Council debates future of City Hall

Council debates future of City Hall

By Susan Hale Thomas and Erich Wagner (File photo)

Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg accused Mayor Bill Euille of advocating for the sale of historic City Hall during a routine work session on the city’s proposed capital budget last month.

The exchange between the two officials, who will face off along with former Mayor Kerry Donley in a June 9 Democratic primary for the city’s top elected office, occurred after staff apprised city councilors of the increasing cost estimates associated with delaying needed upgrades to the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system as well as structural fixes for its underground parking garage.

Portions of the city’s government headquarters date back to 1871. The existing 160,000 square-foot building underwent renovations in 1967 and 1981, but is over capacity and suffers from decaying infrastructure.

A statement by Mayor Bill Euille sparked the debate over the future of City Hall. He stressed the importance of keeping the community apprised of the situation but also said there were other solutions to fixing City Hall’s problems.

“I’ve got my own idea in terms of how we get it funded, but folks don’t want to hear that,” Euille said. “I think we’re sitting on a pot of gold.”

The comment riled Silberberg, who referred to an off-hand comment by the mayor during a budget meeting last year that a developer might value the historic building in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

“Mr. Mayor, with regard to that pot of gold, I understand what you all are saying, but I respectfully disagree,” she said. “[We] had this conversation, you’re right, at [George Washington] Middle School. … You brought up the fact that maybe we would have to look at selling City Hall and moving the whole headquarters of the government enterprise to Eisenhower.

“This is where we are. It’s a historic building. If we have to fix it, we fix it. This is the heart and soul of Market Square and Old Town. It’s a historic building and the idea of developing this into some office with a law firm on the first floor, condos on the second floor, I just don’t see that. I don’t think that’s what we’re all about.”

“Nobody said sell,” Euille said.

“You said we’re sitting on a pot of gold,” Silberberg said.

“Pot of gold doesn’t mean you sell,” Euille said. “I said it has value.”

“What does that mean?” Silberberg asked.

“Your house has value,” Euille replied. “You can borrow against it and do what you need to do.”

After the meeting, Euille said he was not advocating for the sale of City Hall; rather, he was arguing that officials must have a holistic discussion of how to house the city’s employees and how to pay for upgrades to the facility.
“I said that in terms of City Hall as a building, it’s an asset in terms of it being a gold mine — it has value — and we need to be looking at opportunities in terms of the value we have there,” he said. “Do we refinance and maybe in the next two to three years address these issues? Do we wait five to 10 years, and look at opportunities to refinance or borrow against these assets then?”

Euille reiterated that he does not want to sell City Hall and dismissed Silberberg’s critique as off base.

“That’s a campaign tactic,” he said. “Of course selling it is off the table right now. It’s off the table. It’s not something I’m advocating or campaigning for or am in favor of at all.

“I just want a broader discussion of how do we accommodate and do what’s needed to maintain and provide for the health, safety and welfare of the folks who work at or come to City Hall.”

Alexandria’s city government has been located at Market Square since 1749, where several buildings served as City Hall over the years. The existing building is built around a replica of an 1817 structure that was severely damaged by fire in 1871.

During the work session, Deputy City Manager Laura Triggs renovating a building while it is occupied comes with challenges.

“When you try to shut down one part of City Hall to fix some other things, an electrical circuit will actually be tied to something that is somewhere down the hall,” Triggs said. “Once we get into the HVAC, you’re tearing apart the whole building.”

The proposed capital budget allocates $53 million over the next 10 years for the renovation project, a figure that has forced council and staff to question how to approach such a project. City Councilor Justin Wilson said it is difficult to prioritize City Hall renovations when there are competing priorities like school construction.

City Councilor John Chapman said there is a viable middle ground between renovating in place and the accusation that officials would sell City Hall.

“If you look at our sister city Caen, France, they have a very historic building that used to be their City Hall,” he said. “They downsized, they moved a lot of folks to a newer, more vibrant, technology friendly building and they still use it for some of their city services but it’s also a tourist attraction.

“We know this area is a huge tourist attraction. It’s an easy opportunity, if we wanted to, if we had a community discussion around it, to turn some of this area into small professional services and have a space in historic Old Town.”

Chapman added that officials should examine how equitably city government serves residents who don’t live in close proximity to Market Square.

“A good majority of our residents live west of Quaker Lane,” he said. “We don’t have many public buildings out there. Why is that? Why does somebody from the West End have to trek — not come into town — but trek across the city to come here to pay taxes, to do anything?”

But other councilors said changes to the building’s primary function shouldn’t be on the table.

“I think we could have a separate building [on the West End], but I agree with Allison,” said City Councilor Del Pepper. “She’s right on target this time.”

“But that’s not the discussion tonight,” Euille said. “The discussion is [the capital budget], and we’ll have a full blown discussion at the appropriate time relative to this.”