Split vote delays municipal campus design

An empty lot is all that now sits on this side of the Northland Mall property. Demolition of most of the building recently finished. (Photo by Clint Riese)
An empty lot is all that now sits on the north side of the Northland Mall property. Demolition of most of the building recently finished. (Photo by Clint Riese)

Work cannot resume without council approval


Clint Riese
News Editor

The design process for Forest Lake’s municipal campus is on hold.

The surprising hiatus began June 10 when a 2-2 vote by the City Council left architects twisting in the wind.

“I think that’s where we’re at; we have no choice,” Mayor and EDA President Chris Johnson said after the vote, referring to the financially driven hold-up. “We very well could incur more costs in the delay than the money we’re trying to save, but that’s what we’re stuck with.”

The project design team from the firm Leo A. Daly hoped to obtain approval of its design development report, a recap of the project’s scope off which a line-item budget could be created. That would have marked completion of the second of three design milestones.

The Economic Development Authority had approved the document via a 6-1 vote minutes beforehand, but the absence of Councilwoman Susan Young left the door open to a deadlocked council vote.

The city’s recommendation to approve the report would have meant authorizing the creation of construction documents leading up to an August bidding for the approximately $21 million project. However, a $250,000 design element caused a stalemate between the other four council members. Mike Freer and Ben Winnick opposed budgeting that amount for a pillared canopy around the main entrance. Architects had added that piece based on feedback from the EDA, City Council and the project Building Committee, and they envisioned it as a unifying touch that reflected the city’s front-porch feel.

The wood and metal canopy would span 3,600 square feet and wrap around the facility’s front-entry plaza. Scaled back from its original size, it was the least expensive of three signature images contemplated for the “front yard.”

“We’ve investigated quite a few options and we did not come up with a lower-cost option that the Building Committee felt a sense of pride and joy about,” Leo A. Daly architect Cindy McCleary said at the meeting.

McCleary said an original, simpler concept for the front-entry plaza was considered “too spartan” by these same boards last month. Speaking to the EDA and council, City Administrator and EDA Executive Director Aaron Parrish called the canopy design a “direct reaction to your reaction at the last meeting.”

“The Building Committee took that information and feedback and tried to address that expectation that was laid out by a number of folks indicating that they really didn’t like the exterior,” he continued.

While emphasizing that he is not against the project as a whole, Freer could not justify a quarter-million-dollar expense for an optional design feature.

“That money would be better spent, to the citizens, inside the building than on the outside. … If it’s not possible, I understand, but I have to believe there’s got to be something cheaper than $250,000 for a canopy,” he said.

Winnick took more of a big-picture approach in making his case.

“We want something that looks attractive, but the functionality of it … Once we start going too far down the line, then we’re going to start cutting into necessities to keep it in budget or just go way over budget,” he said.

Johnson said he expects the project to come in under budget, canopy and all. He noted the Building Committee would be able to make cost-saving decisions regarding value engineering options that will shape the final scope of work sent out for bid. That sentiment was echoed by Blake Roberts, an EDA member who has been outspoken in his desire to tighten the budget.

Johnson also cautioned against skimping on the area most visible to the public.

“Here we have a $20 million project and we’re looking at cutting 1 percent, which is probably the 1 percent that makes a difference,” he said. “It’s a philosophy, but I think people want us to make this city have some character and attractiveness. If you’re trying to sell houses in town, I’ve got to believe these final touches make a difference.”

Parrish opened the discussion by noting the project was right on track from a budget and design standpoint. An hour later, he was addressing how a design delay could impact the project’s bottom line.

“It does have potential implications on our ability to bid this project come August, which ultimately then may translate into higher costs at the back end, as you start to get ready and progress this thing through the fall and they’re trying to get footings and foundations in,” he said. “There is the potential that our costs could be increased if we have to push that bidding period out.”

The design development report will again be in front of the EDA and council Monday, June 24.