The Falls Church City Council was stunned to get news at its meeting Monday of the need to significantly downsize the City Hall renovation project, the result of the cost of the renovation coming in 25 percent higher than originally projected.
The renovation’s expected cost of $19.5 million, the plan the Council last saw in December, was $6.5 million higher than budgeted, so the City’s planners under the direction of Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester went ahead with a series of cost-saving modifications which were brought to the Council for the first time Monday. Staying within the original $13 million budget, the new City Hall design is considerably more modest, but as F.C. Police Chief Mary Gavin testified, still offers the important security and safety features needed to operate a 21st century public facility that includes a court function.
While Council members expressed their universal shock and dismay at the smaller scale of the renovation plan, dropping back net new parking from 44 to 13, for example, and eliminating the addition of a new glass-enclosed front and rear courtyard at City Hall, it will still conform with the security and safety needs that are so lacking in City Hall presently, Chief Gavin said.
The covered parking will permit the secure transfer of suspects being brought to trial, for example, and the courtroom itself will be fortified. She said the number of entrance points at City Hall will be reduced from 10 currently, and 36 windows on the ground floor, to two or three doors for entry. “Fundamentally, this (new downsized plan–ed.) is a win,” Gavin said.
Some Council members complained that the time to absorb and comment on the new plan, including by the general public, is too short if construction begins (taking two years) this October.
But as Council member Phil Duncan offered, every delay will increase the cost of the project even more. “We’re to the point where we have to make tough decisions to do something,” he said. “We need to belly up to this.” Delays could cost an additional $1 million per year at least, Tyler Wilson of the Hitt Construction team offered.
There will be a public forum on the new plan in mid-June. The project is not subject to voter approval, unlike school bonds, for example, because it is deemed vital to the public security interest.
The City has been under a veritable court order to fix the insecure situation at City Hall, in which Arlington Circuit Court proceedings are held two days a week, and Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester said Monday night that she will be meeting with the judge from that court assigned to oversee the Falls Church effort to improve that building to provide an update next Wednesday.
“The court has been very patient with us to date on the promise that we are moving forward to get the improvements made,” she said.
But the cost estimate for the original plan came in 50 percent higher than estimated, up from $13 million to $19.5 million.
So, with all the other capital improvement projects on the City’s plate, including a renovated and expanded library approved by the voters, and the need for a new high school that will face a voter referendum perhaps this November, the decision was taken to see if the City Hall project could be downsized and still retain all the essential security needs involved. That was accomplished.
The City has announced its next major town hall meeting for Saturday, June 10, at 9 a.m. at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School. The focus of the meeting is the High School Campus Project, with the Feasibility Study and Small Area Plan associated with the project as major talking points.