Columbia Heights' City Hall was built in 1942, and eight decades later the two-story brick building is showing its age.
The roof leaks, the boiler room floods and the elevator breaks down frequently. In the second-floor City Council chambers, technology is so antiquated that meeting documents are projected onto a decades-old, floor-standing movie screen and a microphone is placed in front of a speaker to capture the voices of citizens who call into meetings on Zoom.
All those issues will be things of the past in early July, when City Hall is scheduled to move into posh new quarters on the first floor of a high-rise condo at 40th and Central avenues NE. City staff members from multiple departments will work together under the same roof, and customers will be treated to amenities such as an attached parking garage and heated sidewalks to keep snow and ice at bay.
"It will be an amazing change," said Interim City Manager Kevin Hansen.
And a unique arrangement, too, Hansen said — it's rare for a City Hall to be incorporated into a private mixed-use development. Across the country, "we could only find one other" similar setup in Oakland Park, Fla., Hansen said, and no modern equivalents in urban settings.
The current City Hall, which is laid out much like a split-level home, has a storied history. Over the years as the building was expanded and retrofitted, jail cells — including one that still has bars on the door — were converted into offices and storage space. Rooms once used for traffic court were repurposed into meeting rooms. But there was never enough space to get all staff members into one building.
A city study in 2018 determined City Hall needed to be completely renovated or replaced. A new, standalone City Hall would have cost about $12 million to $15 million. By teaming up with a developer, the city is expecting to spend $6 million to $8 million to make the move.
"We wanted to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars," said Aaron Chirpich, the city's community development director.
The savings frees up money that can be used for parks and other infrastructure needs the city might have, Hansen said.
The new City Hall in the center of the Anoka County suburb's downtown features a spacious lobby with a service desk allowing customers to conduct transactions in one place. In the old building, customers sometimes had to go to one window to get a permit and another to pay a utility bill.
There also is a meeting room with a fireplace, TV and projector available to community groups, council chambers with windows facing Central Avenue and ample room to bring employees from the finance, human resources, engineering, IT and geographic information systems departments together at the same tables.
Columbia Heights will keep the current City Hall, as it may be needed in the future to house Public Works employees when that department's facility is replaced in the next few years, Hansen said.
As for moving City Hall, "it's been a long time for a long time," said Finance Director Joseph Kloiber, who has written the checks every time a building repair has come up. "It's been a losing battle."