have to make the right decision, and I think that’s the first plan,” Councilman Michael Davitt said.
The renovation would cover all of the second floor and part of the first in what was formerly the Sport Chalet corporate headquarters, which the city purchased in early 2017 for $11.3 million.
In the “original plan” that was approved last week, City Hall will occupy 19,027 square feet of the 27,881-square foot building on Civic Center Drive, with the remaining space to be leased.
City Hall currently is housed in a 7,900-square foot building that officials agree is too small to properly accommodate 42 full- or part-time staff members who work there. It also presents Americans with Disabilities Act-related issues.
John Hughes, of Griffin Structures, said that with help from a large city subcommittee — including newly installed Mayor Terry Walker and Mayor Pro Tem Len Pieroni — he and his team strove to incorporate eight guiding principles in their design.
Those goals included producing an expedited, economical project; designing with community and civic resources in mind; fostering efficiency and customer service; developing clear separation between leasable space and city staff areas within the building; achieving balanced architectural expression; developing a sustainable, responsible design; introducing easily adaptable technology and locating Council Chambers on the ground floor.
“I’m really excited,” said Rick Gunter, an architect who chairs the Planning Commission and participated on the subcommittee. “It’s important that we focus on keeping the public open spaces on the ground floor to accommodate the most people. It’s also important that we’re fiscally responsible.”
“Our costs per square foot are under what we’re seeing in the marketplace,” Hughes said. “Our costs per square foot are very reasonable, not irrationally low, I’m not trying to give you a sense of false optimism, but we’ve trying to be as prudent and responsible as we can.”
He said he and his team identified “elegant but simple” solutions, meaning that every selected finish is “out of a catalogue” and not custom designed so that it meets industry standards and can be, if necessary, easily replaced.
The architects discouraged the city from seeking national Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, saying that California regulations will ensure the city complies with almost all the items required to be Leed certified, a distinction that they estimated would add 2% to the price tag above construction costs.
The Gonzalez Goodale team also drafted a pair of less-expensive alternatives. Those two plans would total about $6 million or $5.1 million, in part by eliminating mechanical upgrades, but would primarily defer maintenance and likely increase costs in the long run, they argued.
Brown argued for another alternative, suggesting that the city should operate on the ground floor only. He said he thought increasing the city’s operating space from 7,900 square feet to 19,000 square feet was excessive. He said he thought there will be an excessive number of conference rooms in the plan (City Hall currently has just one small room, which Brown acknowledged is insufficient.)
“The real cost savings here is to reduce the footprint of this,” said Brown, arguing that to renovate all of one floor and part of a second, the city will spend, by his reading, an additional $1.5 million on construction costs. Moreover, he said, the city stands to lose about $3 million in leasing revenue.
Brown put the total cost of the purchase and the renovation at about $11 million, even after offsetting the purchase with the sale of the current City Hall and the lease of the office space and the lease or sale of the Montessori school located on the property.
“In my view, the costs here are out of control,” he said. “I think this is a real misplacement of where our priorities should be.”
Walker disputed that, saying that the design allots significant space for community use, which she considered a priority. The Council Chambers in the new City Hall will be 1,449 square feet (compared with the current space that’s not quite 1,000 square feet, and which regularly proves too small on occasions when hot-button issues draw large crowds to meetings). The new space also will include a 318-square foot community room and a 218-foot conference room.
“We have a layout that would be user-friendly to our community,” she said. “This is a great plan for our community and I think it’ll be a wonderful asset for our community for many years to come.”
Without making final decisions on how to pay for the plan, the City Council discussed various preliminary financing options, all of which indicated the plan is “doable,” Davitt said.
Soon the City Council is expected to consider whether to take $1.5 million from reserves to cover the project or if it wants to borrow the funds.
“I like the idea of borrowing less,” said City Manager Mark Alexander. “Of taking out $1.5 million and paying it back to ourselves.”
In addition to the alternatives presented, Alexander asked council members to consider estimates accounting for selling the Montessori School (for $1.6 million) or leasing it (for $83,650 a year). He also offered a glance at how $30,000 in additional Target sales tax revenue might affect budgeting.
“We’ve been living with 8,000 square feet with people working basically in a closet, and the public interface is not tremendous here, either,” said Pieroni, who said he initially favored a one-floor plan before changing his mind as the subcommittee worked on the plans. “The cost estimates are based on good bench-marked numbers. In order to provide a good space for the community, and for the city’s efficiency, this design strikes the best balance.”