After the City Council last week awarded a $2.97-million contract to renovate City Hall, critics of the project renewed their attacks on what they believe is a financially foolish undertaking.
City Hall, a 59-year-old building near the corner of Citrus Avenue and College Street, has been the subject of debate for nearly three decades. On one side are those who agree with Mayor Robert Low, who believes the Spanish-style building should be preserved as a link to the city's past.
On the other side are those who say the building is too small and dilapidated and should be replaced by a new facility. A leading voice in this effort is the Covina Chamber of Commerce.
The future of City Hall, which was a major campaign issue in the 1988 City Council race, has split the council as renovation costs escalate beyond the original estimate of $2.3 million. Doug Ewing, the architect hired by the city to design the renovation project, later modified the estimate of construction costs to $2.6 million.
Mayor Low and Councilmen Thomas O'Leary and Gary Coffey back the renovation project, while Councilmen Chris Lancaster and Henry Morgan favor building a new facility near the Police and Fire departments at the corner of San Bernardino Road and Citrus Avenue.
Chamber of Commerce President Tim Burlingame wrote Low on May 1, urging him to reconsider the renovation project.
"The renovation bids are as high as it would be to build a new building," he said.
Low said his critics are comparing apples and oranges because they are using old estimates on how much a new building would cost.
City Manager John Thomson said his staff made a study 1 1/2 years ago and estimated that a new building would cost no more than $3 million. Thomson said he is neutral on the issue. "Our position is to follow the direction of the council."
In 1987, the chamber board voted unanimously to urge the City Council to abandon a renovation project in favor of building a new complex, said Randy Gordon, director of the chamber.
Although Low did not respond to Burlingame's letter, O'Leary wrote to Burlingame, saying the decision to renovate is "wise and educated" and will help the city retain its self-identify.
At a special meeting last Thursday, the council voted 3 to 2 to award the City Hall renovation contract to FTR International Inc. of Marina del Rey.
John Rose, one of approximately 25 people at the meeting who opposed the renovation project, described the council's vote as a politically driven decision and said that Low is interested in seeing his name on a plaque after the building is renovated.
Low dismissed that charge, saying that after the renovation, City Hall will bear the same plaque listing council members who were in office when the building was completed in 1930.
"I would have a far greater chance in having my name on a city plaque if there were a new City Hall," Low said.
Burlingame, who spoke at Thursday's meeting on behalf of the chamber, said he and others were frustrated that their comments elicited no response from Low, Coffey and O'Leary.
"It was like they had made up their minds and were not going to be confused by the facts," Burlingame said.
"I think it's a stupid decision," Morgan said of the vote to award the contract. "The contractor, that's not the issue. The issue is we shouldn't be wasting public funds renovating a building that old."
Lancaster, who last month voted against a bond issue to fund the renovation, also said the project is one that residents can ill afford.
Lancaster said he had approved architectural plans for the renovation only because he and Morgan were outnumbered. He said that now that he knows renovation is going to cost more than $2.97 million, he will vote no on everything else related to the project.
"It's an awkward, old building." Morgan said. "It's not an edifice that can be considered of great significance."
But Low believes City Hall is an important link to Covina's past.
"I grew up in California in the '30s and '40s," Low said. "I have fond memories and I think they are worthwhile in preserving."
Coffey agreed, adding that "Covina is a city that's very history-minded."
A disappointed Rose said he and other critics do not plan to continue fighting the renovation. "As long as a decision has been made, I think the city should get behind the City Council and make this the best sow's ear in Covina."