The Falls Church City Hall is shutting down this Friday. Not for good, of course, but for 10 months or so as the renovation and expansion effort kicks into high gear. Mark your January 2019 calendar for a celebratory reopening (sorry, we can’t be more specific about the date yet!).
But carrying on without a hitch are the functions of City Hall, many of which have already moved to new locations for the interim. There are the operations of the Housing and Human Services department which have been moved to the little Gage House next to the basketball court up behind City Hall.
Most of the police and sheriff’s department functions have been moved out to the City’s Property Yard on Gordon’s Road.
But most of the offices have migrated to the three-story, older brick building at 400 N. Washington Street, and that’s where the last shift is moving this Friday out of the East Wing of City Hall, including the offices of the City Manager, Clerk, Attorney and more.
“So far, it’s been kind of like going on a field trip, a summer vacation,” Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester told the News-Press last week, noting a lot of the moves have had the feel of packing up the Studebaker and going on a road trip.
Mester has been in charge of the logistics of the move, and she’s remained upbeat, and the City staff has been by and large patient and long-suffering. (It helps, of course, that City Manager Wyatt Shields has proposed an across the board three-percent salary hike for the coming fiscal year).
There have been no major headaches yet, either amidst City staff or the public, given efforts to keep the public informed of the moves that have gone in shifts since December.
Two departments that attract the greatest numbers of the general public to the halls of the City government, the offices of the City Treasurer and Commissioner of the Revenue, made their move last weekend and were open for business in their new temporary location as of 1 p.m. this Monday. They are on the ground floor of the 400 N. Washington St. building.
Treasurer Jody Acosta and Revenue Commissioner Tom Clinton said this week that the transition came off without a hitch, and a brisk business in the payment of taxes and registering businesses, and so forth, was underway. Acosta was particularly pleased that her customer counter from her City Hall office was moved with the help of the City’s Public Works crews to her new digs.
Mester said that one of the pluses from the move has been the camaraderie that it has engendered among the City Hall employees at all levels. “A lot of us got to meet people we have hardly seen before (because of the natural compartmentalization at City Hall),” she said. “A lot of folks have gotten to meet and greet one another, and offer helping hands.”
Notwithstanding Mester’s buoyant attitude toward the whole messy move, coming with echoes of “Kumbaya” in her voice, the phased moving was well-organized and smooth, and with the final East Wing offices departing the old City Hall Friday, the construction work will intensify at City Hall.
A short history of the City Hall building has been posted on the City’s website, noting it was first built in 1957 (Falls Church was incorporated as an independent city in 1948) and last renovated in 1986 when the East Wing was added. It has been a central gathering point for the City, hosting over 400 community meetings every year.
Before the City Hall was first built and put in use, the acting City Hall was at the building now known as the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment next to the State Theater at 222 N. Washington St. That structure, which was originally the home of a congregational church, was put to City Hall functions at a time when the City had only one police car and a small jail was built inside the building.
Among the anecdotal stories about those Mayberry-ish days was one by way of the late Don Frady, the City’s first public works chief who was instrumental in getting the new City Hall built. He said that there was a proverbial “town drunk” who would spend a lot of nights in the old jail and that when the City Council would gather to meet, the drunk would be placed in the single police car and driven around town so he would not disrupt the Council meetings.
Even with the new City Hall in 1958 and its expansion in 1986, police and court services have continued to be underserved by the building, which is one of the most important features that the current renovation and expansion is designed to correct.
In fact, the City was effectively ordered by the Arlington Circuit Court to make a series of necessary improvements for security and other reasons in order for court services, including court proceedings themselves, to be held at the City Hall. It’s been more than a half dozen years since that mandate came down, but the City is finally complying.
The overall cost of the renovation is $16.95 million, and unlike the issuing of bonds of a new high school and library, this one did not require a public referendum since it is a vital matter of government operations and security. In the Fiscal Year 2019 budget now being mulled by the City Council, it includes $11.3 million.
The renovations include the following:
A secured one-level parking garage behind City Hall for police, sheriff and courts to allow for secured prisoner and weapon transport.
A central front entrance and receptionist to remove public confusion about how to reach destinations, addressing safety concerns and provide clear paths through the building.
A connection between the east and west wings of the building (there was only one corridor), with two new hallways, one secured for staff. Public services will be brought to more convenient locations for the public while separation needed for police, sheriff and court functions will be enhanced.
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility standards will be brought current. Also, sheltering in place locations and upgraded electrical, sprinklers, plumbing, generator and HVAC will be included.
The new City Council/court chambers will be in approximately the same location as before, but will face in the opposite direction. City officials tell the News-Press they are confident this will not tamper with “feng shui” that has provided for the high quality of government that the City has become accustomed to for the last 60 years.