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Civic Center Design Process Sparks Controversy

An illustrated version of this is attached as a PDF file. If you would like the historic preservation analysis of the Civic Center, I can email a 2 MB file.

A proposal to place a new Hall of Justice (Police building) facing Barrett Avenue in front of the Richmond Art Center has caused the first outcry about a Civic Center design process that has been largely a stealth endeavor insofar as the public is concerned.

The good news is that the Civic Center project is moving rapidly ahead, particularly the design of the rehabilitation of the City Hall, and it appears that Finance Director James Goins can cobble together some $80 million to pay for it. In addition, Phase 1, which originally included the City Hall and a new City Council chamber in the Memorial Auditorium where the Bermuda Room is now, has been expanded to include a new Hall of Justice.

The Hall of Justice was a late addition to Phase 1 for two reasons. The deteriorating appearance and obsolete functional layout of the Hall of Justice was becoming one more obstacle to police recruitment in a tightening market, and the effects of water intrusion were resulting in numerous claims being filed by employees who complained about potentially adverse health effects of mold.

What Richmond Art Center supporters are concerned about is that the Hall of Justice will obscure the view of the Art Center from Barrett Avenue, and the juxtaposition of the public safety and criminal justice component of City government with that celebrating the arts is not an appropriate relationship.

How did this happen? First of all, the delivery mechanism chosen by the City for the Civic Center revitalization is a method called design-build. In this method, both the contractor and the architect are part of the same team, as opposed to the design-bid-build method where the architect works directly for the client, and the contractor is chosen by competitive bid. Most public works projects continue to be design-bid-build, but design-build has gained popularity in recent years.

While still capable of providing for public scrutiny and input, the design-build process is not as conducive as is design-bid-build. In the Richmond process, however, public scrutiny and public input has almost been eliminated. The design process is being closely managed by staff and the design build team. City Council members have been offered a peek now and then but no real input.

I objected to the location of the new Hall of Justice primarily because of its relationship with Barrett Avenue and the original site design concept of the Civic Center. While the City Hall is set back from the street in a campus-like setting, the new Hall of Justice is set right up to the street as in a more urban context. The obscuring of the Richmond Art Center also troubles me.

I have suggested that if we are to build a new Hall of Justice, it could be placed on the southeast corner of the Civic Center site in a location reserved for a future building in the original 1948 master plan.

I had also suggested completely rehabilitating the Hall of Justice instead of building a new structure. Staff argued that the cost and inconvenience of two moves made this a non-starter. However, there is now the prospect that the Hall of Justice may have to be evacuated soon anyway due to the effects of water intrusion and mold.

There are other issues about the design that concern me. The issue as to whether or not the Civic Center is eligible for the California Register of Historic Resources has never been resolved. This is important, because if it is eligible, the design will be subject to CEQA review as well as Richmond Municipal Code Chapter 6.06, Historic Structures. The design will have to be consistent with the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Structures, and this will have an impact on some of the design decisions that have already been made.

Best practice is to resolve the historic preservation issues before getting too far along with the design. Richmond City staff, however, is afraid to even utter the “H” (historic preservation) word because they largely don’t understand it and don’t want to. The only exception is a few of the younger Planning Department staff members. This Civic Center project, however, is being run like a railroad by the friendly Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency.

The Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency does not have a qualified architect on its staff managing the project, nor has the design been yet vetted by the Design Review Board, which has several highly qualified architects among its membership.

I urge Richmond residents to demand a frequent show and tell and accompanying public discussion of the Civic Center Design as it develops.

What can you do? Press “reply to all” and let your city manager and City Council know that the public is, after all, the client for this project and deserves to be frequently briefed and listened to.

Following is a primer on Design-Build. For additional information see http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/reports/designbuild/designbuild2.htm.