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City exploring best uses of public buildings

Mayor Kelli Linville

By Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville

The City provides public services and houses employees at more than 30 locations throughout our community. Our oldest and newest buildings are part of the Whatcom Museum campus, with the Old City Hall Building, completed 121 years ago in 1892, and the Lightcatcher Building, completed just four years ago in 2009.

Most City buildings, however, are 10 to 70 years old. Some were originally designed for the public services they provide today, such as City Hall and the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center. Others were purchased and re-purposed to fill the needs of a growing City government, such as the former church now housing the Bellingham Municipal Court.

Many City buildings have significant maintenance needs, such as electrical, safety, seismic and energy efficiency upgrades. Some buildings are inadequate for our needs today because of their overall size and layout or because they are in such poor condition we simply should stop putting any more resources into them.

Late last year we embarked on an evaluation of our buildings. We want to use them all as efficiently as possible, fix or update those that have retained their value and functionality, and vacate those that no longer meet our needs.

Our goals for this review include:

We are part way through this review. Final decisions have not been made about what buildings should be retained or vacated, or what services and employees will be re-located and where they will go. I wanted to report to the community about this process, because we are discussing properties that are visible and valued by community members, because final decisions about how we use our spaces will affect many employees, and because all options – including doing nothing – come with costs.

I anticipate we will consider issues and options for City facilities as part of budget deliberations with the Bellingham City Council this fall.

A giant puzzle

Decisions about three buildings in particular have a significant influence on the decisions about future uses of all our facilities:

Federal Building

A key goal for the building review now underway is determining the best use of the Federal Building, a 100-year-old historic building we acquired from the federal government for $1 in 2004. The Federal Building, even though it is vacant, costs the City more than $200,000 a year to maintain and keep clean and safe. Its use will require electrical and other upgrades, but it is a beautiful, functional building that offers quality office and meeting room space.

After studies and efforts to fill it with private sector tenants, we’ve determined the best use for the Federal Building is as government office space. We are now evaluating options for making the improvements necessary to locate City government offices there, and expect to have people working in the building by mid-2014. Our desire to use the Federal Building for City government offices was highlighted in a recent article in The Bellingham Herald.

Using the Federal Building for City offices provides many benefits. Today, employees who regularly work on projects together are located across town from each other. Inhabiting the nearby Federal Building will help free up space at Bellingham City Hall, which serves as the center of City business but has long been full causing us to place key functions in outlying locations. As we consider the best uses of both buildings we will co-locate employee teams in both locations so they can more efficiently and effectively work together to serve the public. Filling the Federal Building with people who shop and eat downtown also will help boost the economic vitality of our city center.

Bellingham Municipal Court

Built in 1951, the Bellingham Municipal Court Building, a 31,000-square-foot former church, was acquired by the City in 1999 to temporarily house the newly created Municipal Court. Previously used as a church, multiple remodeling projects have improved security and building functionality. However, the growing needs of the community for a modern, safe and efficient court facility cannot be met by this building over the long term without significant investment. As we plan for the future, we hesitate to put any more resources into it when many costly maintenance problems remain and it is generally inadequate for City government.

The facility needs for contemporary court operations require careful study and collaboration with other agencies. While I don’t expect answers to come quickly, I anticipate recommending the court and other City services vacate this building. Where the court and other services should be located and when this step should occur is one of the big pieces of the City facilities puzzle, and one I expect we will be working on into 2014 and beyond.

Bellingham Public Library/Central Library

Another big piece of the City facilities puzzle is the Bellingham Public Library’s central library facility downtown. Extensive studies dating back more than 12 years have identified the need for a new central library, with Bellingham’s above-average library use straining the capacity of the current three-floor, 44,000-square-foot structure built in 1951. While the services and functions of the central library have outgrown its current space, the City has determined the library building is sound and, if it doesn’t house the library, it should continue to be used for government services.

It may seem premature to factor a new library into our other pressing facility decisions before we’ve had a renewed discussion about library needs and the substantial resources necessary to build a library. Yet, as we look at facilities, it is a key building on a centrally located downtown property. It is difficult to have a serious, big-picture facilities discussion without considering it. Library facilities is a likely priority for City and Library Board discussion in 2014.

Finding the best uses

This comprehensive review of our buildings is helping us make wise use of City resources. We are gathering information, looking at all the puzzle pieces, and carefully aligning decisions with City priorities. We are making sure our investments in City facilities help us reduce costs, gain efficiencies and improve service, more effectively use the properties we own, and let go of properties we that are not serving us well.

Many public buildings in our community are revered and help form our strong sense of place. Community members care about our historic structures and about the places where they go to receive public services. As this process continues this fall and beyond, please let us know what you think by contacting my office at 778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org.


Published:  September 6, 2013

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