In what may be the first-of-its-kind development, the Columbia Heights City Council voted unanimously Sept. 23 to build a new City Hall in conjunction with apartment builder Alatus. The new government offices would occupy the ground floor of a vertical mixed-use development at 3989 Central Ave. NE, the former site of Northeast State Bank.
The vote came one week after the city presented two very different options at an informational meeting at Murzyn Hall.
When Public Works took over management of all city facilities in 2013, it conducted a study of all city buildings. The original City Hall was constructed in 1942, but it underwent renovations in 1979 and 1989. In case you haven’t been there lately, here’s why Columbia Heights needs a new one. Kevin Hansen, head of Columbia Heights’ Public Works department, ticked off a long list of problems with the current site.
• After the Police Department moved to the Public Services building in 2010, half of City Hall’s space sits empty, but the city still heats and cools those spaces.
• Water damage is prevalent throughout the building, but it’s coming in through the uninsulated cinder block walls, not the roof.
• The elevator, as Mayor Donna Schmitt has said, “clanks and clunks” as it slowly crawls to the second floor, if it crawls at all.
• The building does not meet ADA requirements.
• The foundation is crumbling.
• Fire suppression barriers are lacking in the ceilings, and fire escapes are inadequate.
• According to a study by architecture firm Leo A. Daly, it would cost $6.6 million to restore the current city offices.
• The building can’t meet electrical demands of the city’s computer systems.
After discussing the “horrendous” City Hall, Hansen gave a presentation on a plan called “Option 5” that would have connected a new City Hall building to Murzyn Hall and blocked off Mill Street. Public Works offices, which operate out of a separate building at 637 38th Avenue, would have been brought into the new City Hall, making communications between departments easier. It would also have provided a pedestrian connection from 40th Avenue to Huset Park, consistent with city’s 2040 comprehensive plan. However, stormwater utilities on Mill Street would have to be relocated, a costly proposition.
In answer to a question from the audience, Hansen said the Public Services building has room for expansion but it wasn’t designed to add another full floor.
Aaron Chirpich, Columbia Heights’ new community development director, explained the Alatus proposal, which would move City Hall to a more prominent location on Central Avenue.
Columbia Heights acquired the former bank building earlier this year. Earlier, it had purchased the seldom-used municipal parking ramp. “It was going to go away in 2021, when it reverted back to the owner for $1,” explained City Manager Kelli Bourgeois. Alatus proposes tearing down both structures and building a four- or five-story building on the site.
The first floor would be occupied by the City of Columbia Heights, in its own 20,000 sq.-ft. “condo.” (The city is using about 17,000 square feet in its present location.) Civic offices would have their own entrance on Central Avenue, with a pocket park in front of it. City Council chambers would be located along Central Avenue. If circumstances change and the city needs to leave the building, it would sell its “condo.”
The main floor would also include a 4,000 sq.-ft. café or coffeehouse.
City employees and City Hall guests would park on a surface lot behind the building. Additional parking would be added in a vacant city-owned lot behind the library.Using a favorite developer buzzword, Chirpich said placing City Hall on the corner just down the street from the library would “activate” the corner and provide a stable presence in the area.
The developer would also build 172-270 market rate apartment units atop the city offices. They would be promoted to people who want to live close to downtown Minneapolis but don’t want or can’t afford the expensive units going up in Northeast. The building would include an “amenity deck” with a pool and a workout room. Residents would come and go through a separate entrance on 40th Avenue, and most residential parking would be underground. (Their guests could use city surface parking when City Hall is closed.)
Chirpich said the City Council was skeptical when they were first approached by Alatus. Cost was a major driver in accepting the proposal, which would allow the city of Columbia Heights to sell its Mill Street property for other purposes.
The shared development plan will bring all city offices under one roof and ultimately save Columbia Heights half the cost of erecting a stand-alone municipal building; it will leave the city with approximately $6 million for other projects.
Below: Residents looked at the two City Hall options. (Photo by Cyntha Sowden). Site comparison table.