Clearwater officials have begun talking about where and how to replace City Hall if it gets demolished two years from now for construction of a new Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Their ideas range from building an iconic structure, to moving into the Main Library, to housing city hall on the upper floors of an office building or inside a parking garage.
It is not too early to involve Clearwater residents in this conversation. And as they move toward a decision in the months ahead, officials should recall the city's poor past performance when it comes to planning office space and not repeat the same mistakes.
Under a joint agreement, the aquarium would lease the current City Hall property at 112 S Osceola Ave., and demolish the structure to make room for a new $160 million aquarium to open in 2017. The aquarium would provide the city $7.5 million toward a new city hall. Nothing will happen until the aquarium has raised the money for construction, which must be by August 2016.
The current City Hall, opened in 1966, is so small it can house only a few city employees — primarily the mayor, City Council, city manager, city attorney and city clerk. Hundreds of other employees are scattered in various facilities, but most who interact with the public are in the Municipal Services Building on Myrtle Avenue blocks from City Hall.
In the early 1990s, the city faced an office space crisis. Utility employees were housed in a building that had contaminated air. Many other employees worked in the City Hall Annex, a former Montgomery Ward store on Missouri Avenue with water leaks and poor climate control.
City commissioners voted to spend $6.45 million for the high-rise, green-glass SunBank/Atrium building downtown to consolidate offices in one place. One month later, a new commissioner joined the board, the majority changed and commissioners voted to sell the building, saying the price was too high.
They hatched a plan to expand City Hall by building an office tower across the street and a parking garage on the front lawn of City Hall. The public hated the idea, which was ditched.
So commissioners chose to renovate City Hall for half a million dollars and build a new annex a few blocks away, plus a new police station and parking garage. But they wanted them constructed quickly and cheaply. They chose unattractive, utilitarian architecture and a fast-track design/build construction method. The project was a disaster, costing almost $2 million more than the expected $16 million and finishing about two years late. By the time the bland, box-like buildings opened, they were overcrowded.
If the aquarium plan goes forward, the city will be forced this time to replace City Hall. Residents should be consulted early about their ideas, through social media, city website surveys and perhaps eventually design charettes.
Should City Hall be the kind of place they would drive past with weekend visitors, point to and say with some pride, "That's our City Hall"? Or would they prefer city hall on upper floors in an office building or parking garage? How about a combined City Hall/transit station on Court Street? Should more city functions be consolidated in one place for efficiency?
As city officials solidify their thoughts, they should remember that in Clearwater, planning city office space with only speed and savings in mind hasn't brought good results.