City Hall to be demolished for new facility
February 16, 2017 | Jefferson Weaver
• 1938, building opened as U.S. Post Office, built by the Works Progress Administration.
• 1979, turned over to city for use as municipal building, and named for the late Mayor Horace Whitley.
• 2009-10, Whiteville Police move evidence lockers from basement due to contamination by mold.
• 2011, employees report health problems from mold.
• 2012, inspection finds major mold infestation, asbestos and lead problems. City moves some offices to satellite facility downtown.
• 2014, mold expands throughout building, more health problems reported.
• 2015, city offices move to interim facility at Roses Plaza.
• 2016, Oakley Architects wins bid to advise city on restoration or reconstruction.
• 2017, City Council votes to demolish old building and construct new facility.
Whiteville's 1938 municipal building will be demolished.
City council reluctantly voted to replace the building Tuesday evening. At a workshop earlier that afternoon, the Save City Hall group made another plea to save the building. Susan Woods asked that the board consider allowing a private group to renovate the building and use it for a museum.
A final vote on the project was not on Tuesday’s regular agenda, but Mayor Terry Mann asked the board to consider making a decision. He said he was aware that supporters of the building would criticize the vote.
"They're going to be mad at us tonight, or in two weeks," Mayor Terry Mann said at the council meeting Tuesday evening. “After everything we’ve looked at, I think it’s a consensus of the council that we need to build a new building.”
Until recently, Council had steadfastly held to the middle ground between a $3.9 million expansion and renovation, or a $2.9 million demolition and reconstruction project.
Councilwoman Sarah Thompson, one of the strongest supporters of restoring the building, made the motion to replace the structure. Councilman Jimmy Clarida seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
The 1938 Post Office became city hall in 1979. The structure was built to a standard plan that produced dozens of similar structures across the country through the Works Progress Administration. Like most of those buildings, the plan included a basement, which is below the average water table for that area of downtown.
In 2011, workers in the basement began reporting health problems related to mold as well as leaks throughout the downstairs suite. An inspection by a mold remediation firm in 2012 showed that the batting used to caulk windows in the original construction had deteriorated, allowing water to flow throw windows and joints.
Additional inspections found that the roof drainage system was malfunctioning, allowing water to drain through the walls. Lead pipes and asbestos fixtures were also noted.
The city has maintained pumps in the basement boiler room for years to remove seepage and stormwater.
The city closed the downstairs planning and inspections offices, then sealed the area in 2012, but the mold continued moving through the building. By 2014, conditions had gotten so bad that citizens complained about the mold smell when they came to the building. At least one woman had an allergic reaction and breathing problems caused by the mold, city employees said.
The city offices were moved to an interim facility at the Roses Plaza in November 2015.
Council met with representatives from Oakley Collier Architects for a second workshop Tuesday afternoon, and reviewed a proposed new structure as well as briefly discussing restoration and expansion. The base proposal for a new city hall is $2,992,590, while rebuilding, expanding and renovating the Whitley building was estimated at $3,840,530.
The new facility would include some of the architectural features of the old building, according to Tim Oakley of the architectural firm.
“We understand the pride you have in your city hall,” he said during the workshop, “and we wanted to preserve some of those features.”
City leaders toured new municipal buildings in Leland, Boiling Springs Lakes and Myrtle Beach recently.
“Most of those were far beyond what we would ever need,” City Manager Darren Currie said. Several board members referred to the Leland facility as the “Taj Mahal of town halls.”
“It looked like you could put the entire Whiteville City Hall in the lobby area,” Currie joked. “We’d never need something like that.”
Although no public comments were scheduled for the workshop, Susan Woods of the Reuben Brown House Preservation Society and Save City Hall urged the board not to proceed with demolition of the building before giving other groups a chance to save it. She noted that John Fisher and Ray Thigpen had offered to sell the city a tract of property across Madison Street from the Museum of Natural Science for a new city hall.
That offer, which was made during a recent executive session, was turned down by the city.
“Tearing down an historic building is not going to make the citizens happy,” she said, “but I feel like you had already made your decision before any of this came up.”
Woods said that supporters of the old building had spoken with experts who suggested filling the basement with sand to eliminate the water problem.
“The best route to follow is to surrender to it, not fight the water,” she said.
In previous discussions, architects with Oakley explained that attempting to fill the basement with sand or concrete would only force more water and mold into the building.
Woods said that a “large part of the community” wants the city hall saved, either as a municipal building or for use as a museum. She also said that the renovation figures, including the basement work, were grossly overestimated, and the basement and foundation could be sealed and repaired for significantly less money.
“You could purchase the property across the street, and still have a campus,” she said. “Save the building for the community, and it’s a win-win situation. You make your citizens happy, an you get a new building.”
“It was the consensus of the council that we didn’t want to buy any more property,” Mann replied.
“Why not compromise, and everybody wins?” Woods said.
Currie said that based on comments by citizens who come to city hall, having all departments in one location is the most desirable option.
If the city turned over the Whitley building, Councilman Tim Blackmon asked where a private group would get the money to repair and maintain the city hall.
“That’s not your concern,” Woods said.
“It certainly is our concern,” Mann said. “It’s in the middle of the city.”
Woods said that “benefactors” had already promised to help save the building, and supporters of the building were gathering pledges to provide additional help.
“It already belongs to the community,” Woods replied, and noted that Preservation North Carolina, a non-profit group that helps save classic buildings across the state, also said repair estimates were likely too high. She said PNC experts suggested restoration of the building was cheaper than demolition and replacement.
“City Hall should at least be saved for a few years, to see if we can get someone to purchase and restore it,” she said.
After extensive interviews and surveys with city staff, Oakley Collier Architects proposed a 9,960 square foot structure to either expand or replace the current building.
“That’s in an ideal world,” Tim Oakley said. “Either in a new building, or if you expanded and renovated the current building.”
Either project would make use of the former rental property beside the city hall on Madison Street. The city purchased the 1940s era home in 2014 for future expansion. A smaller rental home behind the police station is currently being used for fire department training, and will be demolished in the near future.
Both properties would be cleared and used for the project, Oakley explained. The new building footprint would be set back slightly, and visitors to City Hall would generally park behind the building and use an entrance roughly facing the police station.
A “gallery” in the new building’s lobby would feature memorabilia, historic photographs and other tributes to the city, Collier explained.
The current parking area would be expanded to 43 spaces, with an additional 34 available for future expansion.
Council members were not happy with the initial artist’s rendering Tuesday, and other questioned the need for proposal to expand the parking lot between the municipal building and police station.
“Do you ever have even ten people in the lobby?” Thompson asked. Finance Officer Colburn Brown replied that one days when water bills were due, or on cut-off days, the lobby could have at least that many, if not more.
“In the end a parking lot is the cheapest thing we can build,” Mann said.
Currie and Oakley noted that the police department requires some parking spaces for patrol cars, service vehicles and other vehicles.
Finding the money
Finance Officer Colburn Brown broke down a rough analysis of how to pay for the new building.
“We’ve been in discussions with one of the banks and looking into what might be available,” Brown said. “Interest rates have been steadily rising.”
On a $2.5 million loan for 20 years, Brown said, the city would need a property tax increase of .023 to .0275 per $100 valuation, depending on the interest rate. He used a $500,000 down payment as a baseline.
The annual payment for the city would range from $160,268 at 2.5 percent interest to $183,954 at 4 percent. The city’s current rental payment of $60,000 per year would cut the loan payments from around $123,000 to $100,000 annually, depending on the loan amount and interest rate.
The total interest paid would range from $707,356 to $1.179 million over the course of the loan.
Brown said he is further researching finance options.
Thompson took issue with the price tag for the new proposal, noting that her family’s construction firm recently completed a comparable structure in Fayetteville for a state agency for $800,000.
“We have 5,000 people in this town, give or take,” Thompson said. “Break that down, and that’s a lot of money per person.”
“Nothing is set in stone,” Oakley said. “Our job is to give you the building that you tell us you want, and we’ll just give you the options. I am sure the city will find ways to save money along the way. Our job is to give you a design and some estimates.”
On the table
After extensive discussion, Mann asked the board to begin thinking of which direction to follow.
“We have talked and talked about this,” he said. “We’ve laid it all out on the table. We can’t get started on moving forward until we decide what direction we’re going to take.” Mann and several on the council asked Currie for his position on the building. The manager suggested the city move forward with new construction. His primary concern was long-term maintenance, noting that Oakley had warned the city that there is no permanent fix to the basement problems with the old City Hall.
“There are still things that would need to be addressed that we aren’t even sure of yet,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns in the future. My advice is to go with new construction.”
Leder pointed out that while most of the council was in favor of saving the old City Hall if at all possible, the future problems and the additional cost were serious concerns.
“We’re talking about saving $850,000,” Leder said. “We have to do what we think is best for the people of the city of Whiteville.”
After voting to proceed with plans for the demolition, council also instructed Currie to move ahead with plans to sell the adjacent home, and begin taking steps to complete destruction of the Webster Street property.
Currie said the city hopes to sell the Madison Street house by sealed bid to be moved. The derelict apartments on Webster will be cleared and the property turned into green space, pending future construction.
If the Madison Street house cannot be sold, the city will tear down the house and garage, and clear the property.
A date has not been set for either the demolition projects.