The New San Jose City Hall: A Commitment to Community Service

By Borgsdorf, Del | Public Management, November 2005 | Go to article overview

The New San Jose City Hall: A Commitment to Community Service


Borgsdorf, Del, Public Management


On October 15, a spectacular new city hall was dedicated in downtown San Jose, California. This event marks a significant milestone for the city, as the seat of government returns to the heart of San Jose for the first time since 1958, in a new corporate headquarters befitting the 10th-largest city in the United States.

Looking into the future and planning a new city hall for the years 2000 through 2050 rivaled the challenge faced by city officials in the mid-1950s. Fortunately, San Jose has benefited from visionary and entrepreneurial public and private sector leaders, who accepted the challenge raised by old and outdated facilities and a growing community.

Believing that owning rather than renting made long-term sense, and supported by the public in a 1996 referendum, the city of San Jose set its course to build a world-class, community-oriented city hall to serve its citizens for the next 50 years. I hope that readers from communities of all sizes can learn from this assessment of our building project.

The design centerpiece for the project is a 10-story, 100-foot-diameter, glass-domed rotunda made of more than 1,000 specially crafted pieces of glass. Building a one-of-a-kind glass rotunda with more than 4,000 supporting connection points, hanging from a complex cabling system 100 feet in the air, brought a level of complexity that challenged even veteran construction workers.

Surrounding the rotunda is an expansive outdoor plaza for public events, an 18-story tower for city offices, and a three-story wing containing the new city council chambers and other public meeting rooms.

THE CASE FOR A NEW CITY HALL

The preexisting city hall was built in 1958, when just more than 1,000 employees met the service needs of San Jose's 150,000 residents. During the next four decades, the population grew to 923,000, and the number of employees approached 7,000. The building, more than a mile north of the downtown core, only accommodated 40 percent of those city employees who worked in offices.

With the city leasing 300,000 square feet of office space in nine locations at ever-rising rental rates, the city needed a long-term solution. Further challenging the city was an ordinance approved by voters in 1968, limiting the location of city hall to a place outside the downtown core.

Public support and input are essential ingredients of any successful construction of a large public project. In 1996, San Jose's mayor and city council identified the need to build a new city hall as a way to reduce costs and enhance services. The city went to the voters, and in November of that year, 60 percent of them authorized San Jose to build a new city hall downtown. Within several years, the city had acquired the site to build the new structure, and on August 14, 2002, the community celebrated the building's groundbreaking.

A detailed financial analysis demonstrated that consolidating services in a new facility would mean a net present-value savings to taxpayers of some $189 million over the next 50 years.

COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION

During a five-year period, San Jose residents participated in forums that addressed location, programming, and design concepts. Members of the public worked on committees that made recommendations for the site and the architect. A project-area committee and a parking and traffic committee played active roles in advising the city on a number of key goals, including:

* Customer service improvements.

* Consolidation of city services.

* State-of-the-art technology and efficiency.

* A downtown presence that would attract other private investments.

* Easy access to transportation alternatives.

* Landmark status for civic celebrations.

* Meeting rooms for public use.

* A council chamber that would support public participation.

* Sustainable design elements. …

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