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Options grow for City Hall face lift

A minor renovation to City Hall, once a $500,000 proposition, might be ballooning into something much more.

City commissioners are being asked to consider whether they want to do more to preserve the 32-year-old building, which is starting to show its age.

The options range from a more elaborate renovation that would cost about $1.6-million to a much more expensive gutting of the building.

The decision puts several new commissioners in a difficult spot.

Most of them campaigned on platforms that called for tighter controls on city spending. Already, they're planning a new Memorial Causeway Bridge for $25-million and a new library that might cost $12-million.

But what does one do with City Hall, a building that stands atop the waterfront bluff as one of Clearwater's most visible symbols?

Do you vote for stopgap improvements and leave major questions about the building's lifespan to future commissions? Or do you take more permanent steps to preserve it long-term?

"That's the big question," said City Manager Betty Deptula, who will present that choice to commissioners Monday.

The original $500,000 plan would add a staircase outside the building to comply with fire codes. It also would cover the cost of realigning some office space, including new quarters for commissioners, replacing carpet and repainting a few walls.

It will not add to the building's life, according to a memo by Acting Assistant City Manager Bill Baird.

The $1.6-million option would replace the heating and air conditioning system, replace video and audio equipment for broadcasts of city meetings, and replace telephone and computer lines. It would "increase the life expectancy of the structure" and make it "significantly better" to operate, Baird's memo said.

Deptula said the audio and video equipment at City Hall is "not really suited for quality television," and people have complained. The suggested improvements include new cameras in commission chambers, stage lighting, an electronic tally board to keep track of votes and an automated timekeeper that reminds speakers to keep it short.

At present, the city clerk makes do with a small egg timer, and Mayor Rita Garvey tracks votes by listening to the "ayes" and "nays," keeping a count in her head and announcing the result immediately.

There are five votes, including hers, to follow.

The most expensive option _ gutting the building _ would involve stripping it to its girders. This would "yield a completely renovated building with a 30-year life as if it were new," according to an architect's report.

Deptula said commissioners have always known $500,000 was never going to cover everything that needs to be done to the building.

Why weren't more complete renovations contemplated in the original planning?

In large part that was because the City Hall improvements were lumped into one project with the new police headquarters and the new city office building, which are almost completed. City officials opted for the "design-build" method of construction, in which design proceeds just ahead of construction.

Traditionally, buildings are completely designed before construction begins.

Some argue that the "design-build" method saves time and money. But Baird said in his memo it "did not permit the proper programing" for officials to consider all the options for City Hall.

If commissioners decide to go beyond the $1.6-million option, Baird recommended returning to the more traditional method.