6 visionary strategies for local government projects

Civic projects in Boston, Las Vegas, Austin, and suburban Atlanta show that a ‘big vision’ can also be a spur to neighborhood revitalization.

Las Vegas City Hall, constructed at a cost of $109 million, $17 million below bu
Las Vegas City Hall, constructed at a cost of $109 million, $17 million below budget. Building Team: Forest City Enterprises, Elkus Manfredi Architects, JMA Architecture Studios, DeSimone Consulting Engineers, JBA Consulting Engineers, Poggemeyer Design Group, Shen Milsom & Wilke, Lighting Design Alliance, The Weidt Group, CDC Curtainwall Design Consulting, GrEn A/E Consultants, The Whiting-Turner Construction Co. PHOTO: BRAD FEINKNOPF
August 22, 2013

The mid-20th century (and perhaps a few decades beyond) saw the construction of many local Brutalist-style city halls, libraries, police and fire stations, and administrative office buildings that more closely resembled bunker-like monuments to power than they did places of civility, comfort, and respite for the public they were meant to serve.

Recent municipal and county projects are being designed to be much more open and inviting to the local citizenry in an attempt to recalibrate the public’s relationship with local officials and institutions. Some go a step further, striving also to be catalysts for neighborhood revitalization that will draw more people and new businesses to neglected areas.

Building Design+Construction examined several new city and county projects that exemplify these trends. What we found could signal a movement toward local government projects that not only relate more closely to the community, but also help fuel neighborhood economic development.



Cities usually have more than one choice about where to site a prominent new municipal building. Besides looking at property values and site development costs, public officials and their Building Team partners must first ask: Will the site be convenient for city workers and the public to access? Can a less desirable city-owned property be sold to help pay for a new building at the right location? Would it be more cost-effective to renovate and adapt an existing building, rather than building new?

How to win local government projects

1. As always, start with the right location.
2. Think big, think holistically.
3. Provide plenty of public gathering areas.
4. Be creative with amenities.
5. Make your design open and welcoming.
6. Use local history to make a design statement.

Some new local government projects probe further: Which location would generate the heftiest economic boost? For instance, the downtown site of the new seven-story, 308,000-sf Las Vegas City Hall lies in an economic dead zone. The new project is the centerpiece of a grand downtown revitalization plan advocated by Oscar Goodman, the flamboyant former mayor (1999-2011). “It is part of the former mayor’s vision for a total transformation of downtown,” says Howard Elkus, Elkus Manfredi Architects (www.elkus-manfredi.com), the design firm for the building.

Using his considerable lawyerly skills, Goodman pushed the controversial project through the city council in the midst of the 2008-2009 recession, and even secured low-interest federal Build America bonds to finance it.

Located about 10 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, the 2.75-acre site is bounded on the west by a 61-acre parcel dominated by a rail yard and surrounded on the other three sides by mostly decrepit structures. The master plan calls for the redevelopment of a five-block area. “If you imagine the neighborhood as a mall, consider City Hall the anchor tenant,” says Michael Vlaovich, AIA, Project Manager, City of Las Vegas Public Works.


The Las Vegas City Hall’s two distinctive shapes—the curvilinear, 430-seat city council chamber and the angular seven-story glass office tower housing the city’s administrative departments—come together in the lobby’s prefunction space. Providing places of congregation like this is an important selling point for the new generation of municipal and county buildings. © BRAD FEINKNOPF


Completed in 2012, the new $109.3 million, LEED Gold City Hall houses more than 500 employees. They now patronize nearby restaurants, retail shops, and service providers, injecting new economic vitality into the neighborhood. Add a new concert hall and children’s museum nearby at the old rail yard site, and a variety of other commercial and cultural projects that are about to open, and you’ve got a rebuilt, thriving neighborhood. The city estimates 13,000 new jobs and up to $20 million in new tax revenue will result from this downtown renaissance, although such projections always have to be viewed somewhat skeptically. Meanwhile, the old City Hall, in another part of downtown, has been sold to Zappos.com; it will host 2,000 employees of the online shoe retailer.

Stimulating neighborhood rebirth takes leaders who think big and are extremely persistent. Boston’s new school headquarters in the Roxbury neighborhood presents such a case. The location, known as Dudley Square, contains a historic building that had been vacant for over 40 years. Various proposals to redevelop the area had been advanced by federal and state officials in recent decades, only to be abandoned. As we’ll see, it took a determined effort by Mayor Thomas M. Menino to finally get the project moving.

The takeaway: Advise your public-sector clients to consider how a new municipal or county project could inject new life into an economically moribund area. Pose this question: “Where could we create the biggest economic shot in the arm, at the most reasonable cost?”

In some cases, this line of thinking may lead to a specific site that could be more costly to develop than other alternatives, but have a greater long-term payoff in terms of neighborhood revitalization. That’s when your team will need to work with civic leaders to make a compelling case to taxpayers regarding the far-reaching benefits of going with the more expensive option.



Sometimes it’s better to set aside timidity and think big, by proposing multiple complementary projects that will garner support from a wider swath of the community.

That’s what happened in Boston, where 20-year-incumbent Menino (who recently announced he will not run for reelection) kept urging his planning staff to think big about the new school headquarters. “It wasn’t like we were going to plunk down the building and walk away,” says Patrick Brophy, Assistant Director of Operations of Capital Construction Division in the city’s Property and Construction Management Department. The idea was to schedule public- and private-sector projects so that the area would receive a major economic jolt to spur private-sector investment. “We didn’t want a 20-year slow leak of investment,” says Brophy. This strategy required years of planning and detailed coordination with multiple stakeholders, including electric, telecommunications, and natural gas providers. 

For Sasaki Associates (www.sasaki.com) and its partners on the school headquarters project—Dutch firm Mecanoo architecten (www.mecanoo.nl), Arup (www.arup.com), and CM at risk Shawmut Design & Construction (www.shawmut.com)—neighborhood revitalization figured prominently in the thinking behind the six-story, $115 million building, which will house more than 500 full-time employees. The 200,000-sf facility’s large, open lobby and main entrance are oriented to create a direct line of sight to the bus station across the street. In addition, the neighborhood is undergoing a complete infrastructure rebuild—roads, utilities, even traffic signals. The local police station was replaced with a new structure, and the branch library is being renovated. All this activity has been taking place over an 18-month period.


The solar “tree farm” in the plaza at Las Vegas City Hall—33 tubular columns, 25 to 35 feet in height, mounted with photovoltaic panels that generate 7% of the building’s annual energy use. The LEED Gold building’s sustainable design also avoids 240,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. © BRAD FEINKNOPF


This infusion of public dollars and spirit seems to be having the hoped-for effect. Nuestra Comunidad Development Corp. is expected to begin construction soon on Bartlett Place, a mix of 323 housing units, offices, and retail shops on the site of a former bus yard just outside Dudley Square. On land cleared by the Boston Redevelopment Agency, design/development firm Urbanica plans to construct a hotel/housing complex, while Tropical Foods and the Madison Park Development Corp. are building new offices, apartments, and a grocery store. And the city’s Director of Neighborhood Development, Sheila Dillon, has told the Boston Globe she’s getting numerous calls from developers inquiring about publicly owned land in Dudley Square.

The "Big Vision" Approach is also being put to work by the city of Alpharetta, Ga., which is using its new 48,000-sf city hall as a means to create a central locus for the community. “We’ve been a fairly small city until recently,” says City Administrator Bob Regus. “We’ve never had much of a downtown.” The city, an emerging high-tech center about 25 miles north of Atlanta, grew by 65% in the 2000s, to 58,000, with a median family income of more than $95,000. 

As plans for the new city hall evolved, Alpharetta kept thinking bigger, buying up vacant and underused properties until it put together a 20-acre site that eventually will include a new 25,000-sf county library, a 450-space parking structure, and five acres of parkland that will create the city’s first downtown gathering space. A “town green” is envisioned to hold concerts, fairs, and other civic gatherings. Various agencies are involved in developing design guidelines to give the new city hall and surrounding structures a cohesive look and feel.

The takeaway: A new civic building can be the centerpiece of a coordinated effort to remake a neighborhood, especially if it can be the catalyst for complementary development that adds critical mass for economic growth.


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