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Finance Group Nixes Idea of Revisiting Choice to Build Downtown City Offices

Watchdog committee says there's no reason to backtrack on the unanimous decision in May by Novato City Council.

A volunteer citizen committee designed to keep tabs on the city of Novato’s expenditures decided that spending $12 million to $15 million on a new office building already approved for city workers should not warrant further debate before the Novato City Council.

Two motions were made Thursday to backtrack on the council’s May decision to construct a 22,000-square-foot office building at an Old Town site for about 60 city workers plus a parking lot on the ground level. Neither motion earned a second during the vote.

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition to have the council revisit its decision and slow down the process of a new building at Machin Avenue and Cain Lane, site of an existing city parking lot just behind Grant Avenue businesses and just across the street from the Novato Police Department. However, the Measure F Oversight/Citizen Finance Committee threw its support behind the city staff and council by opposing a reopening of the issue at the council level four months after receiving unanimous approval.

“I think it would set a bad precedent to take something that wasn’t a close decision (on the council) and constantly remake it,” said Novato resident Tom MacDonald. “If you did, the next decision that comes down, everyone would be second-guessing the council. It should be a rare instance when you should reopen a decision. … Every other council we’ve had has had trouble making a decision and sticking to it over time, so when this council does make a decision we should stick to it.”

The finance committee meetings usually don’t attract any guests, but the small conference room at the city’s current offices at 75 Rowland Way was packed with about a dozen other people Thursday morning. City Manager Michael Frank went over all the reasons why city planners recommended building a new complex in the Civic Center area of Old Town rather than purchasing an existing building somewhere in town or building a new home at the McPhail’s property just off Highway 37.

Frank said the lease at 75 Rowland is costing the city $50,000 a month, and it would be doubled if the city has to extend its lease beyond the contract that expires in September 2013. “So we need to get out of here, point blank,” he said.

The city has been looking for a new home for its employees for more than 30 years. It spent more than $1 million on various efforts at different times, having architectural designs made, but all efforts were abandoned until the current plan was approved in May. An architect was hired in July.

“This site has been in the city’s general plan for decades,” said former council member Susan Stompe, an advocate of the new offices on Machin Avenue. “… It’s been a long hard discussion, and we’re down to the wire here timewise. That’s why the council made the decision after looking at myriad other ways to address the needs for permanent city offices.”

Frank clarified the price tag of the new building because he said estimates he heard by the public — $700 per square foot — were inaccurate and misleading. The $12 million to $15 million estimate included $1.5 million for the ground-level parking, $800,000 for possible additional parking, $500,000 for possible LEED certification for green technology, $320,000 for various fees and moving costs and $150,000 for legal costs.

“That figure of $12 million to $15 million includes a whole host of things that if you’re a private company or a business owner or an individual you would not include,” he said. “The reason it’s included is so that we’re not hiding anything. We’re capturing the full package of what it might cost in the end. Whether various elements get included or not remains to be seen.”

City staff looked at more than a dozen existing buildings to purchase in 18 months prior to the council’s May decision, but none of them were a perfect fit. Many buildings, although the right size, were too old and more than halfway through their useful life, and some would’ve required millions in structural upgrades. Only 75 Rowland was considered a legitimate option, but the price tag — rumored to be in the $17 million range — was too stiff for the city.

Money for the city administrative offices comes from cash formerly owed to the general fund by the Novato Redevelopment Agency. The city sold bonds earlier this year and raised almost $17 million for capital projects. Eighty-five percent of those funds must be spent within three years — a deadline that helps explain why the city is antsy to move forward with architectural design options.

None of the money destined for the administrative building would come from proceeds of Measure F, a half-cent sales tax increase over the next five years that was approved by voters last November.

Michael Reyff September 24, 2011 at 03:29 AM
George: You are absolutely correct. We both have commercial real estate backgrounds and to observe this kind of absurd decision making when are in the kind of unprecedented times we are experiencing makes your blood boil. The incumbents on the City Council must be replaced in the next election.
Bob Ratto September 24, 2011 at 04:05 AM
George Thank you very much for posting this, it is immensely helpful. Council decisions past and present can all be called into question, but the new City Hall is not yet a done deal, and is exorbitant in cost to make an understatement! Writing to council has done nothing so far, any suggestions for how to get a "pause" on this would I am sure be most appreciated...the RDA doesn' have the funds to make these payments...and the General fund will get on the hook for this..thanks George!
Tina McMillan September 24, 2011 at 04:55 AM
George Thank you so much for speaking out. Would you consider writing a letter to the editor for the IJ and the Advance to get the word out to more people? It is so important that these issues reach many, many people before the vote in November. I can't make sense of why the Chamber would support the incumbents given these issues. It is so disheartening.
Worry September 25, 2011 at 04:35 AM
Outside of the insane cost to build downtown the plan defies wisdom as it applies to what a parking structure on this site would bring to downtown: 1. The city's general plan calls for a parking structure here! 2. City offices generate ZERO income. Increased retail develops tax revenue for our cash strapped city. 3. The general plan lists commercial development as a priority downtown. These city offices remove the ONLY centrally located city lot to accomodate a parking facility. 4. The city's parking study indicates SEVERE parking issues should this be built. 5. The city is not honest when it tells you there "will be parking for citizens at night and during the weekends". The lot will have 60 spaces (20+ less than currently there now). The city has said definitively that the lot will be used to house city vehicles an police vehicles during closed hours. THERE WILL BE NO PARKING FOR NOVATO. 7. The 60 car parking the city is planning to put here is not even enough for their own employees. 8. The 60 car parking the city is planning is also not enough for the 1-23 visitors per hour they claim will be visting offices. 9. City offices are open 4 days per week from 9-5pm. The space will be dark at night & on weekends. 10. Chipolte Grill, Novato Theatre, 999 Grant, & Trek Winery will bring 1,000's of cars down town weekly. 11. No one goes to city offices. Consider the alternative..with parking downtown will thrive.
Craig Belfor September 25, 2011 at 02:52 PM
You guys really need to go see the current offices. You could go bowling between the desks. There is wasted space everywhere, and many of the people I see don't look very busy. If I was the boss, and it was my company, I'd lay off people and move to smaller, cheaper digs. Why can't Novato be run like a business? The old church worked. The community house worked. City council meetings were boring low attendance affairs before affordable housing demands, sanctuary city for illegals, and plans of new council digs. Nobody went to these meetings. Let's go back to the old days. They worked.

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