New Hope City Hall has a classic 1960s-era split-level design, with all of the accompanying problems: Visitors are immediately confronted with stairs going up or down, and the building is full of cramped, awkwardly sized spaces.
Perhaps most critically, there’s not enough room for law enforcement.
“When you walk into City Hall it looks fine until you notice the ceiling is leaking and the water in the basement,” said New Hope Mayor Kathi Hemken.
After years of making do with the building, city leaders and a citizen task force are deciding whether to remodel and expand it or build anew. Remodeling would cost $16.1 million; a brand-new building would cost an estimated $17.4 million.
New Hope is just one of several suburbs with aging city halls that are weighing the pros and cons of new construction vs. remodeling, with the goal of adding more space for neighborhood gatherings, police and technology.
Another goal: building city halls that better stand the test of time.
In Fridley, officials are weighing a new city hall complex. In Shakopee, city leaders who work out of an old bank building have asked architects to draw up plans for a new municipal complex. Columbia Heights long has wrestled with the notion of a new city hall.
Victoria, in Carver County, did its municipal business in a cramped and smelly building, circa 1950, before cutting the ribbon this year on a new city hall and library. Richfield built a new $23 million city hall in 2011.
Driving the issue in New Hope, Hemken said, is how well police function in the facility. “I worry about police safety,” she said.
The evidence room is near to overflowing, and there’s no private room set aside for officers to speak with witnesses or members of the public. Squad cars often must be parked outside because the garage is too small.
Still, a new building can be a hard sell in any suburb. Capital projects, whether a remodel or new construction, cost millions. And residents forced to pinch pennies in recent years have come to expect that same kind of austerity from public officials.
New Hope weighs choices
Sixty-one percent of New Hope residents polled earlier this year indicated that they supported remodeling or replacing City Hall.
But city leaders are proceeding cautiously, setting up a citizens task force and hosting a public meeting to show people firsthand all the shortcuts taken over the years to get by.
For instance, the mayor gave up her office years ago to make room for computer servers, and there’s limited meeting space for neighborhood and civic groups.
The task force laid out the options at an open house last week. The city wants to double building and garage space from 27,000 square feet to more than 56,000. The cost to residents would be a property tax hike from $116 to $126 a year on a median-priced $185,000 house, whether the city opts to remodel or build new.
City leaders are hesitant to add any frills. The task force recommended a new building but turned down an attached police shooting range and public gym.
New Hope City Manager Kirk McDonald said they’re moving at a “snail’s pace” and that no firm decisions have been made.
The debate in Fridley
Fridley leaders and residents are having a similar discussion. Their City Hall was built in 1945 and has been renovated several times since.
“We’ve got a lot of deferred maintenance and deterioration that has taken place,” said City Manager Wally Wysopal. “We had a study done of it by an architect and an engineer. They determined there was $12 million in necessary repairs that need to be done to make the building handicapped-accessible and to take care of leaky roofs and walls falling apart.”
Although a new building could cost upward of $20 million, it may be more cost-effective to build one on the old Columbia Arena site, city leaders say. Fridley recently razed the arena on University Avenue and has 33 acres ripe for redevelopment.
The city is hosting a public meeting at 7 p.m. on Dec. 28 to discuss options.
Like New Hope, Fridley needs more space for police operations, public meetings and vehicle parking, Wysopal said.
“We get a lot of calls for meeting space, mostly from groups of residents who want to get together and have a meeting,” Wysopal said. “We don’t have anything we can offer them.”
Building new also offers an opportunity to create a city hall with a more timeless appeal.
“It can be helpful to bolster Fridley’s image, add to it,” Wysopal said. “It can be more than utilitarian without being gauche. We can make it something identifiable.”