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  City Council Waffles, Crawfishes and Spins Wheels on Civic Center Plan
October 7, 2003

It is after nights like this that I come close to losing it and walking away from this bizarre city government forever.

While continuing to spend over $1 million annually in rent for temporary quarters at Marina Bay and while agonizing over a looming $10 million budget deficit, I am embarrassed to say that the City of Richmond is no closer to a plan for a permanent city hall than it was three years ago. In fact, the whole process is stuck in reverse.

In a move I applauded, The City Council selected a highly-qualified design and planning team in 2001 to make a comprehensive study of the civic center needs of the City of Richmond for the next 50 years and produce a master plan. The process, which took some 18 months, cost nearly half a million dollars and had the solid backing of the community, called for leaving the Civic Center at its current location. The existing distinctive buildings would be rehabilitated and re-programmed to meet the needs of a modern city, and they would be augmented with new structures as required.

Eventually, excess land would be developed into housing and parking concentrated into multi-level structures. The livelier, denser and mixed use project would form the eastern anchor of a Macdonald Avenue corridor revitalization that would be anchored on the west by the BART station and the Transit Village. The plan was the subject of many public hearings as well as meetings of the planning team and City staff.

As a part of their comprehensive study, the previous master plan consulting team had studied other potential locations, including lower Macdonald Avenue, which were rejected first by staff for economic reasons, and later by the community, which overwhelmingly supported the plan to leave the Civic Center in its current location.

Following are some of the recent history and details of how it happened that we are again in deep limbo:

On January 28, 2003, The City Council took the following action:

 “In the matter to consider accepting the final Civic Center Master plan and Facilities Assessment prepared by Ai Architecture and BMS Design Group and authorize initiation of Implementation Plan Phase I Work. A motion was made by Vice Mayor Penn, seconded by Councilmember Bates. Discussion ensued; Councilmember Rogers stated that he would not support the motion. He requested the City Manager to present to the Council an alternative plan that would be substantially less expensive. Rich McCoy, Public Services Director, stated that under the direction of the City Manager, a team has been established to present a strategic plan in 60 to 90 days for implementation of Plan Phase I. A substitute motion by Councilmember Viramontes, seconded by Councilmember Butt, to consider the Civic Center Master Plan Facility Assessment and to have the work group develop financing strategies in the next 60 to 90 days and the financial impacts on the City, specifically, what the City will have to sacrifice in order to move forward to accomplish staff’s recommendations passed, by the unanimous vote of the Council.”

The “60-90 days” had run by April 28 at the latest – some six months ago. To date, there is no resolution, no strategic plan, in fact – no plan at all. Meanwhile, the City is spending $100,000+ per month renting temporary quarters. See http://www.bayarea.com/mld/cctimes/content_syndication/local_news/6874946.htm. No design for the existing City Hall retrofit has proceeded past the conceptual phase.

In response to my recent inquiries, I and other City Council members received a September 26, 2003, memo that stated:

“Jay Cory and I [Rich McCoy] will begin working through the process on this item some time in October. Issues to be covered during the process will deal with seismic reinforcing the old City Hall and possibly the Hall of Justice. Phased construction of the City Hall and/or a new/different look at the recommendations of the Master Plan of the Civic Center incorporated within these issues will be funding of construction and infrastructure available within the refinancing of the latest Redevelopment Bond.”

Then we received another memo from staff dated October 2, 2003. Under “staff’s thinking to date,” there was discussion of a “bare bones” $15 million City Hall rehab and “the alternative of locating some portion of the Civic Center uses in Downtown Richmond along McDonald (sic) Avenue.”

At the request of staff, the matter was placed on the October 7, City Council Agenda as “Consider options to provide direction to staff regarding the Civic Center and other capital requirements of the City.”

Instead of coming up with financing options, as directed by the City Council in January of 2003, staff decided to rethink the whole process. They appear to be intrigued with the possibility of constructing a new civic center or portions thereof somewhere on lower Macdonald. The idea is that it would make the area safe at night. The fact that city halls don’t normally attract a lot of people at night didn’t seem to be an obstacle to such “out of the box” thinking. They still have no idea how it will be paid for, what would happen to the existing Civic Center site (other than sell it for housing), where it would be located or how long it would take.

After a spirited debate, six members of the City Council (Bates, Belcher, Griffin, Viramontes, Penn and Anderson) voted to support staff’s indecision, continue studying the “downtown” alternative for at least 45 days, and continue paying $100,000 monthly rent for a building at Marina Bay for the foreseeable future.

A substitute motion to proceed with the master plan accepted in January 2003, get City Hall retrofitted and rehabilitated as soon as possible and move out of the Marina Bay building was supported only by Butt, Bell and Rogers.