Monday, January 26, 2009

Roanoke Times Editorial

The Roanoke Times had an editorial in today's paper that deals with the recent Council vote to hire a consulting firm to come up with conceptual plans for the Market Building. If you missed it, please visit:

I think it does a good job of addressing the need for vision in directing the renovation of the building. I encourage you to read it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Market Building vote... again (and open government)

Market Building
Earlier this evening, Roanoke City Council voted to hire a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. to perform work surrounding the Market Building. The Market Building is an icon in Roanoke, the center of the downtown market area, and vital to the economic future of our city center.

I voted against hiring this firm (it was a 6-1 vote). My reasons are fairly simple, and I will try to succinctly explain below.

First, I still feel, as I did several weeks ago, that City Council has not yet provided a clear vision for what we want the building to be for the next 20, 30 and 40 years. For example, "we are committed to maintaining the building as a public market, with food vendors, retail and entertainment opportunities." Following this we can consult the numerous past studies conducted for ideas and concepts and work to pull together this vision. Maybe outdoor seating on the mezzanine level, a community room for rent on the top floor, food vendors with service both inside and outside of the building... etc.

Second, I believe that we need to decide on a budget. What can we afford presently, could we phase the project into two steps, etc. This is an obvious point but vital to moving forward and committing money to conceptual ideas.

At this point is when I believe that we should hire an Architecture & Engineering firm, and if appropriate, would like the firm to be a local business. As a City Council we should certainly try to do our part to help the economy in Roanoke.

We do need to assess the facilities, such as HVAC, plumbing, electrical and structural soundness. In all fairness, this is the piece of the contract that I believe is the most useful. But I believe that the A & E should be part of an overall design/construction document contract.

My fear is that we spend $120,000 (amended amount of contract) with this consulting firm, don't think about it until the report comes back in May (out of sight, out of mind), and realize that Council has "lost taste" to move on with the renovation. Then, we have a $120,000 conceptual report sitting on a bookshelf. No construction documents. If the overall A & E were part of the actual contract where Council has decided to move to contruction, we can guarantee the usefulness of the information gained.

I simply did not feel comfortable committing $120,000 to a hopefully useful report at the same time that our schools are slated to lose between $10 million and $15 million in funding this year, with no certainty that we would actually get to the renovation itself.

I'm hopeful I've been clear.

Open Government
As you all are aware, an issue has come up surrounding Blue Ridge Housing Development Corporation and Councilman Alvin Nash. I have enjoyed getting to know Alvin over the last six months and enjoyed working with him.

I do not have all of the information surrounding this yet, but do feel that Council should have been informed immediately once this issue arose. When it involves a sitting member of City Council, I believe it is appropriate that each member be told of any matter involving official business.

I am committed, however, to getting all the information and will comment further at that point.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Market Building (again)

As most folks know, at its last meeting, City Council brought to a vote the allocation of $160,000 to a consulting firm from Washington, D.C. to provide us with three conceptual plans for the renovation of the City Market Building. Due to technicalities, we have to re-vote on the matter at our next council meeting, even though the vote yesterday was 4 to 3 in favor of hiring the consulting firm.

Let me say right off that I respect the opinions and decisions of each Member of Council, whether I agree with them on this particular matter or not. Any thoughts I share are mine and mine alone and guide my reasons for voting against hiring this firm. Below are my reasons.

The City Market Building is an historic landmark in the center of our downtown, next to many restaurants, retail stores and offices. In fact, it houses small businesses. Because of this, I do believe that we need to move forward and renovate it with an eye towards the next five, ten and twenty years. The Market Building has been neglected for far too long, which is one of the reasons it is now in such disrepair and requires such a major renovation. So let's renovate, right?

Not quite yet.

Over the past several years, there have been public sessions with input from interested residents and parties as to what the Market Building and market area should look like. We paid for a received a report in 2006, and a coalition of downtown businesses commissioned a study with suggestions that was authored by the Partnership for Public Spaces, the leading national experts on market areas.

So now the idea is to hire this consulting firm out of D.C. to provide us information on the utilities of the building, hold three public hearings, and then provide three concepts. It is important to note that the concepts are not architectural renderings sufficient for construction, but rather general conceptual ideas. We will then have to come up with the money to pay for the actual construction design documents.

I voted against hiring this consulting firm for a few major reasons. First, given the past few years and the studies we have regarding the market building, I am not convinced that we need to hire another firm to tell us what they think the building should look like. Second, City Councils past and present have yet to provide a clear vision as to what we want the Market Building to function as for the next several decades. Without a vision for the future use of the building, why bother paying a huge amount of money to consultants to conceptualize for us.

Yet another reason (the most important) I voted against hiring this firm is that we learned less than three weeks ago that our schools could be losing more than $5 million in state funding this year. And yes, you read the number correctly. I believe that it is the responsibility of the City and its governing body to do everything within our power to help the schools offset this enormous gap in funding. $160,000 clearly won't solve the entire budgetary problem, but it sure is a good start.

And last but not least, I simply do not believe that we need to hire a consulting firm from Washington to tell us what the electrical, plumbing, structural and HVAC systems look like and need - we can certainly hire local businesses to tell us that once we begin actual architectural design. We can also handle holding our own public hearings. So what are we really getting for the huge sum of money we will pay? In my opinion, it is not the best value for taxpayer money.

I intend to vote again in two weeks against this hiring. We can move forward renovating the Market Building right now if only we would provide a vision to a local architectural firm, express to them the budgetary constraints in which we find ourselves, and are willing to be decisive in our action.