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Council goes big on Municipal Building

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By Roger Snodgrass

It took two meetings and several extra hours of discussion, but the Los Alamos County Council finally decided on an ambitious size for the new Municipal Building.

At a special meeting Thursday night, they gave a go-ahead for selecting a design build team who would give them an expanded county seat and a more definite idea of what else they might afford.

By a vote of 5-2, with councilors Robert Gibson and Vincent Chiravalle dissenting, council approved a basic building space program of 47,170 gross square-feet (GSF).

Gross square feet is a building measurement that encompasses outside walls.

Another 17,530 GSF in optional, “add-alternate” space was approved to be included in the bidding and may or may not be approved later.

The total area comes to 64,680 GSF. The original Municipal Building that had to be abandoned and demolished because of seismic concerns, was measured at 27,133 GSF.

A conceptual hurdle that particularly bothered Chiravalle was the fact that the new building was significantly larger than the old building.

Anne Laurent, capital projects and facilities director, explained again that the expansion had to do with additional staff that had been housed in the County Annex, along with staff growth since that time and new staff projected into the future.

“In my opinion, the assumptions that were made are deeply flawed,” Charavalle said, disputing the benchmarks used in Laurent’s estimates, as well as her projected office sizes, which he considered luxurious.

“We should oppose it, because citizens do not get a blank check from the bank to build twice the house that they can afford,” he said.

Councilor Ralph Phelps, on the contrary, thought the rationale for the building and the design build approach appeared “very reasonable.”

“The higher level approach avoids nit-picking,” he said, praising what he called “a bounding analysis that was based on a variety of benchmarks” and “an excellent way to go with a complex project.”

As the discussion unfolded, the question became more about which options those in favor could agree upon. They were flexible and readily agreed with each other’s suggestions.

Councilor Michael Wheeler made the motion to approve, seconded by Council Chair Michael Wismer, who participated by telephone. Their original motion called for the larger of two Council Chambers options and two of the add-alternates – the historical archives and the county records space, which added 16,240 gross square feet between them.

When Councilor Phelps said he would support the motion, but preferred a smaller Council Chambers, if it were in the base package and not an option, Wheeler and Wismer accepted that as a friendly amendment.

The larger version of Council Chambers would have accommodated 120 people, rather than 80 for the smaller choice, which was about 600 GSF smaller, at 3,740 GSF)

Vice Chair Stover, who led the meeting, said she wouldn’t mind seeing how much it would cost for the relatively small additional space (1,290 GSF) proposed to accommodate the future needs of information technology. That option was also accepted by Wheeler and Wismer and added to the package that will go out for bid.

Laurent said that she expected construction bids to be aggressive and there were indications that this would be a good time to expect high value from contractors in the current economy.

Gibson liked the choice of the smaller Council Chambers but said the council had already spent “far too much” for the Airport Basin Project and the Justice Center.

“We made decisions that forced us to say we don’t have a lot of extras,” he said.

More than 40 residents attended the meeting and a number of them made statements.

Dennis Erickson and Hedy Dunn of the Historical Society and Ron Wilkens of the Fuller Lodge Historic District Advisory Board spoke on behalf of the need to find a home for the historical archives in view of the fire risks that threaten both the archives and the lodge.

A group of teens who hang out at the library urged council to find an alternative for the county’s information technology that has been provisionally housed in the library basement. They could use the room, they said.

Patricia Max, a Los Alamos resident who has filed a petition to revoke the ordinance authorizing the Municipal Building, said the size of county government was out of control.

“If I went out into the Midwest,” she said, “I couldn’t find a city government with a comparable population that needed a 47,000-square-foot building. A basement and five stories – that’s an incredibly large piece of architecture in a town that does not need it.”

The plan calls for county staff to return in June for approval on a design build contract. That’s when there will be firm estimates on the “add-alternates” and a total project budget can be presented.

There was some disagreement about the status of the budget. County Chief Financial Officer Steve Lynne said it was last discussed at the 2010 budget hearings and as a “project in transition” and that the current figure for the budget was $15.8 million, of which $14.8 million remained. Another $5 million had been proposed but not added because of uncertainty about the scope of the project.

Gibson said he disagreed with that interpretation.