Commission approves building demolitions

Published 10:58 pm Friday, March 9, 2012

Four buildings, including those above, on West Washington Street are slated for demolition to make way for a new city hall building. The Historic Landmarks Commission approved the move Thursday.

The process of building a new city hall got one step closer to reality this week when a council-appointed panel approved the demolition of buildings standing in the way.

The Historic Landmarks Commission voted 6-2 to approve the demolition of four city-owned buildings that front on West Washington Street, where the city hopes to build the new city hall.

“Sometimes, we’re very reluctant about demolishing historic structures,” said Isaac Baker, who is on the Historic Landmarks Commission.

Email newsletter signup

The four buildings to be demolished all sit in the projected footprint of the new building. They formerly held businesses, including a Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters pediatrician’s office and Mills Marine and Ship Repair.

Though none of the buildings are particularly historical or architecturally significant, Baker expressed hope that at least one of the buildings could be saved and asked how keeping it would affect the project.

“It sits right in the middle of the building, so it would definitely hinder the project,” said Capital Programs and Buildings Director Gerry Jones.

Others on the Historic Landmarks Commission expressed concerns about space, given population projections that show Suffolk will continue to grow.

“I would like to see you have some space that you’re not even using to give you room to grow,” Stewart Tyler said.

Jones said space is being considered in the design, including the possibility of designing the building so that a third floor can be added later.

Speaking to the commission, Councilman Charles Parr noted that all of the affected businesses have relocated to other downtown buildings, making significant investments in remodeling. Mills Marine expects to add 50 new jobs with the expansion.

The city negotiated with the owners and acquired all of the buildings in January and February.

A few other parcels necessary for the project have yet to be acquired, including a home. The city anticipates paying moving costs for the owners, Jones said. He also said he would work with them to salvage materials that could be used by other homeowners in the historic district.

The city says the current municipal center, which dates from the 1960s, is failing. It has numerous cracks in walls because of a falling slab, city officials have said. Some exterior walls are failing, resulting in one main entrance that has been closed for about two years. In addition, utility pipes and the heating and air conditioning systems are no longer performing well.

Furthermore, the old building doesn’t have space for all city departments, Jones told the commission on Thursday. Several city departments currently are leasing space in other downtown buildings. He told the commissioners that all the lease payments equal about one debt payment on the new building.

“Instead of putting it down a black hole on lease payments, you put it toward debt service on a building that’s going to better serve the citizens of Suffolk,” he said.

The new building would hold all city departments except for Parks and Recreation, which is housed in a city-owned facility on South Sixth Street next to the East Suffolk Recreation Center.

Amy Elliott, who is on the Historic Landmarks Commission, said she hoped the building would not “change the feel of the historic district.”

But Chairman Randy Hicks said he feels the city has always done a good job at designing new buildings so that they fit in, pointing to the police headquarters and a separate precinct building.

“They are in tune with the historic nature of the city,” he said. “They have done above and beyond, I think, what other municipalities would do.”

The city did not say when the buildings will be torn down.