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Novato Hires Architectural Firm to Design Downtown City Office Building

RMW Architecture and Interiors of San Francisco earns $813,864 contract; threat looms of possible voter referendum to fight construction.

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.

Jerry July 14, 2011 at 06:28 PM
" ...the vote to move forward with this project was conducted without due public comment". You must be kidding. City Council meeting after City Council meeting has had agenda item after agenda items for 6-8 months about a city office building. Read the agandas Watch the videos. Read the newspapers.They have been talking about this FOREVER! Now, at the last possible moment, you want to say something???
Matt McCarron July 14, 2011 at 06:31 PM
It is un fortuneate that some of the old guard is "locked" in to the concept of have the have the city hall staff right in the downtown, since they have always been there. Housing that staff with parking for them and the downtown buisness that was scoped out in the current downtown master plan, means a building higher than Whole Foods or with below ground parking both plans are very expensive. Since we already have preserved the "Community House" icon, housing city staff needs to be cost effective, and not a monument that people will take credit for...
henry July 14, 2011 at 07:37 PM
Ms. Wilelhm knows how the system works as well as anyone as a former city council member. My efforts, albeit behind the scenes for the last two years, to address the council individuallly was ineffective. I am new to the political/city politic arena. I'm also guilty of assuming common sense would prevail. However, it does not preclude us from attempting to stop this ill advised, financially wasteful, and visionless project from happening. Know is the time to stand up and help stop this plan which is bad for our budget, bad for the Novato tax payer, bad for downtown as it currently sits and horrible for the future of what downtown Novato can become.
henry July 14, 2011 at 08:05 PM
Full post: Jerry, to be fair, city staff came out with a recomendation to "buy existing & not build" in the spring of 2010. This was widely publicized and seemed to signal that the city would move forward with the financially responsible decision of steering clear of downtown. The report issued by Michael Frank & by Ron Gerber states clearly that offices downtown would be a mistake and recommended looking at other sites. This report, in effect, lulled many to sleep. Additionally, there is so much focus on the affordable housing issue that city offices have simply slid under the radar for most people. It is true, that the citizens of Novato did doze off on this one a bit, but we also should expect our city council members to represent the community's best interests and have some sense of what the true pulse is on important projects. G. Wilhelm did a great job of collecting 600 signatures in support of this project, at the right time to help sway the council in their decision. Ms Wilhelm knows how the system works as well as anyone as a former city council member. My efforts, albeit behind the scenes for the last 2 years, to address the council individuallly was ineffective. I am new to the politiical arena. I'm also guilty of assuming common sense would prevail. However, it does not preclude us from attempting to stop this ill advised, financially wasteful, and visionless project from happening. Now is the time to stand up and help stop this plan.
BH July 14, 2011 at 09:08 PM
Jerry, I have spoken out about this before and attended city council meetings on this subject. When the vote was made to authorize the feasability study, I spoke in opposition. After that I was told by a council member "we need to do this study to show why this may not be the best alternative". I was watching and waiting for the feasability study and never heard about it until after the vote. My point is release info on Friday and vote on Tuesday is not adquate time for the public to review and comment. I get more notice when they plan on cutting down a tree in my neighborhood. Sorry, my fault, I don't read the agenda every Tuesday morning.

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