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Santa Rosa hopes to replace asbestos-riddled City Hall

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‘Riddled with asbestos” is not how anyone hopes to describe their city’s headquarters, but that blunt description of the crescent-shaped concrete complex on First Street comes from Santa Rosa itself as the city seeks private-sector expertise to help it build new space for its workers and replace City Hall with much-desired downtown housing.

City officials are courting consultants to advise Santa Rosa’s transition out of its current City Hall, a set of drab, disjointed buildings dating to the late 1960s. The city considers the current campus inefficient and in need of significant ongoing investment for maintenance — or total replacement.

Santa Rosa’s early vision calls for a new, taller apartment building or retail property on the site to put the land to better use, adding tax revenue and homes to a city desperately working to bolster its housing stock and improve its financial situation.

The current City Hall complex, part of which previously was used as a police station, houses about 250 employees in several gray, grooved concrete buildings set around a courtyard and on top of Santa Rosa Creek. Former Mayor Chris Coursey, for one, thought the city could do a lot better than its current downtown office hub.

“I’ve always thought it was one of the ugliest buildings in town,” he said, adding that he thought it was “a complete waste of space” and that there was a leak in the mayor’s office.

The city estimates it would cost roughly $3 million annually for maintenance the city is currently putting off.

Building a new City Hall — or sharing a government campus with Sonoma County, an idea that remains on the table — also would allow many city workers to go about their days without close proximity to asbestos, a known carcinogen.

City officials say they take precautions to avoid disturbing dormant asbestos, the presence of which has been known for decades, said Jason Nutt, director of transportation and public works.

“It’s pretty prevalent,” Nutt said.

The city has never analyzed how much asbestos mitigation would cost, but the bill would likely be significant, Nutt said.

Besides its asbestos problem, City Hall needs more than $20 million in capital projects and presents mobility challenges for people with disabilities, according to an advertisement for consultant applications the city posted late last week.

That cost, plus the annual $3 million for annual improvements, would push the city away from its goals of building new housing and bolstering budget reserves.

The city has set aside $350,000 to hire a consulting firm to study how to realize this vision, where it could be located, and how much redevelopment would cost.

Several representatives of consulting firms traveled to Santa Rosa or called in to a conference Tuesday morning where city officials showed off drone footage of the downtown area, identified the sites they had considered making available to developers, and took questions about process, scope and cost. City officials have emphasized their interest in a public-private partnership, or “P3,” in which a private developer building a new City Hall could take over the old site for new housing as part of the deal.

David Guhin, the assistant city manager, told potential consultants Tuesday morning that Santa Rosa wanted to gather a wealth of information before asking the City Council to make significant, specific decisions about redeveloping City Hall and other Santa Rosa-owned sites, such as a parking lot on Third Street and the downtown library building.

“The next step is a big investment for the city, one way or the other,” Guhin said. “Either we go the P3 route — that’s a big investment — or we shift focus and invest in our existing infrastructure. We have to have the data to help support that conversation.”

The city hopes to report back to the City Council in early 2020. Its tentative schedule calls for breaking ground on a new government building in early 2022 and moving into Santa Rosa’s new City Hall in mid to late 2024.

Much of the work on this project will require City Council approval, and the council will have several opportunities to weigh in over the next few years, according to city documents.

The city, which does not plan to move its City Hall out of the downtown core, also hopes to build a new downtown fire station and new public safety building for police and dispatch services.

Sonoma County — which also has a sprawling government campus with an asbestos problem — is on a similar path, said Caroline Judy, the county’s director of general services.

“Fundamentally, our county buildings here on the administrative campus need to be replaced,” Judy said. “What we’ve found and shown to the Board (of Supervisors) is that the cost to the taxpayer really isn’t sustainable.”

The county also is considering either moving downtown or closer to the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, Judy said.

She said county staff will go before the Board of Supervisors in June to ask for approval of a consultant’s contract, noting that while the city and county could potentially hire the same redevelopment consultant, that isn’t a requirement.

Judy declined to name the consultant county staff have in mind, saying that information would be available as the county drew closer to approval but right now, “we’re in the cone of silence.”

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