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SD Council Considers Pros, Cons of New City Hall

Proposal renderings of the Civic Center.

Photo by Gerdin Edlen / CCDC

Above: Proposal renderings of the Civic Center.


San Diego’s City Council is facing a difficult decision. Should it move forward with plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new City Hall? KPBS Metro Reporter Katie Orr spoke with several Council members to see where they stand on the issue.

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: City Council is debating whether they need new digs. We put Councilman Carl De Maio on the the record about where he stands on the issue. KPBS host Gloria Penner asks local newspaper editors to weigh in on the debate.

— San Diego’s City Council is facing a difficult decision. Should it move forward with plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new City Hall? Or, should it invest tens of millions to maintain the current building with its mold and asbestos filled walls until the City’s in better fiscal shape? KPBS Metro Reporter Katie Orr spoke with several Council members to see where they stand on the issue.

There are four elevator bays in San Diego City Hall. When there are no crowds and all four are working, the trip to the top of the building is fast and easy. On a recent workday only three were working. Still, stepping inside, it takes less than a minute to reach the top floor. But if the City Council has an important hearing that draws crowds, the trip takes much longer, especially if one of the elevators is out of service or if there are many stops on the way to the 12th floor Council Chambers. And the elevators aren’t the only problem in this 60’s era building.

In her office, Councilwoman Marti Emerald describes the process of trying to switch out a light bulb.

“Well, we’ve got these little panels, and the florescent lights. And if you go in there and try to change a light bulb, you might disturb asbestos in the ceiling. So I can’t just get on a chair and take out the light bulb,” she says.

Emerald says the building must be replaced. But what she and the other council members are trying to decide is when and how to do it.

Consulting firm Jones Lang LaSalle recently issued its final analysis of a project to build a new City Hall. It looked at seven development options. They included different combinations of how much to build, how to finance the project and how to deal with surplus land. The firm also looked at what it called a hold steady scenario, where the city essentially postpones the project for 10 years and makes only critically needed improvements to the current building. Emerald says the report is trying to make a case for a new facility.

“I think we still need to take a closer look at the numbers and make sure that we all understand what the report says and in the real world what it means,” she says.

The LaSalle report shows, in most scenarios, San Diego would be better off in the next 10 years maintaining the current City Hall. But after that, the analysis finds a new complex would save money. One development option has the city saving $221 million over the next 50 years with a new building.

“It’s the wrong project at the wrong time.” Councilman Carl DeMaio says it’s the next 10 years the city should be worrying about. He says the only people who support building a new City Hall are the developers who would make money from the project.

“Have they toured our neighborhoods, have they walked on our streets? Have they looked at our sidewalks? Have they seen our libraries with the leaky roofs and some of the same issues? It’s time we put our neighborhood infrastructure first before we build a new Taj Mahal for city bureaucrats,” he says.

DeMaio notes the city’s multimillion dollar liabilities for the pension fund and retiree healthcare. DeMaio says the city should adopt the hold steady plan for the next 10 years and take that time to fix its finances. After that San Diego could begin considering a new City Hall. But Council President Ben Hueso takes a much different view. He calls the current facility grossly outdated. He says City Hall should be a modern, accessible building that demonstrates San Diego’s vision.

“We’ve seen naysayers come out and say it can’t be done, it’s the wrong time, we don’t have the money. I’ve demonstrated through my leadership, that when there’s a will there’s a way,” he says.

Hueso says creating a public-private partnership or using bonds for the project could help reduce the cost to the City. Hueso and DeMaio are among a group of city leaders who say they’d be open to exploring a partnership with other agencies such as the Port and the State to create a multi-government center. The LaSalle report has already prompted Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Kevin Faulconer to ask for more specific data on the cost of maintaining the current building. A council committee could begin formally discussing what option is best for San Diego in June.

Katie Orr, KPBS News

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