City considering options for Civic Center façade repairs

City Commissioners got another update during their Feb. 4 work session on the options for repairing the Civic Center façade and timelines for putting a $5.5 million bond ask on either the June primary or November general ballot.

The cost estimate is the same as what was presented to commissioners in June 2019.

At that time, staff gave commissioners several timelines for putting a bond request on a public ballot for the project estimated at $5.5 million.

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On Tuesday, commissioners heard a similar presentation on what the engineering studies had discovered in the buildings construction, what was failing and what engineers believe the options are for repairing the original façade panels.

Tony Houtz, an architect with Cushing Terrell formerly known as CTA Architects Engineers, again walked commissioners through what they discovered behind the concrete panels.

They way the building was constructed behind the panels is no longer how buildings are constructed and what they found is a “little bit spooky,” said Craig Raymond, city planning director.

For years, city staff have expressed concern that the panels on the front of the Civic Center were failing and could fall off, causing a safety concern for people entering and exiting the building through the front steps facing Park Drive.

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But when exactly they might start falling remains and unknown, according to staff.

The Civic Center building was built in the 1930s, under the Works Progress Administration. The Works Progress Administration was renamed in 1939 to the Work Projects Administration, according to the city’s history of the building. The program was created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential order and funded by Congress with passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act on April 8, 1935.

In recent years, some of the cast stone concrete panels have been deteriorating, there’s exposed rebar that’s corroding and “massive cracking,” Houtz told commissioners in June 2019.

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They city published the request for qualifications in February 2017 and in October 2017, the City Commission approved a $494,060 professional services agreement with CTA for architectural and engineering design services for repairs to the facade of the Civic Center.

In late January, most commissioners said repairing the Civic Center façade was among their top priorities.

The roof needs to be replaced in some sections but some areas could wait since they’re in better shape, Houtz said.

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Houtz said he wouldn’t recommend doing roofing until the panels are replaced since scaffolding would need to be constructed around the building to remove the existing panels and install replacements. The panels are heavy, he said, and the work would likely damage the existing roof in some spots so it would be better to fix the roof second.

“It’s going to be a very slow process,” Houtz said.

There are some options for phasing the work, Houtz said, but it could also add cost if the contracts are done in a way that stop and start the work by contractors.

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The top priority panels are on the front of the building in the center section. The brick on the wings is performing well, Houtz said.

Mayor Bob Kelly asked if the engineers had considered changing materials that were lighter.

Houtz said they explored it but don’t believe it’s an option because the panels are loadbearing and if the weight is removed, there might be more movement in the building because the backup structure of the building isn’t meant to carry the extra weight.

Kelly said “we need to see choices, timeliness, possibilities” for planning the project.

Staff again provided a timeline of dates and actions required to send the bond ask to a ballot.

Staff also told commissioners that due to changes in tax valuations by the Montana Department of Revenue, the downtown tax increment financing fund might have additional funds available.

Because the state made a change and the Energy West building behind the Civic Center is now centrally assessed, that meant a boost in tax revenue for the city.

Melissa Kinzler, the city’s finance director told commissioners on Tuesday that they’re projecting a fund balance of $1.2 million in the downtown TIF after other committed funds are subtracted.

Staff said that could give the city more financing options to reduce the amount needed for a public bond, or potentially be calculated than the city’s cap on non-voted debt capacity.

That figure will depend on how the DoR valuation holds up and whether there are any tax protests, but so far, there have been none in the downtown TIF, Kinzler said.

The increased tax value is primarily attributable to the Energy West building, but also includes other buildings with increased values and some tax abatements that have ended, Kinzler said.

Kelly said he wanted to see alternatives such as doing the project in phases and potential costs of breaking it up.

Raymond said breaking the project into phases likely wouldn’t be idea but could be an opportunity to learn more about the building structure as they do the work.

The information provided to commissions in June and again on Tuesday includes breakdowns for the panel replacement, roof replacement and a temporary canopy to protect pedestrians while work is going on above. It also includes three rook alternatives for additional improvements.

The projected project total also includes a $501,193 contingency due to the unknowns of what’s being the panels, cost escalations and tariff impacts, Houtz said.

Kelly suggested that it might come to closing the front doors and restricting access to the building.

“Maybe the reality is that we can’t afford to use those steps while it’s dangerous,” he said.

Those doors play into fire code, emergency exits and building capacity for major events such as symphony concerts, according to staff.

To access TIF funds, the city will have to go through it’s own process of submitting an application, presenting in public hearings and getting commission approval.

For downtown TIF projects, the city routes through requests through the Downtown Development Partnership for consideration and to make a recommendation on whether to approve.

Kelly told staff during the meeting that if they needed commission support in presenting to the “decision makers” that they were available.

Any and all TIF funding requests come to the commission for final approval.

Raymond told commissioners that the construction drawings were nearly complete and that Houtz was starting to put together bid documents for the project.