Straining for space
St. Albert Place bulging at the seams as city wrestles with space needs
By: Peter Boer
| Posted: Saturday, Feb 23, 2013 06:00 am
Stepping into the airy, expansive lobby of St. Albert Place, it’s hard to believe the building has a space problem.
To the left is the two-level public library, and the Musée Heritage Museum is down a small hallway to the right. There are spaces for the St. Albert arts guilds – pottery, painting, floral arts, quilting and paper arts – as well as a retail space – WARES – where members of the guilds sell their creations.
But behind the doors of the different city departments, space is at a premium. Hallways, crammed with shelves and cabinets for file storage, are so narrow only one person can pass through at a time. Work stations designed for one or two desks have as many as four in one space. Photocopiers and refrigerators occupy the same rooms, storage spaces have been transformed into small offices and meeting rooms are scarce.
“The space at city hall at St. Albert Place is extremely cramped and unfortunately many staff are in working conditions that are not really conducive to work,” says city manager Patrick Draper. “There’s insufficient storage space. There are so many that have a high level of storage boxes contained in their work area.”
The problem isn’t new and it has been getting worse. Back in 2006, a civic space needs study found that while there was 12,542 square feet of office space at St. Albert Place, the staff at that time needed 15,000 square feet. The report even used capital letters to say that action was needed “NOW!”
The number of staff has since grown.
The proposed solution six years ago was a civic office building located at one of three possible sites downtown. The cost was estimated then at between $13.4 million and $15.1 million. But even after a series of open houses and preliminary designs, the project was shelved due to the cost. Since then, the city has lost one of its potential sites – the old RCMP building or Hemingway building – because the Visual Arts Studio Association now occupies it.
But the idea for a new civic building has returned to the conversation at city hall. Mayor Nolan Crouse’s revamped Downtown Area Redevelopment Plan includes a possible location for such a structure. And council approved a civic office space plan this month with a committee that will look at how to best alleviate the crunch, which includes potentially building a new space.
“Eventually we just can’t keep cramming people into smaller and smaller spaces. We have to do something and hence this annex,” said Chris Jardine, general manager of community and protective services.
“At what point do you lease more space before you look at it and say, ‘That’s a lot of money. We could own something.’”
The city has been leasing space downtown to free up some space at city hall. Staff with human resources and assessment services have been working out of office space at the St. Albert Professional Building downtown. The economic development department works out of the former CIBC building on Sir Winston Churchill Avenue and Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) staff have been working out of another downtown office on Perron Street, but will soon be moving to one of the city’s newest acquisitions – the MIG building.
Purchased last year, the 24,000-square-foot building on Bellerose Drive was originally bought to provide more space for the RCMP, who have also been bursting at the seams of their headquarters. The plan right now is for the traffic, drug, general investigation section and community policing divisions to move into the MIG building.
But they won’t be alone – the city has chosen not to renew the lease downtown for FCSS, which will also be moving into the MIG building. So too will recreation services, making the move out of St. Albert Place. The first city staffers are scheduled to move in Monday.
But a question for the space needs committee will be whether scattering staff throughout the city at several different locations, what Draper refers to as a “distributed” approach, is appropriate. City staff will be scattered across nine different city-owned buildings and two leased spaces. While some staff are housed at buildings that serve a specific purpose – such as public works, Fountain Park Recreation Centre or Servus Credit Union Place, being so physically disconnected is something that needs to be examined, Draper said.
“Is that an efficient way for us to work together and is it cost-effective?” Draper asked. “Should we all be central? In either scenario, does the city build a new building or does someone else and we lease it?”
A developer has approached the city, asking if the city would lease some office space in a proposed high-rise tower. But Draper said talks with this developer and others have not progressed far, and that any such building would still be years away.
“There have been several interested parties that have some concepts about some space downtown in a number of different locations,” Draper said. “Some of these proponents have asked if the city was prepared to lease half the building, which we’re not in a position to even contemplate.”
St. Albert Place has contributed to that space crunch simply by nature of its function and design. Unlike some municipal buildings, it isn’t just home to the seat of government and administrative staff. It houses also the library, the museum, the arts guilds and the Arden Theatre.
But the space crunch can be felt everywhere. One employee in the Arden works in the lunch room, with conduit and utility piping running overhead. And the library is also bursting at the seams, said director Peter Bailey.
“It’s reaching a point where we just don’t have room for anything anymore,” Bailey said. “It’s been, for a few years now, that any new book in means another book has to come out.”
Moving the library and other community and cultural services is out of the question, because the building was designed, and council reaffirmed over the summer that it was, a cultural space. And the city can’t add onto the actual structure of St. Albert Place because of space constraints on either side and the building’s designation as a historic resource, which severely curtails what can and can’t be done to it.
The museum is facing space constraints as well, said acting arts and heritage executive director Ann Ramsden.
“We would like to be able to do more educational programming and the current space restricts that,” Ramsden said.
Bailey said the 25,000-square-foot library doesn’t even meet a minimum standard set out by the American Library Association in 1966, which calls for library space to equal 0.6 square feet per capita. St. Albert Public Library is clocking in at 0.41 square feet per capita.
There have been plans to either build a new library or a branch library, but nothing has ever been approved. The Downtown Area Redevelopment Plan calls for including a 50,000-square-foot library in the new civic office building, but until something is approved by council, Bailey and staff have to make due with the space they have.
“There’s no fat (to cut) anymore. No frippery. It’s cutting into the bone of collections.”