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Windows into the Past

Issue opens window to council debate

  RICHMOND: A 5-4 vote results in fixed-shut windows for the Civic Center, causing a rift among the panel

By John Geluardi

CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Contra Costa Times

Article Launched:06/30/2007 03:06:23 AM PDT

By John Geluardi

CONTRA COSTA TIMES

A cool breeze blowing across your workspace on a hot summer day is overrated -- or so says a slim majority of the Richmond City Council.

The question was whether two Civic Center buildings currently undergoing a $111 million renovation should have windows that open or windows that are permanently shut. By a 5-4 vote earlier this month, the council rejected strong evidence that windows that open -- or "operable windows" -- have environmental, financial and health benefits.

Instead, the renovated Civic Center will have fixed windows and an exclusively air-conditioned office environment.

Although the issue may seem minor, the council's closed mind on open windows -- a contemporary architectural standard in Bay Area municipal buildings -- exposed a rift between council factions, poor communication among city departments and reinforced a backward image the city has been struggling to shed.

"We don't want to be in the 20th century, we want to be in the 21st century," said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who launched a comprehensive effort to gain council support for operable windows. "These windows would have moved the city forward."

But the council naysayers -- Vice Mayor Nat Bates, Councilwomen Maria Viramontes and Myrna Lopez, and Councilmen John Marquez and Harpreet Sandhu -- voted in favor of fixed windows despite several prestigious university studies that found wide-ranging advantages to opening windows, including lowered energy costs, improved worker health, increased productivity and a greater sense of well-being.

McLaughlin's proposed operable-window system, which included air-conditioning and heating options, would have cost about $1.2 million more than installing fixed windows. But long term, the extra cost would have been recouped in an estimated $275,000 annual savings in productivity and an estimated $3,500 reduction in energy costs, according to a presentation by Gail Brager, a UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor and a pre-eminent authority on operable windows.

The council majority remained unconvinced.

"This business about more productivity is hogwash," Bates said. "People are going to work or they aren't. Just because a window is open, all of a sudden you're going to have better performance? I don't buy it."

Brager said she was stunned by the response.

"My presentation was based on research done by internationally recognized scientists, hardly the 'hogwash' that Vice Mayor Bates characterized it as," she said after the vote. "Given the mild climate in the Bay Area, Richmond would save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in energy, health and productivity gains."

The window controversy began in March, when the Civic Center Council Liaison Committee of McLaughlin, Viramontes and Councilman Tom Butt discovered that the Community and Economic Redevelopment Agency had taken operable windows out of the renovation plans.

With very little time, McLaughlin and her staff rushed to put together a proposal for the council to consider June 5, when the final renovation budget was to be approved.

But she said she received little cooperation from the Redevelopment Agency, renovation contractor Mack5, the city manager's office or the council majority, which has demonstrated a penchant for voting down the agenda items sponsored by the mayor.

McLaughlin's proposal, complete with Brager's report, wasn't available until the day before the June 5 meeting.

So when the council heard Brager's presentation that evening, the majority cited a report prepared by Redevelopment Director Steve Duran and signed by City Manager Bill Lindsay that was based on anecdotal information and slanted against opening windows.

At the height of the council's window debate, the matter became further complicated when Lindsay expressed a preference for operable windows, which were popular in Orinda's City Hall, where he used to work.

Lindsay's last-minute comments visibly stunned Viramontes, who nearly made a motion to put the vote off. Instead, she voted against the opening windows, but early the next morning she did something rare for a politician: She met with the city manager to discuss putting the item on a future agenda for another vote.

Before that could happen, however, Butt sharply criticized the majority's decision in his popular e-mail forum, which stalled any further discussion of another vote.

There is still some hope. The council has begun to mend fences and on Tuesday came together to approve a city budget that has strengthened the city's financial health.

Butt said he has been trying to contact Viramontes to see if there is anything he can do to change her mind about the operable windows.

"I don't think I caused this problem, but I'm willing to do whatever it takes to fix it," Butt said Friday. "In the spirit of cooperation that was evidenced in the passing of our budget, I am committed to renew my efforts at council civility."

Viramontes was unavailable for comment Friday but has said since the vote, "I like the idea of operable windows and I would rather have voted for them."

Reach John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or at jgeluardi@cctimes.com.