Size matters: MLT council continues discussion on city hall ballot proposal

One of the civic center site plans previously discussed by the City Hall Advisory Committee.

When it comes to a city hall building, how small is too small? When it comes to a bond proposal, how expensive is too expensive? Those were among the questions that Mountlake Terrace City Councilmembers grappled with June 19 as they continued their discussion about what type of proposal for a new city hall to place before voters during the November 2017 general election.

The council must make a decision by mid-July on the final proposal to meet Snohomish County’s Aug. 1 deadline to place the measure on the November ballot.

At the council’s request, the city’s consultant in the process — Rex Bond of ARC Architects — was present June 19 to help councilmembers sort through the ramifications of the options being considered, which include:

Option 1: Adopt the City Hall Advisory Committee’s (CHAC) recommendation to place on the November ballot a 19,200 square-foot-city hall at a cost of $11.6 million. If that measure passes, a second proposal would appear before voters in February 2018 for an additional $1.8 million to add 3,102 square feet to the police station. The benefit of this option, explained City Clerk and Community Relations Director Virginia Olsen, is that “it has been vetted by the community through several neighborhood chats with the committee as well as four open houses.”

Option 2: Pursue an alternative that is less expensive than the CHAC recommendation. The benefit of this option, presented to the council in a “minority report” from advisory committee member H. Stan Lake, is that “it may garner more community support at the polls, as the cost is reduced,” Olsen told the council. “The downside is that to reduce the cost, would mean reducing the size, which in turn could lead to the need to add on to the project at a later date as the community grows. This cost will only increase in the future with inflation.”

Option 3: Pursue an option that is broader than the CHAC recommendations, such as including a police station expansion on the ballot at an additional cost of $1.8 million for a total project cost of $13.4 million. “The benefit of this option is that is would meet the projected needs of the community’s population growth of Mountlake Terrace, while taking advantage of economies of scale by having the same contractor build both the city hall and the police station elements at the same time,” Olsen said. “The downside is that, just as a reduction in cost could lead to greater voter approve, an increase in cost can lead to less voter support at the polls.”

There was no “do nothing” option, Olsen said, because “the city’s finances are such that we need to be out of this interim city hall by 2020, as voters were told when they approved a levy lid lift in 2016 to pay four years of rent.”

Councilmember Doug McCardle asked architect Bond to discuss the effects of a proposed 10 percent reduction in the square footage of the proposed city hall. “Would the new city hall accommodate growth as the community grows because we’ll have to hire more staff?” McCardle wondered.

“If the goal was 10 percent of 19,000, you are looking to peel off 1,900 square feet,” Bond answered. He went on to say that when it comes to staff work stations, the current city hall proposal has included a range of sizes — from 6 feet by 8 feet, to 8 feet by 8 feet,  to 8 feet by 10 feet, depending on the jobs they do. Even if you reduced all planned employee work stations to 6 by 8, the savings would be 713 square feet, he said.

“So the savings really isn’t with changing the makeup of the staff work environment as much as it is some of the other pieces that were unique to city hall,” Bond said.

“City halls are not a typical office building because they provide public service,” Bond said. “There is a component to a city hall you don’t get in an an insurance building.”

He said that the largest single area to gain that 1,900 square feet is the council chambers and sessions (a workroom where councilmembers can meet privately and which can also double as a general use conference room), which is 2,600 square feet. However, given that the council needs a space to meet, “it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to pull this piece out of the puzzle unless you have a park board or a utility board or someplace else where you can conduct this type of business,” Bond said.

The architect then explained how he arrived at the need for 19,000 square feet, noting that every director in the city was interviewed. “They were asked not only for their current staff needs but they were also asked to project out for future growth,” Bond said. “So that 19,000 square feet really represents your projected growth as well as the need for today.”

If councilmembers want to reduce the square footage at city hall, Bond said, there should be another discussion with city department directors “to ask… ‘what can you live without?’ It’s a call I can’t make because we relied on their input to come up with these program documents.”

Bond also explained that the city hall project has an estimated cost of $400 per square foot — $350 for the building and $50 for the site itself. As part Bond’s work, he had a professional cost estimator take a look to ensure that Mountlake Terrace’s “ballpark dollar-per-square-foot construction cost is in alignment with other comparable projects.”

Of the seven facilities in the comparison, some were lower, some higher and some about the same, but the bottom line, Bond said, is that the $400 takes into account a construction cost escalation that is running between a 3 and 4 percent. As a result, that number would still be good after construction starts. “When we estimate a project, we’re not looking at a project on the day it’s bid because those bidders are projecting out to the middle of the construction season,” he said. “I feel very comfortable that this is a number you should hold moving forward in the project in a year and a half.”

Councilmember Bryan Wahl talked about the difficulty of planning a city hall that is going to last for 50 years, when changes in technology over time may mean requirements for less space as more documents are digitized and more employees may be working from home or with flexible schedules.

“Is there a way to kind of combine this plan with the potential for future growth?” Wahl asked. “In other words, in designing the city hall, get the maximum possible with the dollar amount now and if…we recognize things are going to change in 30 years, making it easily additional space provided in 25-30 years?”

Bond replied that “knowing in advance, going into a concept design, that you want to have the ability to expand this building into the future…makes it all doable.” The key, he added, is to take that planning “into account in how you position the building on the site so later on you can do that expansion.”

Wahl encouraged Mountlake Terrace City Manager Scott Hugill to work with Bond “to see if we can find some additional savings” through the use of flex space and flexible work hours and staffing.

Both Wahl and Councilmember Doug McCardle again raised the issue of the city’s debt capacity and asked Hugill whether that could be used to assist with covering part of city hall’s costs. Wahl also encouraged the city to explore the possibility of city hall financing assistance through public-private partnerships.

Councilmember Kyoko Matsumoto Wright said that while it may be true that less paper could mean smaller work spaces, the increasing use of digital information means more requirements for audiovisual equipment such as video screens so that digital information is visible. “That tells me you need more room, but a different kind of room,” she said. Wright also said that if the city hall building is too small, “then the public is not going to walk in feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is our new city hall.’

“I’d like for them to just really rave about it,” Wright said. “We need to have this feel good too. Look good and feel good but come in at the budget we want it to be.”

Mayor Jerry Smith stressed that the city is “not like a private industry,” and that the new city hall needs to have adequate room for both employees and equipment.

“I’m all for going to $13.4 (million, for both the city hall and the police station) and let’s get it on and get out and campaign to get everybody in it,” Smith said. “Get it all done at one time, because it’s going to definitely be cheaper to do both buildings at the same time and get it over with.”

Addressing a question about the actual cost savings for building the city hall and remodeling the police station at the same time, rather than doing them in stages, Bond said it would depend on how long the separation is between the two projects. “We’re looking at a 3-4 percent annual increase escalation in costs right now,” Bond said. “If you look at $400 (per square foot) and construct it a year later, it’s an additional 4 percent.”

At the end of the discussion, Mountlake Terrace resident Don Enochs came to microphone to offer public comment. Enochs said he has been observing the city hall process for a while, noting that the city attempted to pass earlier bond measures for $37 million and $25 million and is “now trying to make a decision between $13.4 million and $11.6 million,” or maybe bring costs even lower.

“I’ve watched all the sausage making go on…and I think there’s probably a good portion of the citizens out there that have no idea that that’s what’s been going on, between $13.4 and $11.6 million,” Enochs said. “What they really need to see is $13.4 (million) to $25 million. What I’d like to suggest is $13.4 million — and get the thing done and get that on the ballot.”

The council is scheduled to continue discussing the issue at its next work/study session on Thursday, June 29.

— By Teresa Wippel



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