City Council members on Wednesday were briefed on a proposed $38 million City Hall renovation project, which includes plans for an additional entrance that is accessible to people of all physical abilities.
The renovations would begin in September 2018 and require 143 employees to relocate for a 15-month period. City staff suggested the nearby Plaza de Armas or the existing Frost Bank Tower on East Houston Street. The newly-renovated City Hall would be fully operational in January 2020.
“It’s not a sexy thing to do, but it’s necessary,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley told Council Wednesday. “…We’ve been talking about this for about four or five years.”
Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department, presented photographs of damage to the building’s interior and exterior, which includes mildew, aged water pumps and HVAC units, corroded pipes, leaks, interior and exterior cracks, and deteriorating window casings. Recently, a fourth-floor window fell and landed on the roof, Frisbie said.
“Virtually every square foot of the facility has problems … and it’s required a lot of bandaids,” Frisbie said of the “long overdue” renovations.
Construction of the 52,000 sq. ft. City Hall began in 1889 and was completed in 1891. Though renovations have been made to the building since – including the addition of a fourth floor in 1927 – sewer, plumbing, and electrical issues continue to cause problems, Frisbie said. A March 2017 facility assessment identified issues and pinpointed necessary renovations.
“If we do it all at once it’s more efficient and cost-effective,” Frisbie said. “If we continue to ‘bandaid it,’ it will just get worse and worse. There’s never a good time to do a project like this, but there is no better time than now to start it.”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said City Hall is like an old tire full of patches. “We’re finally gonna get a fresh tire on our bike,” he said.
The $38 million project is included in the City’s debt plan, Frisbie said, and would be funded through certificates of obligation, meaning the City could issue debt without voter approval.
City staff recommended that City employees relocate while the renovations take place. Construction could uncover mold and asbestos, Sculley said, and potentially jeopardize employees’ health.
“I’m not in favor of staying in there [while renovations take place] as it would extend the cost, and we don’t want to put ourselves or the public in any danger due to active contaminants,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, adding that relocating employees should be “as painless and inexpensive as possible.” Nirenberg opposed moving into Plaza de Armas so as to not disrupt the building’s current operations.
“My preference would be to use the existing Frost Bank Tower, which we will take over [eventually],” Nirenberg said. “I’m in favor of the renovation project. It needs to happen.”
Construction of a new Frost Bank Tower on the corner of Flores and Houston streets began in late March, the first office tower to break San Antonio’s skyline since 1989. The new tower is part of a public-private partnership between the City and Weston Urban/Frost Bank and was approved by Council in 2015.
In 2016, the City purchased the existing Frost Bank Tower and its 732-space parking garage, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said, which will serve as a consolidated administrative building for the City in 2020.
“This will allow us to streamline operations and increase efficiency within government,” Houston explained.
City Hall renovations would include new heating, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems; ventilation and air-conditioning systems, new elevators, improved fire suppression systems; exterior masonry repair; refurbished windows and entrances, and exterior drainage improvements. In addition, the floor plan of the City Council offices would be renovated and refurbished to include suites and co-working spaces for more efficiency and collaboration.
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said the City should consider eliminating City Hall’s fourth floor during renovations to bring it back to its original three-story form. Nirenberg asked City staff to look into the costs of that proposal.
Though City Hall’s west entrance already complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Treviño has been advocating for an “equal access” entrance on the building’s east side.
City staff recommended that the new ADA entrance be constructed at the same time as the larger City Hall historic renovation.
A design competition, initiated by Treviño in June 2016 and led by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, generated 22 design submissions in late July. In August, a panel of four jurors selected Beaty Palmer Architects as the winner of the design competition. The project’s design and construct has an estimated price tag of $3.4 million, Frisbie said.
“This is the people’s house,” said AIA San Antonio President Adam Reed. “The building is old and how you get to the building is archaic, which is what the design competition addressed.”
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) took issue with design selection.
“This wasn’t my favorite,” she said. “I
Councilman John Courage (D9) said he supports the project and offered a recommendation.
“As a design idea, I recommend that the City’s Clerk’s office be on the first floor right as people come in,” he said. “That way they get services right there.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that renovations would require 1,500 employees to relocate for a 15-month period. In fact, 143 employees will relocate and 91 of those 143 would move back into City Hall after construction is complete. In 2020, 1,500 employees are expected to move into the existing Frost Bank tower.