Almanac

News - March 5, 2014

Renovating city hall may cost $1.2 million

by Sandy Brundage

Sticker shock struck the Menlo Park City Council after staff acknowledged that the projected cost of a city hall renovation could reach quadruple the amount budgeted.

Initially the council approved $300,000 for the project, which would update features such as the 15-year-old carpet as well as reconfiguring workspace for more efficient service.

After getting the budget approved, the city then hired a consultant, Group 4 Architecture, Research + Planning, to evaluate how to better arrange the various departments contained within the city's administration building. According to the staff report produced for a Feb. 25 study session, the preferred floor plan would regroup departments by similarity, such as putting the economic development office within the finance department. Kiosks would be added on the first floor for customer self-service.

But that renovation plan exceeds the budget by about $500,000. And if one looked only at the staff report, one could be forgiven for thinking that the resulting total would then be $800,000.

Actually, it's $1.2 million. Although the report discussed the need to replace the carpet, it neglected to mention that the cost wasn't included in the $800,000 budget. New carpet, staff told the council, would add another $400,000, for a grand total of $1.2 million.

This took some time for the council to absorb.

"How much is carpet going to be?" Vice Mayor Cat Carlton asked. When staff responded with $400,000, she said, "For carpet alone?"

That would be a yes. The price tag on the rest of the renovations also sparked questions.

Councilman Rich Cline commented, "Far be it from me to micro-manage" but when he oversaw similar projects of about 23,000 square feet, the cost "was so much less." For comparison, the size of the administration building is about 30,000 square feet, according to staff.

Staff said that the city expects to pay "a premium" for the work since crews will have to knock down walls and complete other carpentry tasks during weekend or evening hours, given that city hall can't shut down for extended periods.

Mayor Ray Mueller noted that city hall is already closed every other Friday, while Councilwoman Kirsten Keith asked if business functions could be housed within a temporary building to allow the renovations to proceed during normal hours. She also asked whether directing people to use computers at the library located a short walk away from the administration building was a more cost-effective solution than installing new kiosks at city hall.

One plus: The money to cover the cost of renovation unexpectedly became available when the state reallocated a higher proportion of property taxes to Menlo Park than expected, a $1.6 million windfall, Mr. McIntyre said.

In the end, the preferred option got a lukewarm reception from the council.

"Good idea, wrong plan," Ms. Carlton said. The council asked staff to return with either more options or a greater justification of the expense.

When the Almanac asked City Manager Alex McIntyre after the meeting why the cost of the carpet wasn't spelled out in the staff report, he said, "The carpet project is already embedded in the Capital Improvement Plan approved by the City Council. It will happen regardless of any remodel."

The Feb. 25 discussion, on the other hand, he said, was about whether to go ahead with a simple city hall remodel within the original budget, or proceed with the staff-preferred design. "How the carpet plays into the conversation is recognizing that the carpet project will be highly disruptive to the City Hall operations and since that disruption is to occur, the once-a-decade opportunity to address long term needs seemed a reasonable conversation to have with the Council."

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