Part of City Hall crumbling: Despite de-molding and plywood reinforcements, Key West’s City Hall is still a mess and may not survive a Category 2 hurricane

Part of City Hall crumbling: Despite de-molding and plywood reinforcements, Key West’s City Hall is still a mess and may not survive a Category 2 hurricane

Source: The Miami Herald, February 26, 2006
By: Jennifer Babson

In Key West’s crumbling City Hall annex, wires protrude from ceilings, workers have glued plywood to keep concrete beams from falling, and an air-circulation problem has given the mayor a severe case of itchy eyes.

“It’s bad,” sniffled Mayor Morgan McPherson. “I’m taking steroids now.”

For more than a decade, city consultants have warned that Key West’s peach-colored City Hall and an adjacent building located in the island’s historic district were in dire need of replacement. But last year’s string of storms turned a problem into a crisis, forcing officials to scramble for a replacement that will cost millions and take years to erect.

In the meantime, Mother Nature might end up lending a hand with demolition.

“In a Category 2, the building will be here, but the roof will come off,” said John Jones, Key West’s assistant city manager.

In recent months, mold has mushroomed between concrete and sheetrock, forcing the city to pay $63,000 to a contractor that employs a substance known for its ability to also nix anthrax. But the black fuzzies have been here before.

“There is no mold in this building,” Jones said. “It will come back, but there’s no mold now.”

Fungus problems have spawned seven workers’ compensation claims within the past few months, though none have been filed since the buildings were de-molded last month.

“It’s definitely not the best of conditions,” said Roger Wittenberg, the city’s finance director.
Key West’s 17,500-square-foot City Hall sits in concrete ignominy on a shady corner of Old Town, surrounded by meticulously restored wooden masterpieces whose architectural maintenance is strictly upheld by city rules. A city parking garage next to City Hall was demolished in a hurry recently after raining plaster made it too much of a liability.

A few blocks away, commissioners and city board members hold their public meetings in a tiny, brick “Old City Hall” constructed in 1891 that has been nicely renovated.

But the building is a far cry from the 44-year-old edifice in which most of Key West’s business is conducted.

The City Hall’s design still bears the imprint of Florida’s segregation laws, such as multiple bathrooms. But as Key West has grown, so has the need for more city office space. Unable to house all of its staff in one place, the city is paying about $300,000 in annual rent for various suites around town. On an increasingly congested island whose residents loath to commute, that has created some complications.

“It’s very difficult when I’m trying to coordinate a development proposal and the planner and the landscaper and the fire marshal and the utility director and the building department are all in different buildings in different parts of town,” sighed Ty Symroski, Key West’s planner.

City planners, Symroski said, have a nickname for a nearby office where they keep some of their files: “Mold world.”

Across a parking lot, in a building a few yards from City Hall, code enforcement officers prepare citations in a structure Jones concedes does not meet code.

A pungent smell — it’s not clear if it emanates from the chemicals used to de-mold or from fetid carpeting — fills lungs and leaves headaches.

“For one thing, the carpet is saturated. It got wet and damp and at one time sewage was overflowing. It’s been a couple of years,” Jones said. “They had to replace the carpet but all of that gets into the floor and the walls.”

Given the situation, some wonder why a new City Hall wasn’t built years ago.

“They have needed to replace the building for quite some time but what has happened is that they have deferred it for so long that it has become a crisis,” said Bert Bender, a local architect first contracted 14 years to help tackle the dilemma.

In 2000, commissioners passed on an opportunity to purchase a building in Key West’s New Town neighborhood. Meanwhile, City Hall continued its slide.

“Indecision isn’t why it didn’t happen. There were plenty of decisions made about working toward the process,” said former Mayor Jimmy Weekley. “We prioritized getting a new fire station and police station built first.”

Bender has analyzed ways City Hall could be rebuilt at the present site and has suggested other locations in Old Town and elsewhere. A number of city commissioners, however, are leaning toward several larger spaces in and around less densely packed New Town, where many longtime residents have relocated.
Whatever they decide, it will require a cash infusion. Though Key West has nearly $6 million in a City Hall reserve fund, the city must obtain approval from voters to underwrite a project that could cost up to $20 million and probably will have to be taller than zoning rules now allow.

For some, that can’t come too soon.

“We have needed a new City Hall for probably 10 years,” Jones said.

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