Here We Go Again?
Will the Municipal Building renovation be business as usual?
The Augusta Commission has been trying to renovate the 55-year-old Municipal Building for quite awhile now, but a 2011 lawsuit stalled the project. Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet lifted the injunction in the winter of 2011, but now that the project is more or less ready to move forward, it’s encountered another hurdle.
“Apparently, our elevators, according to the 2010 standards, are three inches too small to meet the requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” says Administrator Fred Russell, who brought a series of renovation plans before the Engineering Services Committee, few of which the city can afford.
“The bottom line is that we’ve got a need that doesn’t correspond with the amount of funding we have available to us,” Russell told the committee. “Some of that need was driven by the court case that delayed us for awhile, and some of that was driven by the 2010 ADA requirements that were enacted after we started dealing with the building.”
Left alone, the elevators could be grandfathered in, but once the county starts the renovation process, the new standards kick in.
According to Russell, the lawsuit, in which a local builder and a property owners association challenged the city’s method of awarding the bid for the renovation, not only delayed the project, but it added a considerable cost to the renovation, which was originally estimated to cost $18 million.
“The number they gave me was approximately $3 million, give or take,” he said. That was before the ADA and new smoke requirements.
While the different options Russell presented all come in with different price tags, the staff’s pick, called 2D, would cost between $4 million and $5 million over the current budget.
“The cost issues are nebulous at the moment,” Russell said. “We traditionally have a cost and I’ve been able to come in under those for most of the buildings we’ve built.”
The original $18 million was part of the SPLOST VI package, which voters approved in 2009.
Cost issues aside, Russell said the city needs to achieve a certain minimum number of objectives with the renovations, like bringing the elevators up to the ADA code.
“In my mind, it would be penny wise and pound foolish to go ahead and fix the building without addressing these needs,” he said. “I think that we could be grandfathered in and we would not have to do [the changes], but in effect, at that particular time, you would have quite an investment in a building that didn’t meet the current standards for both ADA and for the fire safety issues.”
And while there are several other things the city would like to accomplish with the renovations, all of which have merit, Russell said he was most concerned with the fire safety issues.
“The smoke issue drives the train in this case because it is a life safety issue and that was the requirement the fire marshal would have made us do anyway,” he said. “We might have gotten by with the elevators, but at that point it doesn’t make any difference.”
Even if they could fight the smoke issue, he said, taking care of the problem makes good sense.
“Let me guarantee you that the second day it was open we’d have a fire,” Russell said. “That’s just the way it works, and I would hate to have to answer the question that I knew it was an issue and didn’t take any action to fix it.”
The project options Russell offered range from totally replacing the building, estimated to be a prohibitive $60 million, to a complete renovation, including the construction of the new elevator tower, which would come in at about $29 million, or about $11 million higher than what the project was budgeted for.
The pros of the full renovation are obvious — the total project would be ADA code compliant and it would take care of the smoke safety issue. In fact, it represents the fastest and overall the least costly manner to finish the entire building.
The cons, however, are just as obvious — the city doesn’t have the extra $11 million.
At the other end of the spectrum, the commissioners could ultimately pick Option 3, which at $21 million is still $3 million over what the city can afford. Though it would finance the elevator tower, it would leave much of the building as it is. It provides the least cost, but also the least service.
In addition to the safety and ADA compliance issues, one of the main desires has been to move the commission chambers to a more user-friendly space.
“I believe one of the major goals we’re looking for is to provide us an opportunity so that we can broaden the public space there, making it more convenient to go forward with developing a space that actually lets more than 100 people participate in the government,” Russell said. “On numerous occasions we’re crowded and we’re full and we’ve got people standing in the halls, and in my mind that’s not how a representative government should operate.”
The plan is to make the first floor customer friendly by fixing up the tax assessor’s office as well as the tax commissioner’s. It would also bring the commission chambers to an expanded space on the second floor.
But given all the criticism surrounding the TEE Center and its parking deck, some wonder if starting in on the Municipal Building isn’t just starting another controversy.
“Actually, the building process for all the buildings has gone fairly well,” Russell said. “The sheriff’s building, the library — the building process is a piece of cake. It’s the politics around it that becomes the issue. The TEE Center is built beautifully and the parking deck keeps winning awards.”
And even with the politics, Russell said, progress hasn’t always been as stymied as it’s seemed.
“We’ve got a pretty good track record of doing things that never got done before in Augusta,” he said. “I think this commission and the one before this one, despite the differences on issues, have a record to be proud of. You look at our infrastructure with the roads and you look at the buildings we’ve put up and the way we’ve set ourselves in the future — people would kill for this.”
Though money will continue to be an issue as the project gears up, Russell is reluctantly optimistic that the commission will find ways of bridging the gap.
“Our credit is good and money is cheap at the moment,” he said. “And given the reception of the TSPLOST, I’m more positive than I was a couple weeks ago. I think our citizens, based on our performance in the past, are very cognizant of the fact that if you want something, you’ve got to pay for it.”You Might Also Like:
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