San Antonio City Hall
San Antonio City Hall will undergo a major renovation starting in August 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio’s historic City Hall building is almost 130 years old, and it’s long overdue for its first major renovation, Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department, told the Rivard Report Tuesday.

That means several offices and departments will need to play musical chairs for the next 18 months.

From flooding in the basement to electrical and plumbing issues, the structure built in 1889 and its fourth floor addition from 1927 need more than just “Band-Aids,” Frisbie said. “There will be a point where it’s not safe to be in this building.”

City Council on Thursday will consider a $30 million contract with a local construction company to start the renovation process this summer. The project is expected to be completed by February 2020. During that time, the building’s more than 143 employees and elected officials – which includes the city manager, mayor, and City Council members – will be relocated to nearby facilities for about 18 months.

That’s a few months longer than previously anticipated, but the project is on track to start this summer after building occupants move out in July. That is the same month City Council members take a break from regularly scheduled meetings.

The City anticipates spending $8 million in administrative, moving, and inspection costs for the project – which is tied to the Council vote on Thursday. Per City policy, 1 percent of the project’s budget, about $380,000, will be put toward a future public art element at the site. The City has been looking into such repairs for several years, but a third-party facility assessment report in March 2017 pinpointed necessary renovations.

About $3.4 million of the project budget will go toward building Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps to City Hall’s main entrance on South Flores Street. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) led efforts last year to design and fund the ramps.

The winning design by Beaty Palmer Architects for the "City Hall for All" design competition shows a reimagined plaza.
Beaty Palmer Architects submitted this winning design for the 2017 City Hall for All design competition for an ADA-compliant front entrance. Credit: Courtesy / AIA San Antonio

The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, which supports organizations for the special-needs community, financed a design contest that was organized by Treviño and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects last year.

Currently, people with mobility challenges must enter the building by descending a ramp at the back of the building that leads to a basement entrance and elevator. Beaty Palmer Architects submitted the winning design for the new entrance that will feature two ramps leading up to the main entrance from either side and stairs similar to the ones currently  in the center.

“It’s nice to know that you’re not sending anybody to the back door,” Treviño said of the project’s goal to ensure equal access to the front of the building. “I’m extremely proud of the collaborative effort.”

The wheelchair accessible ramp located on the back, or west, side of City Hall.
The wheelchair accessible ramp located on the back, or west, side of City Hall. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Final designs for any exterior modifications will be reviewed by the Historic and Design Review Commission, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told the Rivard Report Tuesday.

“These improvements, including the ADA ramps, will make the City more accessible and open to the public,” Houston said, adding that the main and basement levels are slated to become space that serves and accommodates the public. Currently, only the security desk, metal detector, drinking fountain, and media briefing room are accessible to the public on the ground floor.

The design is expected to be completed in May or early June. The Texas Historical Commission and the City’s Office of Historic Preservation will review it before interior or exterior demolition begins, Houston said.

Representatives from the San Antonio Conservation Society told the Rivard Report that the organization supports plans to renovate the building and that the Office of Historic Preservation will oversee any work done to the building.

“We’re comfortable with the changes proposed,” said Vincent Michael, the Conservation Society’s executive director. “What I find interesting is that the original building was built [around the] same time that the Bexar County Courthouse was – during a period of growth.

“Then the fourth floor was added during another time of growth in the 1920s when San Antonio started building skyscrapers,” he said. “Now we’re rehabbing [City Hall] during another time of great growth.”

To make way for the fourth floor, the original central dome and spires were removed from the top of the building.

San Antonio City Hall as seen from West Commerce Street.
San Antonio City Hall as seen from West Commerce Street. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A fifth floor was suggested, Conservation Society President Susan Beavin said, but not pursued. “No one had any information about why it didn’t go forward,” she said.

City Council and City staff will return to the building in 2020 to an entirely new layout and design of each floor, Frisbie said, including modern furnishings.

“I just wish they would do [the work] in phases,” Treviño, who is an architect, told the Rivard Report on Monday, adding that he is concerned about the disruption for City staff and the public who will be redirected to new locations.

But that won’t stop him from supporting the project as a whole, he said, because the building has “been limping along, pieced together as best they could get it.”

While project managers considered keeping people in the building while construction began on the building, Frisbie said, “the asbestos abatement and everything that needs to be done” makes it unsafe for people to be there.

A “modular complex” of temporary buildings will be placed south of Dolorosa Street near City Hall in a grassy area of a parking lot, Houston said. Council members and their staff will be moved to the second floor of Plaza de Armas, which is located just west, or behind, City Hall.

The Department of Arts and Culture will move from Plaza de Armas into the City-owned International Center at 203 S. St. Mary’s St., and the City Clerk’s office will be relocated to the Municipal Plaza Building in Main Plaza.

A spokesperson for Guido Brothers Construction Company, which City staff selected among two respondents asked to submit a bid for the $30 million contract, declined to comment until after City Council vote on Thursday.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com