Asheville – The City of Asheville’s Building Construction Program Manager Walter Ear provided city council with an update on the comprehensive facilities assessment project that is winding to a close for this year. He said local governments, like Buncombe County, typically perform facilities studies every five years to help prioritize and schedule maintenance.
For some buildings, such as City Hall and the Civic Center, the city had the choice of investing, replacing, or divesting. For other large buildings, he said the questions were existential. These included the transit maintenance facility and the Department of Public Works building. It seems the city has been wanting to get rid of the latter, nicknamed the Taj Magraj, since it was built.
The study, with assistance from consultants Brightly Software and Creech Associates, is now complete. It included walking through each facility to assess its structural condition, considering how much space each department will need in light of projected growth, and also evaluating whether or not the building was in a strategic location. The city expects the number of its employees to increase by 43% over the next 20 years.
City Hall was the first building Ear presented for council perusal. It houses department headquarters for almost all city departments. Currently, 53,778 square feet of the building are occupied, and after 20 years of growth, it is expected the “pink birthday cake” will still have room for another 869 employees. To meet the need, the city will have to activate its 7th and 8th floors, which are now only storage space. Councilwoman Sage Turner was certain that the city would not want to build another city hall.
Councilwoman Maggie Ullman thought the growth estimate was too large. She worked for the city for 10 years and saw almost no growth. Ear assured her it was a fair estimate. For all buildings, they did a person-by-person assessment, assigning each position a certain amount of space. Mayor Esther Manheimer said the number was not unreasonable. The city, which now employs about 1200, once employed 1250. Positions were cut and frozen during the recession, and, as Ear said, the city is now “playing catch up.” The city remains understaffed, and Ear pointed out that the city has a lot of new departments, like the Sustainability Department, which didn’t exist in 2009.
City Manager Debra Campbell added that the city is also looking at the “appropriateness and adequacy” of the space it gives its employees. Ear told how in some places, four people are working in a room for one, and others are working out of a desk thrown in a closet. “People are in conditions that are not what we would all be proud of for our employees,” Campbell said.
Maggie Ullman said that working in constructed offices with expensive desks is no longer the wave of the future. It was suggested that members of council might even get office spaces in the next renovation, at which point Manheimer told how other local governments, like Buncombe County, provide office space for their executive function. These are typically in new buildings, but Asheville does not have that option, as she considers Asheville to have about the best city hall in the state.
Other buildings would need more space by 2020, and some need more space immediately. Ear said the overall condition of the city’s 984,300 square feet in 82 facilities valued at $425,000,000 received a C grade. If the city chose to spend the $1 million it currently spends each year on maintenance, the average condition was anticipated to fall to an F+ in about 16 or 17 years. If, however, the city decided to spend $3.5 million, it could maintain its C average. He reiterated that this was just for maintenance, with no expansion or improvements. In the scenarios modeled, no amount of money was going to allow the city to maintain an A average.
By this time, it should have been obvious to all listening that the city is fully intending to float some bonds. Councilwoman Kim Roney added that regardless of how the city wants to pay for its improvements, it should be mindful of the taxpayers needing the same kinds of repairs for their homes. She suggested it would help to find ways to get tourists who use the same facilities to help pay for them.
Campbell closed by saying it was important that, “As we are thinking about our needs going forward, particularly our capital assets, that we not forget about the space where our people work and where we deliver services. I mean, it’s not cool to have customers coming to some of our facilities as well.”