Civic Center Problems

I wrote the following to a neighborhood association leader, in response to a question about why the civic center buildings need to be replaced.  It might be interesting to a wider audience.  Let me be clear about this, though – I’m not advocating for any specific fix (yet).  A bond measure, a private/public partnership, something else that we haven’t discussed yet, the actual solution should be discussed and debated and carefully considered.  I certainly have some opinions, but I’m only trying to explain the problem that needs to be solved.  I don’t have enough information about possible fixes to actually make a call on what the best fix is, yet.  That’s why we’re gathering information now.

Regarding our 1960s civic center buildings, it isn’t just that they’re worn out.  If we were really committed to paying to fix them up, we could continue to use them, with expansions.  But there are a number of factors at play.

First off, our technology requirements are difficult to support. We have difficulty providing the electronics and communications requirements for the buildings, as well as the increased power demands.  The buildings weren’t well designed with that in mind, and that is a pervasive and all-encompassing issue with every room of every building.

Second, our real requirement is space.  They were build when our population was less than half what it is now.  Doubling our population doubles the residents’ service demands (for the library) and the city’s staffing needs (for city hall and public safety).  At the least, we need to expand all of the buildings.  But it’s prohibitively expensive to do so, for two reasons.  One, the earthquake standards now are considerably more severe than they were 50 years ago, and expanding the buildings means heavily retrofitting all of the existing space.  Two, the library wasn’t built as a library – it was originally built to be city hall.  And its first floor wasn’t designed to support the added weight of a second floor with books.  For both of these reasons, the architects told us that if we want to continue to use the current locations, we should demolish and replace the existing buildings, because the result would be considerably cheaper and better than trying to retrofit,  even with the added cost of demolition.

Third, a couple of the civic center buildings weren’t actually designed for long-term use, specifically the city clerk’s building, the garden conference room (hidden away behind Planning), and the rabbit hutches. The rabbit hutches specifically are increasingly unsafe and unhealthy, and the other two were temporary by design.

Bottom line is that if we wanted to continue to use the library building to provide some other service more appropriate for its size (or the city hall or public safety buildings), we could do that – they’re fine buildings.  But they’re seriously inadequate for their current uses.  So as a result, we have all of HR and Parks in the rabbit hutches, we have the city clerk and the PIO in a temporary building, the assistant city attorneys have offices that aren’t actually near the city’s law library or the City Attorney, the IT and Finance departments are physically separated from the rest (and Finance in particular needs to be near the City Manager), and so on. We waste hundreds of man hours each month just having our directors and others walking from building to building.  And we can’t expand, and we can’t fix or improve the technology, not without spending an inordinate amount of money.

So now we are at the point where all of the buildings require extensive maintenance, which we’ve delayed for as much as ten years in some cases because we didn’t want to spend millions in repairs just to replace the buildings soon after.  HVAC replacement, reroofing, and so on.  And we have the choice between finally doing those repairs, and effectively polishing a white elephant, or actually committing to solve our problems in the more cost-effective and permanent way.

This isn’t a situation that lends itself to sound bite descriptions or sound bite answers, so it’s not the easiest problem to explain or solution to sell.  But that doesn’t change the need, nor does it change what is clearly the city’s best answer – replace the buildings (somehow).

When Council held its previous study session on ‘repair or replace the Civic Center’,  the council was unanimous that replacement is called for.  We’ve just never agreed on one approach to do so.  Some wanted to replace on site, some wanted to move it to the downtown, and one even wanted us to relocate it to Onizuka.

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