Two months after deciding to build a new downtown administrative office to house city of Novato employees, an architectural firm has been hired to get started with drawings and computer mockups.
A building of approximately 23,000 square feet is to be constructed at the existing parking lot on Machin Avenue at Cain Lane, across from the Novato Police Department. About 60 employees would work there, from planners and engineers to parks officials and the city manager, Michael Frank. The cost is expected to be about $15 million, and the bulk of money comes from funds formerly owed to the city’s general fund by the Novato Redevelopment Agency. A bond sale this spring was deemed successful, allowing for the financing of the new building.
Several people at Tuesday’s Novato City Council meeting acknowledged the stiff cost of those architectural services — $813,846 — and one businessman threatened to get a voter referendum going to put the city offices before a public vote. But the five-member council voted unanimously to award the contract to RMW Architecture and Interiors of San Francisco and expressed excitement about taking another step toward consolidating city assets in a “civic center” atmosphere.
“It will really have a lot of synergy and makes a lot of sense,” Mayor Madeline Kellner said after the vote, mentioning the proximity of the city offices to Novato City Hall and the Novato Police Department.
RMW emerged atop a list of 10 firms vying for the job, and three finalists were interviewed on June 13.
“It’s a great opportunity we see here, and we’re anxious to get started working on it,” said RMW Principal Bart McClelland. “We understand there are a lot of issues to get into very quickly.”
Most city employees have worked at 75 Rowland Way since the downtown cluster of bungalows were deemed unusable in 2006. The lease at Rowland costs the city about $750,000 a year, and that figure was a driving force in prompting the staff and council to move forward with finding a new permanent home.
Councilwoman Pat Eklund requested that story poles be installed to give Novato residents an idea about the mass and height of the building. McClelland said story poles are useful to a point, but computer imagery — including 3D animation — also can be an effective way to give people and idea what it’s like to walk around a new building. How to distribute such computer models is still to be determined.
Longtime Novato resident and business owner Henry Hautau said a group is considering a gathering of signatures to place a referendum on the ballot that would take the issue to a public vote. The owner of Finnegan’s Marin, Hautau said spending $15 million to $16 million on the building is irresponsible at a time when the city is laying off employees and cutting back services. He said taking downtown parking spaces away does not make any sense.
“I am greatly offended and confused by your decision to build offices downtown,” he said. “… It’s financially wasteful.”
Gail Wilhelm, a former Novato City Council member, counterattacked after Hautau’s comments, which she described as “a last-minute Hail Mary that is offensive, disrespectful and frankly dishonest.” She said centralizing city employees in a new Old Town complex has been in the works for 25 years and was “thoroughly aired and thoroughly investigated.” She said there is a list of 600 signatures in support of downtown offices.
In their comments, the council members agreed with Wilhelm’s stance. Jeanne MacLeamy reminded that the city employees used to work in 11 buildings, many of which were red-tagged by the fire marshal after “they were held together by termites holding their hands.” Carole Dillon-Knutson said it was the fourth or fifth time a proposal for a downtown office building had come before the City Council.
“This was the only site, after looking at so many sites, that worked,” Denise Athas said.
Kellner said it was not an overnight decision and due diligence took place.
“It’s Novato’s time,” Kellner said.