Annual facilities report sparks renewed City Hall debate

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Annual facilities report sparks renewed City Hall debate
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City staff briefed city council on its latest reviews of the condition of Alexandria’s government-owned facilities Tuesday night, highlighting the need for an extra $80 million in the 10-year capital budget to bring them up to an average level of repair.

But the conversation swiftly shifted to how city government should operate during and after a planned two-year closure and renovation of City Hall, currently slated for funding in fiscal 2022.

Last year, the first round of review in a three-year process to examine the condition of city buildings highlighted that City Hall, a historic building constructed in 1871, is in dire need of a complete renovation. Council added $27.3 million to the fiscal 2017 10-year capital budget to help pay for the endeavor.

This year’s report, which includes examinations of most of the city’s fire stations, the Chinquapin Park Recreation Center and the city’s dozens of group homes,found that most of these facilities were graded at a C-level or above. Twelve of the city’s group homes received D grades.

“Much like last year’s report, there are some areas where we have more work to do than others,” said Jeremy McPike, director of the city department of general services.

McPike said under the current 10-year capital plan,$85 million is allocated for repairs to city facilities, but to bring all assessed facilities up to at least a C grade, council would need to allocate an additional $80 million. To reach an A grade across these facilities, council would need to spend an additional $239 million over current plans.

But Vice Mayor Justin Wilson noted that in addition to the money already planned for the City Hall renovation, Alexandria will need to spend millions of additional dollars to move the government’s operations to swing spaces while the building is closed.

Wilson suggested city officials consider ways to make the move as efficient as possible — and that means considering which agencies should be headquartered in City Hall.

“When considering other facilities’ needs, there are uses we could move out associated with that work and not move back, and other uses that are currently outside the building that we move back when we’re done with the renovation so we potentially have uses we don’t need to move twice,” Wilson said. “Uses that are not necessarily dealing with customers every day could be in other places.”

And he argued that some element’s of the city’s so-called “customer service” elements could be scattered more equitably throughout the city.

“Most of the residents live nowhere near this building, so expecting the customer service elements to be in one building in a really inconvenient location for most residents is not reasonable and it is not appropriate,” Wilson said. “We need to think about all residents, the totality of the city.”

But Mayor Allison Silberberg was reticent to endorse the idea of moving services out of the historic building permanently.

“This is an iconic building and it is a building that is our seat of government,” she said. “Whether we have office space elsewhere, I think we should have that conversation. … If we can have more services on the West End, I think that’s a good idea, actually, and we can have that conversation. But this historic building needs to be invested in. It’s part of our heritage and our future.”

City Councilor John Chapman argued that it is possible to continue to treasure City Hall while moving some services away into newer and more geographically central facilities.

“There are a number of cities that have an old city hall, and have transitioned into a newer building, whether it be for services or the vision of that council or that city to do so,” he said. “Philadelphia and Richmond come to mind as cities that still considered their old city halls as valued historic assets. So I don’t think the value of the building is lost if some services, positions and people move out of it, because it’s here and preserved to that level where we do value it.”

But City Councilor Del Pepper demurred at that idea.

“I would certainly hate to see a time when City Hall is not preserved for the purpose of running the government,” she said. “There is maybe a need for things on the West End, and I would be glad to carry on that conversation, but in terms of the major workings of government, this is the place.

“It has the historical background and it’s a comfortable place, and after two years of improvements, I think everyone will be singing its praises.”

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