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Volunteer group feels pushed on City Hall

A citizens panel says the city is rushing them on decisions for a new City Hall and hints at a mass resignation. The mayor says not so.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


ST. PETE BEACH -- The effort to finalize plans for the new City Hall has left many citizen volunteers feeling pushed aside by the process.

A group of city residents, including many who have devoted time and research to the project since the city first began considering whether to remodel the existing City Hall or build a new one, say they have been presented with unexpected changes in the design of the building, then urged to rush decisions.

"We kind of feel a little bit like we're just watching this train go by," said Jack Ohlhaber, chairman of the City Hall Advisory Committee.

The issue came to a head this week at the city's Planning and Zoning Board meeting, where board members were asked to approve a variance to allow the new City Hall to have 20 fewer parking spaces than stipulated by code. They unanimously approved the variance, which will also be considered at Tuesday's City Commission meeting, but several issues came to the surface during the discussion:

Members of the City Hall Advisory Committee have discussed resigning en masse out of frustration with city staff's failure to keep them informed and updated. "They got together and said, "I think we all ought to quit,' " Ohlhaber said. "We don't want to appear to be blessing this when this is all a charade."

When city staff told the planning board that the site plan it received already had been reviewed by the City Hall Advisory Committee, members of the committee who were in the audience and on the board objected, saying they had not yet seen the documents.

Some also have questioned whether the city is being hypocritical by encouraging area businesses to use porous, yet more expensive, parking lot materials to ease stormwater runoff. The city, on the other hand, plans an asphalt parking lot with a sizable retention pond to handle runoff. "We've got to lead the way," said Vina Del Mar resident Augie D'Alessio. "We've got to show the way, and one of the ways to do that is not to cover that parking lot with asphalt."

Other questions have arisen about the building itself. The citizens advisory committee believes the current roof slope design damages the aesthetics of the building, and several residents have voiced concern about the small size of the commission chamber, which will seat about 75 people.

Mayor Ward Friszolowski said the city has not rushed the project. "They've been involved in the whole process," Friszolowski said. "We're going slower than everybody thought we would."

At the planning board meeting, board member Ron Holehouse asked city staff about the difference in price between the asphalt and different forms of parking lot material, such as oyster shells or porous concrete.

But city building official Mike Knotek told the board that the City Commission already had chosen asphalt, and questioning the parking lot material was likely beyond the scope of the planning board. Staff also did not have numbers available at the meeting to illustrate the difference in price among the different parking lot materials.

"It's hard to consider one way or another if we don't have the information," Holehouse said. He said many of the issues the citizens advisory committee has felt strongly about are also items that make the building more expensive. In addition to a porous parking lot material, the committee also is angling for clay tile on the roof instead of cement tile. "At what point do you say, "Enough is enough'?" Friszolowski said.

Still, the City Hall Advisory Committee members question what the push is to finalize the plans for the new City Hall.

"They seem to be in an awful hurry to get it done," Ohlhaber said. "The existing City Hall is not falling down. We could stay in there another year, and it wouldn't matter."

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