It poked a hole in the sky back in the 1960s, an eight-story marble tower that Mayor Glenn Hearn called “the greatest giant step forward” in Huntsville’s urban renewal.
On June 6, 1965, Huntsville’s new City Hall was officially dedicated. The Saturn V was still in its developmental stage then. Huntsville viewers could watch three network TV stations (with some of the shows in Living Color!) Elvis and John Wayne were starring in movies at local theaters. An operator poking plugs into a switchboard managed the City Hall telephone system.
A long time ago, and a long, meritorious service rendered by Huntsville’s City Hall, which has brought sufficient return on the $2.93 million investment from federal, state and local funds.
In the interest of efficiency, fiscal sense, image and safety, the time has come for the City of Huntsville to consider a replacement centerpiece.
Rebuild, Renovate, Relocate?
Plans to build a new City Hall on Fountain Circle, on the site of the parking garage opposite the current structure, are on the table.
A new City Hall would be “transformative” to downtown Huntsville, says Rob Robinson, chairman of Urban Design Associates, a Pittsburgh-based consulting company retained to develop a new downtown master plan. Not only would it provide a modern building for the City, it would provide prime real estate overlooking Big Spring Park for private development.
Jeff Easter is the Director of the General Services Department for the City of Huntsville. Repairs and replacement of City Hall have been on his radar for years. He’s looked at every conceivable option, including renovating and expanding the existing structure, and maintains “there’s a lot of justification” for a new building.
There are multiple problems with the current Administration Building and its annex, which have some 100,000 square feet of work space. The eight-story tower is essentially filled to capacity. Many key components of the government are located in offices “off campus.” It’s more expensive to operate than a new building. Instability and safety issues regarding its veneered marble shell have forced a permanent “construction-in-progress” look to the building that doesn’t jibe with the image of a progressive, global city.
“It doesn’t reflect the community,” Easter says. “The community has caught us and passed us as far as our image.”
And, quite simply, it’s operational systems are so old and inefficient, they are difficult to repair, let alone find replacement parts. Elevators, sprinkler systems, electronics, boilers, etc., are original. Employees joke about using the restroom before they get on the elevator in case they “get stuck again.”
“The communication I’ve had and comments made to me is (residents) believe it’s time for the City to do something,” Easter says. “City Hall is no longer the icon it used to be. It doesn’t represent Huntsville correctly. Not that the City wants to build something exotic. That’s not the intent. But everybody I’ve talked to is in favor of doing something. Most people are embarrassed by the barriers and things on the Administration Building that’s obviously not part of the original construction.”
Economy and Efficiency
A new City Hall would be more energy efficient and less expensive in terms of utility and upkeep. Precise numbers can’t be determined until the building’s size and number of stories are decided upon, Easter said. That process is under way. The City retained Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood, Inc., to provide architectural services to determine space requirements for a new City Hall, one that will consolidate a number of City operations.
Not including various fire stations and police precincts, various departments of the City of Huntsville are located in nearly 20 different buildings. A new City Hall would bring more employees under the same roof, providing a more efficient operation. The City is leasing office space in several properties to house GIS, Community Development and ITS, and they would be relocated in a new City Hall, as would Engineering, Inspection and Natural Resources, which occupy a separate building (the former public library) at the corner of Williams Avenue and Fountain Circle.
City Hall functions at just 56 percent efficiency”
There has been only partial renovation to the Administration Building, as well as the well-publicized issue with the marble. The issue dates back to original construction, according to Easter. These marble panels are too thin and because marble is a porous mineral, the panels have been subject to bending, warping or growing soft. Some have fallen and a safety hazard has been presented. Because of that, a covered walkway was constructed leading into the City Hall entrance and a barricade has been built to prevent pedestrians from taking the exterior steps from ground level toward Big Spring Park.
Easter said it would be in the $8-$10 million range to replace the marble, or $10 million to remove the marble and glaze over it.
An extensive renovation of City Hall could necessitate expensive changes simply to meet code standards that have obviously been updated in the past half-century, leaving the city with “what we’ve got, with no changes to function and all we’d have is a nice, pretty looking building that doesn’t do anything related to function,” Easter says.
The current City Hall grew as part of a boom time of growth for Huntsville. That summer, the city would rank No. 28 in the U.S. in construction projects.
At the dedication, Sen. John Sparkman took a little time from congratulating himself to also praise Huntsville’s navigation of those days, “I am amazed at your ability to keep up with the requirements of that growth.”
Huntsville is enveloped in another boom era, as even a most casual glance reveals. Equipping the City with a well-planned and efficient City Hall would seem to be a requirement of this growth period.