By Matthew Hall

A divided Planning Commission approved plans for an expansion to City Hall at their Nov. 16 meeting.

During their first pass at the building, Commissioners had voiced concern about the placement of equipment/machinery, use of solar panels near the existing City Hall and the size of the proposed building. However, a revision to the placement of the solar panels and the presence of a previously absent Commissioner was enough for the project to secure four votes.

The City wants to build a three-story, 45-foot tall building at the rear of the current City Hall. As proposed it is three-stories plus a basement for a total floor area of 50,200 square feet and is being built to one of the highest sustainability levels possible.

“The reason a city services building is necessary is to consolidate administrative staff in multiple locations to provide better customer service,” said City Architect Miriam Mulder. “Right now people are sent to multiple locations to do business, additionally, the 45,000 square feet of off site lease space is very expensive and getting more expensive all the time.”

The Landmarks’ Commission, Architectural Review Board and City Council had already provided feedback on some stages of the project but Planning Commission approval was required to keep the project on track and avoid costly delays associated with new code that will be in place by Jan. 1 of 2017.

The building will be required to generate all necessary power from within the City Hall site and a large solar panel installation is the only way to meet the projected demand. Staff had proposed to cover parking spaces located just north of the current City Hall, but the Commission took issue with the visual impact. The approved plan reduces the amount of solar panels visible from Main Street by placing additional panels on the roof of the existing building.

Commissioners Jennifer Kennedy and Nina Fresco voted against the project. Fresco said she couldn’t support the project even with revisions.

“I believe building is still too big, they haven’t met the threshold that I would need to recommend this,” she said.

Commissioner Richard McKinnon was absent from the first hearing. He criticized the project for lacking enough incentives to reduce traffic, the placement of solar panels and questioned some of the sustainability efforts. However, he said the project was worth supporting in the end.

“On balance, and always on balance, that’s what we do here, this is a step forward and it’s a beneficial building to the city and under those circumstances I think we should vote to support it this evening…” he said.

Mulder said the building will have an economic benefit to the town. She said the building could repay its cost to the city in 20 – 30 years based on projected rent increases of 3 – 5 percent. However, she said costs could be recouped faster given a recent lease for property occupied by city employees increased by 18 percent.

“When you look at it that way, from being a prisoner of these rising costs and very expensive office market, I think there’s a pretty strong argument for not only doing this building but doing it as a leadership building which provides an example to others in terms of what we can do in terms of pushing for net zero energy, net zero water and using appropriate materials and embracing the very things we are trying to have others do,” she said.