Prior to a Tuesday night hearing, Vice Mayor Steve Kay had to tell an overflow crowd in the second floor Lexington council chamber that some had to watch the hearing from an overflow viewing area outside the chamber because the room was over capacity.
For James Schrader that’s evidence that the current city government center, the former Lafayette Hotel on Main Street, is obsolete.
“We need a room big enough,” Schrader said. “We are restricting people from engaging in the democratic process.”
Schrader was one of more than 30 people who spoke at a public hearing about a proposal to consolidate and move hundreds of city employees from its five downtown buildings to one site — a revamped and renovated Lexington Herald-Leader building. Schrader was hired by the Herald-Leader to sell the building, he disclosed to the council.
A committee of city employees selected the proposal by CRM Companies to expand and renovate the current Lexington Herald-Leader building on Midland Avenue. CRM’s proposal includes adding a council chamber to the front of the building, a police station and an 800-space parking garage at the back of the building. It will cost the city $5.1 million a year for 35 years.
The other proposals included one by Cowgill Partners, which had proposed a new multistory building on Corral and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Municipal Consolidated and Construction LLC and Pure Development had both proposed tearing down the current county clerk and police department building on Main Street and building a new multistory city hall on that property.
Cowgill has sent letters to the city saying they plan to challenge the bid. Cowgill has also sent other letters to council members and other commercial property owners arguing that they were the lowest bid. The city has noted that CRM’s proposal included an 800-space parking garage. Cowgill’s proposal only included 200 spaces.
The council cannot overrule the selection committee’s choice of the CRM Proposal. If the council decides not to go with the CRM Proposal or the Herald-Leader site, it would have to re-bid the project.
“Council does not have the option with going with any of the other proposals,” said Vice Mayor Kay.
The council did not vote on Tuesday night. It could take a vote as early as next Tuesday.
Still, Julie Goodman, a lawyer, said the selection process was flawed. Goodman said the council should have vetted the request for proposals.
“You delegated your responsibility,” Goodman said.
Jacob Walbourn, a lawyer for the McBrayer law firm which has represented Cowgill, said he was not speaking for Cowgill but said he had concerns about the selection process.
Walbourn said the selection committee gave too much weight to the wrong things. The committee only gave each proposal’s location a pass or fail.
“This is a very challenging area of town when it comes to traffic,” Walbourn said. “We have not truly evaluated the location.”
Walbourn said the movement of the city’s employees out of the urban core sends the wrong message. It will also leave vacant buildings downtown. The city has five buildings downtown — the former Lafayette hotel, an attached building, the county clerk and police department and the Phoenix building on Vine Street.
“It floods the market with available market space,” Walbourn said. “I call on you to reject this process and start again.”
Mike Harris, the vice president of Cowgill Properties, said that the city used a request for proposal for a new government center that was modeled after one used by the state. The city should start again and develop a request for proposal that represented the city’s interests.
But many people who spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting were in favor of the Herald-Leader site.
Former Vice Mayor Isabel Yates said she supported the Herald-Leader site because it could drive further development on that side of town. The Herald-Leader site is also one of the largest parcels of land close to downtown.
“It’s the entrance way to our city,” Yates said. “I think it would energize and expand our East End.”
Hugh Bennett, the architect for the original Herald-Leader building, said the building would be extremely difficult to tear down. It was a lumber yard prior to becoming the Herald-Leader.
“This is one of the best reuses of a building that I have seen,” Bennett said. “It would phenomenal for the city.”
Graham Pohl, a retired architect, said he had no connection to any one who bid on the project. Pohl said it’s a great reuse of a current building.
“It is time that the pride of our city is demonstrated in our civic architecture,” Pohl said. “It’s time we stopped wringing our hands and proceed.”
Rick Ekhoff, of EOP Architects, designed the CRM Companies proposal. Ekhoff said that in the 37 years his firm has responded to more than 1,000 requests from public or government agencies and said a public official has never served on the selection committee. Ekhoff said EOP Architects has responded to requests for a proposal for a city hall from the city of Lexington three different times over the past two decades. This was the right project at the right time in the right place, he said.
“This project sets the tone of what Midland Avenue can be,” Ekhoff said.
Craig Turner, of CRM Companies, said governments struggle to maintain their buildings. Turner said that he is using tax exempt financing. That means the city can’t borrow money for less than CRM Companies. Turner said he was surprised that so much time has been spent talking about the process.
“I never expected to be here 10 months later talking about the process rather than the merits of the projects,” Turner said.