Selling Alexandria's City Hall

Selling Alexandria's City Hall

A costly repair bill for City Hall creates discussion of potential public/private partnership.

“Maybe a private developer will pay hundreds of millions of dollars for [City Hall]. Those are the things we have to look at, and we would not be doing our fiduciary responsibility if we didn’t look at the bigger picture.”

— Mayor William Euille

“This is a historic building. If we have to fix it, we have to fix it, but this is the heart and soul of Old Town.”

— Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg.

Facing a $53 million heating ventilation and air conditioning price tag for City Hall, some on the City Council have begun questioning the wisdom of continuing to operate in City Hall. At a City Council Work Session on March 17, discussion became heated after Mayor William Euille said he had his own ideas for the future of the building and referred to the City Hall property as “a pot of gold.”

“At some point, we’re going to have to bite the bullet,” said Euille, “do we do something to this building or do we let it collapse around us?”

“This is a huge project,” said Councilman Justin Wilson. “[In terms of cost], this is a school. I have to think we’re getting to a place where we’re going to have some very tough decisions about this project. What I want to know is: around 2017, 2018, and 2019, [is this] a good use of money in the full scope… of our projects?”

According to the proposed 2016-2025 Capital Improvement Program, the first stage of that funding will hit in 2017 through 2019 with $1.8 million for immediate and priority repairs required to maintain operations at City Hall. The remaining $51.6 million would be paid between FY 2020 and 2023 for design, swing space build out, moving and leasing costs, construction, as well as relocation costs for furniture and equipment within the building.

“There are parts of City Hall, like the heating system, that go back to the 1940s and have way outlived their useful life,” said Mark Jinks, acting City Manager for Alexandria. “A guy who was fixing it over the winter held up a part of the piping and said to someone on the phone, ‘I’ve never seen a part like this before, it’s from 1947.’ Most of the hot water pipes that run through the building will need to be replaced; the same is true for the air conditioning systems and heating systems.”

In 2013, the estimate for replacing the HVAC system was $18 million. In 2014 that estimated cost rose to $34 million.

“This is not getting any cheaper,” said Euille. “Is it time to look at a more modern building, consolidating and bringing different agencies under one roof?”

As for what to do with the existing City Hall, Euille said he wasn’t in favor of selling the building per se and his comment referring to City Hall as “pot of gold” was purely a commentary on the building’s value, but did say that among the options considered for redeveloping the building could include a public-private partnership.

“Part of the plan, moving forward, is looking at downsizing and looking at the adequate square footage per person,” said Euille. “We need to look at how we conduct business and do work exchange.”

Among the potential changes to City Hall, Euille mentioned the plaza on the southern side of the building could be replaced with another structure.

“You could do some things with the plaza and look at how best to utilize that,” said Euille. “Depending on the structural surface below, can you build another building on the same site.”

But for others on the City Council, the idea of selling city hall seemed out of the question.

“This is a historic building,” said Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg. “If we have to fix it, we have to fix it, but this is the heart and soul of Old Town. The idea of developing this into an office or law firm on the first floor with a condo on the second… I don’t see that, I don’t think that’s what we’re about. We have to fix this building.”

Councilwoman Del Pepper sided with Silberberg, but others on City Council remained unconvinced. For Councilman John Chapman, moving some of the offices out of City Hall, potentially to more western areas of the city, could help mitigate the image that the City focuses its efforts on the eastern side of the city.

According to Jinks, any kind of investment like the $50 million renovations needs to be precipitated by a thorough analysis of the building’s future.

“Before anybody makes a major investment like that, they need to think through what we want City Hall to be in the future, for the next fifty years,” said Jinks. “We need to think about what functions should be in City Hall and what should be out in the community. We used to have the Health Department in the east end of the city and now it’s in the west end because that’s where the clients are. We do a lot of things electronically in city hall now. Over the years we have talked about the possibility of building a one stop permit center and we’ve considered moving that out of city hall because it has a lot of traffic. So one of the questions we’ll be looking at is where those functions should be.”

This is not the first time the discussion of whether or not to “sell” City Hall has come up.

“Maybe a private developer will pay hundreds of millions of dollars for [City Hall],” said Euille during a work session for the FY 2015 budget. “Those are the things we have to look at, and we would not be doing our fiduciary responsibility if we didn’t look at the bigger picture.”

Most of today’s City Hall exterior dates to 1871 when the building was reconstructed following a fire. The Market Square on the southern side was added in 1961 and the building’s interior was mostly renovated in the 1980s, but this process did not include the basic infrastructure of City Hall.

Jinks said that while the “brain storming” on alternative solutions to the costly repairs needs to begin soon, it’s too early to speculate on what sort of Public-Private Partnerships could be considered.

“It’s an important long term decision facing the city over the next few years,” said Jinks. “A lot of the systems in this building are extremely outdated. We’re consistently putting small improvements on City Hall, but it’s applying Band-Aids. By the time we get to this issue, five or six years from now, we’ll be able to make a decision. We’ve got a lot of time to have community discussions.”