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F.C. Council Remains Divided on City Hall Expansion, Renovation

PLANS TO AUTHORIZE MONEY to begin a multi-million dollar renovation project for Falls Church’s City Hall have apparently been once again delayed. (Photo: News-Press)
PLANS TO AUTHORIZE MONEY to begin a multi-million dollar renovation project for Falls Church’s City Hall have apparently been once again delayed. (Photo: News-Press)

It was way back in May 2005 that a judicial security inspector from the Virginia Eastern District Court Security Program, operating under the U.S. Marshal Service, conducted a physical security examination of the court services provided by the City of Falls Church at its City Hall, and that August a report was presented showing the City’s provisions for security at its court held in the Council chambers at City Hall was woefully lacking.

This Monday night at a F.C. City Council work session, following a significant Council dust up and intention to stall again about plans to release $1.2 million to accompany the selection of an architect for a renovation of the building, an exasperated F.C. Police Chief Mary Gavin reminded members of the Council that there are no less than 10 entrances to the aged F.C. City Hall, and that normal court security practices limit entrances to two or maybe three.

But plans to authorize the $1.2 million and retain the carefully-selected architectural firm of Studio 27 at this coming Monday’s Council meeting have apparently been put off once again.

Council member David Snyder was the first to pipe up Monday to object to the action, saying that there is a lot more to the plans than police and court security, that there are a lot of “add ons” for the project whose eventual total cost will be $15.8 million, and that the public has not been adequately notified about these aspects and costs in advance. Among the issues still up in the air is whether or not the project will require a public referendum in November.

“There has been no public discussion in terms of the cost and non-public safety aspects of this plan,” Snyder complained and Council member Letty Hardi chimed in that “the onus is on us (the Council–ed.) to sell this to the public.”

Snyder told the News-Press yesterday that he’d “vote tomorrow” for the public safety aspects of the plan, but if those aspects cannot be separated out from the total $15.8 million renovation, then a public referendum should be held, and if it is defeated, then the Council can still authorize the public safety elements.

Council member Phil Duncan, however, said that the “add-ons” are “not superfluous,” but are related to the fact that the structure is 50 years old. “So many times we get to this point and then draw back,” he said, “but it is significantly a public safety work.”

Mayor David Tarter said that “we need a break out of the costs, to hear more about this, and more public input.”

But City Manager Wyatt Shields replied that “it is hard to engage the public with no architect on board.” Deputy Manager Cindy Mester added, “Stakeholder engagement” (and she said there are about 14 such stakeholder groups) “starts with the development of designs, and this next step is very important to the process.”

Snyder came back saying “we are being asked to authorize a contract to do a project not to present an idea.”

Todd Ray of Studio 27, whose Northern Virginia-based firm with 19 architects was chosen for the job by a Council-appointed City Hall renovation task force composed of prominent local citizens Lindy Hockenberry, Gary LaPorta, Keith Thurston and Tom Clinton, said that “only a feasibility study has been done to date,” and that once his team begins its work, there will be as much transparency for the public as possible. “Falls Church has an amazingly educated public,” he said, and numerous opportunities to engage it will be provided.

Councilman Dan Sze said that, as an architect himself, agreeing to the contract “doesn’t require a full pay out if the public doesn’t like it. But this is the way you want to get it done.”

Hardi said there needs to be, not so much input on the designs, as input on the goals of the project, from the public.

Council member Karen Oliver noted that this same discussion was held a year and a half ago, and it was not unanimous then, either. “But we should not revisit old decisions,” she said.

James Mak, the City’s Capital Improvement Projects engineering manager, said that “the schematic plan can stop at any point,” and that there can be “check points for public engagement.”

Chief Gavin reminded the Council that, the way City Hall is now, “On any court day, it is impossible to secure” the court, including the judges, the deputies, jail operations, bailiffs, attorneys and the public. Mike Collins, the City’s Director of Public Works, said City Hall now “is a very sub-functional building.”

City Hall “has to be a safe place for those who work here and come here to do business,” Duncan said.

The public safety and security aspects that will be addressed if the project moves forward include secure parking and access for police, sheriff’s staff and judges, secure and segregated inmate transport pathways, separation of public, City staff, and law enforcement spaces, a central public entry point, and after-hours access and security for the public and staff.

Ancillary elements include Americans for Disability Act provisions, building code and life safety compliance for the entire facility, improved customer access to City services, increased public parking for the entire campus, and building energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

The issue of whether or not a public referendum will have to be held goes to the City’s policy adopted in the late 1980s that any expenditure that is above ten percent of an annual operating budget must be put to a referendum for approval. The exception is for costs associated with public safety and that exception was applied to funding a renovated fire station in the late 1990s.

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