Is the Ashland council making the wrong City Hall choice?

A recent Daily Tidings editorial, “The Right City Hall Choice” contains some information that should be addressed. Public Forum on this topic to be held at the Ashland Council Chamber on East Main, Wednesday, January 22, 6:30pm

First, it’s claimed that City Council chose the least expensive option. This is only true of the four options put before them by a single architectural firm with limited experience in rehabilitating historic buildings. A less expensive option would be to seismically retrofit city hall, bringing everything up to code.

Next, the editorial claims that building a new structure rather than retrofitting the current building will make it “more earthquake resistant”. Either a new or renovated structure will be required to meet current code. It’s erroneous to claim a new structure is “more” earthquake resistant.

The Daily Tidings states “(city hall) needs to be not only as earthquake-resistant as possible but also should be energy-efficient, provide plenty of usable space and last for many year as a new building will be much more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly which will save money in the long run.”

While granting that the current building suffers from deferred maintenance issues and wasted space, a rehabbed building will last as long as a new one. The “energy-efficient” statement is only true if you discount the impact on the environment that will result from demolition.

Existing buildings have “embodied energy” that is entirely lost by demolition. The “savings” from all new construction and new windows (there would also be new windows in a rehabbed building) occur incrementally over time and can take over a century to justify. What this means is that the money we spend on making the building “energy efficient” won’t really save the citizens of Ashland any money whatsoever during the entire stated life-cycle of this new construction.

Next, the Tidings states, “Retrofitting an 1891 brick and stucco building, along with concrete and concrete blocks added over the years, would take longer, displacing city staff for more time.”

This is only true if you hire an architect and construction firm that don’t know what they are doing. The cost of new construction must include the substantial cost and time of demolition. Staff will have to be relocated under either option.

The editorial then describes the other three options recently presented to the Council, ranging in price from $12.3 million to $18.9 million making the point that the option chosen at $7.2 million was less expensive. But consider that all three of these options had already been dismissed by the city’s own Ad Hoc committee 3 years and $300,000 in design fees ago.

The Ad Hoc Committee voted overwhelmingly to keep City Hall downtown and encouraged the City to review options for that site, including repair and re-use of the existing building. Yet, the City continued to explore the three other options, wasting taxpayer money, and never sought out a second opinion from a different architect.

A second opinion would have been well worth it given no National Register-listed building in Ashland has ever been demolished. Over the last 50 years, the City has enforced preservation and re-use as a virtual requirement on private property owners which has been good for the city’s character and the environment. According to George Kramer, Historic Preservation Consultant:

“If an NR-listed building must be demolished it would be a shame for the City to be the first to do so, and it would only be tolerable if the City did everything reasonable before arriving at the decision. The City hasn’t done that. I begged Council, and Paula Brown, to get a second opinion from an architect that was more adept at rehab. The City didn’t with entirely predictable results.”

Finally, it is stated, “While it’s true the city doesn’t have the $7.2 million in the budget, it’s a relatively small price for new City Hall.”

This isn’t true if we can retrofit, rehab and re-use the existing building for less. The salient point here is that Ashland doesn’t have the needed funds. At the last Council meeting, the mayor proposed a bond request for the May ballot to pay for a new city hall. Given Ashland’s financial situation, we must ask why we wouldn’t even explore the least expensive option.

Even Medford renovated its city hall. Other cities, most notably Redmond, have done excellent jobs of using historic buildings for cost-effective city hall projects. Hopefully, our Council will get a second opinion from an architectural firm experienced in rehabilitating historic buildings and be willing to at least explore a less expensive option.

Garrett Furuichi is the former vice chair of the Ashland Citizen’s Budget Committee. Ashland