Eugene Weekly : Feature : 4.7.11

Rip Out
Will the city tear down City Hall and leave a pit?
By Alan Pittman

Say you own a house thats 50 years old and completely paid off but needs a new heater, windows and paint and could possibly fall down in a rare huge earthquake. Do you tear it down during a deep recession and then pay to rent somewhere else for years while you wait and see if you can ever afford to rebuild something in the pit?

remodel design by kate laue
remodel design by anthony hasenberg

That, critics say, is in effect what the city of Eugene apparently wants to do with City Hall.

øWere asking you today to give direction to move forward on emptying out City Hall, and to begin to tear it down,” Eugene facilities manager Mike Penwell told the City Council before they voted 6-1 on the staff suggested motion last month.û

Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz, who sat next to Penwell at the March 16 meeting, called the vote a major policy choice and didnt object to Penwells øtear it down” description of the council action. But afterwards, Ruiz emailed the council to øclarify” that the council didnt actually vote to tear City Hall down.

øThis mornings Register-Guard reported that you made a decision to demolish the existing City Hall in preparation for phasing the construction of a new City Hall,” Ruiz wrote.ûøTo clarify, the motion you passed was to develop and implement a transition plan for moving all remaining city services out of City Hall and develop a phased approach to building a new City Hall at the current site.ûAlthough the council has discussed and commented on the pros and cons of full or partial demolition or renovation of the existing City Hall, a decision has not been made.ûThat decision will be made in the next many months.”

The official resolution text that the council passed didnt mention tearing down City Hall, and Ruiz had sent an email to the council earlier describing the next days meeting as including ørenovation or replacement of City Hall.”

Opaque government aside, Eugene City Councilor Betty Taylor, who missed the vote because she was at a National League of Cities meeting,ûsaid city staff decided years ago to tear down the building. Taylor said a city manager told her 15 years ago that managers had already decided to move out and demolish. øTheres been this determination, this fixed goal of tearing it down.”

Local architect Otto Poticha said he tried and failed to get the city staff to fully present options to the council for renovating City Hall. But he said he was øblown off” when trying to present student work (see images) from a UO architecture class he taught. øI was furious.”

Poticha and other critics argue that an extensive remodel and addition to City Hall could be far cheaper, greener, functional, safer and more attractive than tearing the seat of government down and replacing it with an ugly pit.

Taylor agrees. øWe should remodel,” she said.

So does local architect Jerry Diethelm. øTheres certainly a lot of value there,” Diethelm said of remodeling the 1964 City Hall building. øIts more affordable and buildable in phases in a way that will be an asset for the community.”

Kevin Matthews, editor of ArchitectureWeek and Friends of Eugene president, also opposes tearing down City Hall. øThrowing away a functional building shell is pure waste,” he wrote in an email to the council.


øFully renovating this building is a thirty to fifty-million dollar proposition,” Penwell told the city council, explaining the building needs a new envelope and half-million dollars for a new heating system. øOnce you start you really have to go pretty far down that path to keep this building moving forward.”

But Poticha estimates that a remodel plus added floors would cost about $30 million, or only $20 million with grant funding.

Matthews said the city could take advantage of grants available for remodeling and improving the energy efficiency of old buildings.

Poticha estimates that not throwing away the frame of the building in a remodel would save about $10 million compared to building a new building of the same size.û

øIt cant help but be cheaper,” Taylor said. øI dont believe its cheaper to build a whole new building than to remodel.”û

The city has already wasted $3 million on designing a $188 million new City Hall building. The city backed down from the project after surveys showed the pricey design inspired only 40 percent voter support.

To avoid a vote, the city did move to spend $16 million in reserves on moving the police out of the struggling downtown to a building across from the Eugene Country Club golf course in north Eugene. A new police station bond had already failed three times at the polls. The city reserves, about $10 million of which are left, were created by reducing services to citizens.


City officials have long argued that City Hall needs to be replaced because it could fall down in a rare huge earthquake.

øI have an extra sensitivity to that given what weve seen happen,” said Mayor Kitty Piercy, referring to the recent Japan earthquake.û

But Poticha said, øThe whole business about this building is going to come down around their knees is not actually accurate.” Poticha said he reviewed the citys 2009 seismic analysis and talked to the consultant. øIt (City Hall) is probably as safe if not safer than many of the buildings in the community built within the past ten or fifteen years,” he said.

Although city officials have shown great concern about the seismic risk to their office building, they have shown little visible concern about schools and other structures at greater risk. In China, government officials in sturdy buildings are now facing strong criticism for not providing safe buildings to schoolchildren who died in an earthquake.

Poticha says the city estimated that a seismic retrofit of City Hall could cost about $6 million. He estimates that retrofitting the building as part of a remodel that added offices to a first floor where the city has a parking garage could reduce the cost to about $2.8 to $3.5 million.

The city has a surplus of thousands of parking spaces in nearby garages and surface lots downtown.

Poticha says if the city wanted more parking, it could partner with the county and state to add floors to the subsurface county garage a block away.û

Poticha said with the police moving out anyway, phasing of the remodel could be done in the empty half of the building with minimal disruption, saving millions in office rental and moving costs. The north side of the building was designed to accommodate additional floors and the parking level is at ground level on the north side and could include daylight offices, according to Poticha.


øI cant believe its not better to recycle and reuse than to destroy and rebuild,” said Taylor of calls to tear down the old City Hall and build a new one. She called discarding the building part of the mentality of a øthrow-away society.”

The city has a policy calling for green building and many officials and citizens have called for an energy efficient new City Hall. But Matthews wrote, øOne simply cannot start a seriously green building project with a gratuitous teardown.” He said, øit is absolutely true, in many ways, that reuse is the best and overwhelmingly green option.”

Environmentalists argue that officials should not only consider the energy efficiency of a building but the embodied energy represented in the materials and construction work used to build it. If one is concerned about greenhouse gas pollution, it could take half a century for a highly energy efficient new City Hall in hydropowered Eugene just to break even on the embodied energy the city would throw away in the old building, according to carbon counters.

Poticha said the remodel could easily include replacing the building envelope, windows, heating and air conditioning system and adding south facing solar panels to dramatically reduce energy use. øIt would probably be one of the greenest buildings in town,” Poticha said.


Poticha acknowledges perhaps the strongest reason for tearing City Hall down. øEverybody says look how ugly City Hall is, why would you want to save it?” he said.

But Poticha said the building could be extensively remodeled, ripping off the ugly wood grill that people see from the street. øYou wouldnt recognize the old City Hall.” û

øI understand that was put there to satisfy the timber industry,” Taylor said of the wood screen, now covered with peeling paint.û

Poticha said the remodel could reconnect the building with the street by adding ground floor offices and a plaza at the southwest corner, as shown in several of his students designs (see below).

Taylor said a big part of the aesthetic problem with the old building is neglect. øPeople have wanted to tear that thing down for so long that they havent painted it, they havent cleaned it.”û

øTheyve let it go to hell,” Poticha agreed.

Poticha said the better aspects of the building including its informal openness to the public with offices off a central garden courtyard with trees could be preserved. øTheres not a city hall in the world like that building,” Poticha said, pointing out the building design was selected by architects after a competition.

øA city that has previously squandered most of its valuable historic buildings cannot afford to tear down the single best city building we have remaining from the High Modern era,” Matthews emailed the council. øA state-of-the-art, rebuilt City Hall can be proud and beautiful, an expression of our green economic aspirations as well as our community values.”û


The critics of a tear down fear that the alternative to a remodel could be yet another ugly pit downtown at a time the city is spending tens of millions of dollars trying to fill the downtown pits it already has.û

øIt would leave a huge hole,” Taylor said of the teardown.û

øYou will make the biggest hole the city has ever seen,” Poticha said. øDo we call it then the Kitty hole or the Ruiz hole?” he asked.

The city has said that it would pay for a replacement for the old City Hall with $10 million in øexisting funds.” But Poticha said that would pay to cover only about 10 percent of the site with a small building, leaving the rest as a parking lot or pit for years.û

When or if the city could ever raise the money for later phases to build a complete new City Hall is unclear.

Meanwhile, the city plan appears to be renting offices scattered around downtown after it tears down its existing offices. That could leave a city with a struggling downtown already suffering from a lack of a there there with a lack of a City Hall there as well.

øMost people will not know where City Hall is,” Poticha said.

øIt could go on for years,” Taylor said of the pit and scattered offices plan.û

Even some of those who voted for the city plan appeared concerned about what will come. øWe got to make sure were willing to build the new building and not stay forever in the trailer,” said Councilor Chris Pryor.

But whether the big push to rip out City Hall can be stopped remains unclear.û

City staff and a strong majority of elected officials appear firmly behind tearing the building down, whatever may happen. øI really appreciate this approach,” Mayor Kitty Piercy said after Penwells description of the plan.

Asked why people are so bent on a teardown, Poticha said, øIf your mindset is I want a new house or new building, youre going to find every possible way to convince yourself.”û

Taylor said to stop the wrecking ball, øthere would have to be a huge public movement for it.” That could be hard, considering the city plan is also to avoid a ballot vote.

For $25,000 to $50,000 the city could do a professional study to flesh out the cost and feasibility of a remodel, according to Poticha. øThis study will put the matter to bed as to renovate or demolish,” he emailed city officials.û

But Poticha didnt hear back and isnt very optimistic. øI think the city manager and the council are tired of the issue, they want to get on with it.”û û û û û û û