Room Of Their Own
Monterey ramps up big city hall project.
Thursday, June 13, 2002
Photo: Edifice Complex-public facilities manager Carl Anderson says cramped conditions demand the new public service center.
It used to be that Todd Bennett''s computer terminal was to his right and his keyboard was to his left. In the days before he got a flatscreen monitor that fit his desk properly, Bennett, an associate planner for the City of Monterey, had to crane his neck over his shoulder to see what he was typing.
There are bathtubs bigger than Bennett''s work space, a tight corner of historic Colton Hall he has to evacuate every month when fire inspectors arrive. Forget shelves. Bennett''s file storage method consists of packing rolled-up blueprints into trashcans like arrows in a quiver.
"We''re adaptable," he says with a stiff upper lip.
The City of Monterey is gearing up to spend $16 million for a new city hall so that Todd Bennett and hundreds of other city employees can be located in one building rather than scattered through Colton Hall (built in 1849) and the current city hall next door, as well as converted bungalows nearby and an outdated modular building.
City officials refer to the new project as a the "public service center," and are careful to say that the 57,624 square-foot office complex, set to be built in the parking lot behind Colton Hall, is also designed for the citizenry. The public, they say, is ill-served by city departments that are difficult to navigate and short on space.
The new city hall would have room for 232 current city workers-from the planning, personnel, finance, information services, building safety, public works and city attorney''s offices. The building''s total capacity will be 319. (Floor plans and renderings are available to the public on www.monterey.org).
Public facilities manager Carl Anderson is a big champion of the project. During a recent tour of current offices, Anderson''s case was made for him. As he stood in the breezeway outside the city clerk''s office, a man in housepainting clothes, with an armful of rolled-up plans, walked by. He paused to stick his head in an open office window and ask, "Where''s the planning office?" He had been going in the wrong direction to the wrong building.
With recent City Council approval to go ahead with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the city Planning Commission took public comment on Tuesday night, June 11, as to the scope of that study. With the application underway, the public process of architectural, historical and planning reviews, public hearings and official scrutiny-usually endured by developers and citizens-must now be endured by the city itself.
"I think if it''s designed properly it''s going to be fine," says Mayor Dan Albert. "But if it''s a big ugly building and it doesn''t fit, we''re going to hear about it."
The new city hall has been in the works for years. The city has been squirreling away money for this since the early 1980s. But plans to build such a large complex, in close proximity to some of the state''s most historic structures, and in a year when city revenue from tourism has dropped drastically, have drawn some criticism.
"It''s a good idea gone bad," says perennial city council critic and one-time mayoral candidate Barbara Bass Evans. "Everybody agrees on the need to do something about office space. That''s not the argument. It''s the size of the thing and the cost of the thing."
Evans, a religious attendee of public meetings, contends that the plan has put residents in an awkward position. No one wants to say ''no'' to cramped city workers, but, she contends, the scale is too large-especially in such a historic part of town.
The proposal calls for the elimination of seven existing buildings, 90 parking spaces and 16 trees, of which three are mature Monterey Cypress and one is a mature Coastal Live Oak. A resulting 69-space parking shortage is addressed in city plans.
"They''ve never asked the public if they really want to spend $16 million, and really, do we really need this many square feet?" Evans asks.
The timing is also somewhat problematic. At a recent hearing, City Manager Fred Meurer explained spending cuts he has proposed to cover a more than $3.6 million budget gap, which is blamed on a shrinking economy and a post-Sept. 11 drop in local tourism. Meurer warned that cutbacks in city services might be needed if the economics don''t improve.
The city keeps $6 million in reserve for operations during such episodes of "economic uncertainty. In contrast. more than $13 million has been accumulated over the years in a separate, special fund for the new city hall. Finance Director Don Rhoads says the money has been peeled off from end-of-the-year budget savings and reimbursement of redevelopment agency loans.
Still, the city hall fund is $3 million short of the expected $16 million price tag, which includes everything from blueprints to faucets to desk chairs.
"That''s a gap we''re going to have to close," Rhoads says. "It is possible that the budget situation will affect the funding for the public service center, but how that will play out we don''t know yet."
A new city hall probably would not be ready for use for another two years. The plan review is expected to take a year and construction another year.
As it is today, the planning department is in submarine-like quarters that actually spread into the old city jail, where a cell is used as a closet and an old metal-grate bunk is a shelf. Up in the public works administration office, employees say that because of shortage of desk space, they pounce whenever a computer station opens up.
Bill Fell, chief of planning, shares an office at the back of Colton Hall that was a teachers'' living quarters in the late 1800s when the building was a school. When he needs a confidential conversation his assistant has to go outside, which is literally outside.
"I have to ask her to leave," Fell says. "That ain''t efficient."
City employees say there is no sufficient storage space and the offices are crammed. Finding space for department meetings or even a conversation with a citizen is a chore.
City Attorney Bill Connor''s office is in modular buildings installed 15 years ago and meant to last five. Also in the building, beside the police station, is the personnel department and half the finance office. The other half of the finance office is across the street next to the city clerk.
Connor says he knows of only one minor workplace injury case brought by an employee. One area that has some worried is the jail cell now used by planners.
"We''ve had people afraid to work back there because if there was a fire there''s only one way in or out," Connor says.
In his own office, Connor says, there''s limited space for meetings or depositions. Sometimes angry citizens waiting to complain to the code enforcement officer sit in chairs nearly blocking the lobby outside his door.
"We''re like everybody else, we make do with what we''ve got," Connor says. "But it''s an unprofessional situation for a professional office. We plain just don''t have the space here."