A new City Hall?

Published 10:14 pm Friday, June 18, 2010

With caution tape still strung across the main entrance to its municipal center, the city of Suffolk began this month exploring the possibility of building a new complex to house its administrative offices.

A request for proposals released June 10 asks for bids from architectural and engineering companies with the ability to develop a master plan that would account for most — if not all — of the city’s municipal facilities and locate them together on the Market Street-area property the city already owns.

“Ideally, we want people — if they have to visit City Hall for any reason — we look at trying to provide a one-stop shop,” Assistant City Manager Patrick Roberts said Friday.

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Currently, Suffolk’s municipal offices are spread throughout the downtown area, a situation he said could be frustrating for people trying to do anything but the most basic city business.

Getting a permit to build a house, for example, can require stops in three or more offices at three separate locations as a builder moves from public utilities to public works to zoning to building permits offices.

“This plan will allow us to look at how all the pieces of the municipal center fit together,” he said, noting that one goal is to answer objections that were raised when the new police headquarters was built.

Critics, he explained, had pointed out that the headquarters was designed and built without consideration of how it could fit into a long-range plan.

“Before we make any more investments, we really want to understand what’s the plan … so we’re not focusing on just one building,” he said. “How does it fit within the downtown area?”

The Municipal Center Master Plan is one of two reports dealing with the future of City Hall that Suffolk’s administrators expect to get back in the fall.

Engineers reported in May on a variety of structural problems in the 46-year-old building, including bowing walls, corroded metal, large cracks in interior walls and a falling floor slab that is leaving some interior walls “hanging in the air.”

The main entry to the Market Street building was closed when an inspection revealed the limestone canopy is no longer attached to its primary supports, an arch is leaning and decorative elements are supporting weight they were never designed to bear.

Waller, Todd & Sadler Architects has been hired to provide a plan for stabilizing the building. But city officials want to be sure that they know their options, in case the stabilization proves to be a bigger job than it’s worth, Roberts said.

“When we look at what it would take to structurally repair [the building], who knows? It might be more cost effective” to start over from scratch, he said. “But if it’s cost-effective to make repairs, we might lay that out as an option.”

The plans, he added, “will provide the City Council with information in the fall so that the City Council can give some direction to the city staff about what needs to be done.”

At least one council member expressed early opposition to making repairs on the 46-year-old City Hall building.

“I would not vote to put not one dime in that building unless it’s to tear it down,” Councilman Charles Brown said in May.

Gerry Jones, the city’s capital programs and buildings director, had told the City Council at that meeting that many of the problems with the existing building are a result of constructing it atop fill dirt that had not been sufficiently compacted and had subsequently sunk as the years passed.

Underground water moving into and out of the area also may have contributed to the problem, he said.