DOOMED TO DEMO
Does Eugene really need to destroy its existing City Hall?
BY ALAN PITTMAN
Building a new police station is a three-time loser with Eugene voters. In May 2000, 54 percent voted no. In Nov. 2000, 62 percent voted no. In Nov. 2004, 60 percent again voted no. But that hasn't stopped the Eugene City Council and city staff from pursuing a huge expensive new cop shop and huge new City Hall to boot. In the last year, the new City Hall has been the city's top priority, consuming more consultant money and staff and council time than any other policy issue.
|The city wants to tear down Eugene's existing City Hall and build a new one for almost $200 million. A plaque on the 1964 building reads, "The people are the city." A bond vote is scheduled for Nov. 2008 with construction to start in 2010.|
But while the council and staff are gung ho to spend almost $200 million on new offices, taxpayers might have little interest. A new City Hall faces many thorny hurdles including questions of cost, voter support, police location and renovation as an alternative.
Building a new City Hall could cost as much as $174 million, according to city consultants. The council has already agreed to pay a consultant team, led by Thomas Hacker Architects of Portland, $1.1 million to study and promote the issue, a price that doesn't even include a design for the new building. The consultant money came out of a $27 million pot of cash the city has squirreled away for new offices by diverting taxpayer money that could have gone to reduce city taxes and fees, provide more services or fund other needs.
The city says it has $90 million in potholes and wants to impose a big new street maintenance fee, the largest tax increase in city history without a vote. The city also has identified $40 million in natural areas threatened by development. A proposed $25 million parks bond measure would acquire some of them, but would require a tax increase while the city is sitting on $27 million in cash.
Citizens have also called for more money for neighborhood traffic calming, school support, ongoing library funding, a homeless shelter, more park space downtown, a farmer's market, a riverfront park after EWEB relocates its industrial yard, domestic violence enforcement, community policing and planning staff to protect the city's livability and environment. But the city has refused to fund these citizen priorities out of its growing stash.
Although the consultants have spent tens of thousands of dollars on trying to get citizens to come to meetings on building a new City Hall, the public has shown little interest. Only about 150 people have attended two widely publicized forums, and many of those came to push not for a new City Hall, but for a new farmer's market downtown.
Despite all the money spent on consultants, the city hasn't polled or asked citizens if they would actually vote for the big tax increase needed to build a new City Hall.
"I would like to ask it, but I know we can't," said Councilor Andrea Ortiz at an Aug. 9 meeting. "Would they be willing to support a bond issue to pay for any of this? That's kind of the bottom line."
Mayor Kitty Piercy replied that such a poll wasn't a good idea now. "We have to wait until they're convinced that they want it a little bit."
Piercy said it's "critical" that the city include something for the public in the new City Hall to help sell it to voters. "It has to have some component, whether it's a park or some kind of cultural component, something where the public sees this belongs to us," so "it just doesn't feel like it's a place where electeds and bureaucrats have to play."
Ideas for such a component so far include a public plaza, visual arts center and/or farmer's market.
Another way the city is trying to sell a tax increase for a new City Hall is by using taxpayer money to advocate for higher taxes. The consultant website and reports emphasize defects in the current building and the need to replace it.
But regardless of the PR effort, voters may find it hard to swallow the need for such a massive new City Hall. The consultants have recommended almost quadrupling the size of the current building. Some of that comes from consolidating about another City Hall's-worth of offices scattered around downtown. But the rest, almost an entire City Hall-worth of space, comes from anticipated city government growth and staff desire for bigger offices.
City staff and consultants say the city police department needs to add a third more officers in the next four years. Overall the size of city government is planned to increase by 54 percent by 2030.
But citizens may not agree that city government needs to be that much bigger and/or be willing to pay for it. Salem is nearly identical in size to Eugene. But taxpayers there pay for nearly 300 fewer city workers compared to Eugene's 1,520 employees. Eugene also has more police officers per capita now than Salem or Springfield.
Besides more workers, the city also wants bigger offices. Almost a third of city employees told consultants that they want a private office in the new building. That's triple the percentage of private offices in new buildings the consultant worked on for the city of Oakland, California.
There's little empirical evidence that Eugene workers are more crowded than in other cities. Office space per police officer in Eugene is similar to such space in Portland and Salem, a past city study showed. That study was before the city moved its fire station and police forensics lab out of the City Hall basement, freeing up even more room.
The city could try to overcome the vote hurdle by going around it. Councilor Ortiz advocated for spending the $27 million the city has stashed to build a separate "nice" new building outside of downtown on cheaper land for most police officers (police patrol division) without a bond vote. "That could be done tomorrow," she said.
But Councilor Bonny Bettman strongly opposes that idea. Both the police and the public benefit from seeing each other in City Hall, she said. With calls for increased community policing and police accountability, "The police need to be part of city government," Bettman said. "It's what the community wants," she said, pointing out that voters have rejected a separate police building three times.
Opponents of the last failed police measure also argued that spending all the city's facility reserve on a police station without a vote would make it harder for the city to pass a bond measure for a new City Hall later.
The police favor a separate patrol building outside downtown. But in the wake of the Magaña sex abuse scandal, moving police patrol away from the police chief and city manager could reduce supervision. Officer Roger Magaña found many of his victims while working with the Rapid Deployment Unit, a separate street crimes team with its own building and culture separate from police headquarters in City Hall. Police had problems with supervision, evidence handling, cash accounting and drinking with the separated unit, according to lawsuit depositions.
|Eugene tore down its old City Hall in 1964 to make room for a parking lot.|
City consultants also note that moving police out of downtown would reduce the presence of police officers moving through the area. Downtown businesses have complained that the city already does not have enough officers downtown to prevent crime.
Another unresolved issue is whether the city should move to precincts for patrol buildings instead of one big central building. Precincts could promote community policing, and Eugene Police Chief Robert Lehner initially appeared to support the idea. But now he argues the city won't be big enough for another 20 to 30 years to justify them.
The City Council voted 6-2 on July 19 to build new rather than renovate and expand the existing City Hall.
That may mean demolition of the current City Hall. The current site is one of the leading choices for a new building and city staff are skeptical about selling the building for another use, such as a proposed art center.
City staff contend the building has seismic problems and is run down and has no sale value. The land is worth more with the building torn down than with it on it, according to city facility manager Mike Penwell. The building is "more likely a demo," he said.
But Councilor Betty Taylor and Friends of Eugene (FoE) President Kevin Matthews dispute those claims, arguing that the city could renovate the building economically.
Past city studies have shown that City Hall could be remodeled for earthquakes at a cost of $500,000 to $4.3 million, far less than the cost of building new. Despite the big consultant budget, the city hasn't updated the studies or examined the availability of government subsidies for seismic retrofits.
But consulting architect Jonah Cohen told the council, "We will be able to deal with the earthquake and seismic issues" if the decision is to remodel. "We want to de-emphasize this as a big deal."
Matthews says the city is ignoring the architectural and historical value of the old City Hall.
The modern-style building was built in 1964 at a cost of $2 million. About 10 percent of the cost went to landscaping, including an open courtyard garden, the planting of large new trees and the preservation of existing trees.
"This building won prizes when it was built," said Councilor Taylor.
Matthews admits the wood grill shell surrounding the building lacks street appeal, but says that can be fixed by opening up the south side of the building like a horseshoe. The city could build another facing office building across the street, but would have to buy back land it gave away as part of a deal to subsidize the Whole Foods development with a new parking garage.
There isn't enough room to consolidate all the city's offices in a renovated building, but Matthews says that's a good thing. The city is the largest downtown employer, and having scattered offices downtown with workers walking in between is adding much needed street life to the struggling area, according to Matthews. "They're really propping up downtown."
The consultants didn't examine what it would cost to renovate City Hall and continue to rent or purchase office space in relatively cheap existing and underused downtown buildings.
"The information and analysis that has been done is completely biased," Matthews said.
That bias is why the city has had trouble getting citizens to its City Hall forums, said FoE member Candace Nelson. "A lot of them just won't come anymore because they just weren't listened to."
The city and its consultants have argued that a new building will be environmentally friendly because it will use about 18 percent less electricity than a remodeled City Hall. But Matthews points out that analysis does not consider the massive energy required to make the new materials for a building and construct it. "It's very, very rare that all-new construction is more sustainable than renovation," he said. "Reduce, reuse, recycle. Build new isn't even on that list."
When the current City Hall was built 40 years ago, the city quickly tore down its historic one for a parking lot. The old three-story brick building had peaked roofs, tall windows, dormers and a tower and was originally built in 1903 as the city's high school. Many have regretted the loss of that historic building, and others may come to regret the loss of the current historic City Hall too, Matthews argues.
But others say the building is ugly, unpopular and dilapidated. Councilor Gary Papé said, "I don't think it's the city's mission to preserve period architecture." He joked, "I'd like to see a community event at the Eugene Celebration where we put dynamite sticks in the corners."