Subscribe for 33¢ / day

In a tour that was called depressing and enlightening, members of the new St. Helena Assets Planning Engagement (SHAPE) Committee got their first look Thursday at the city’s public facilities.

Sights like a red-tagged elevator at the flood-prone Carnegie Building, hours-old roof leaks at the Corporation Yard, and hazardously sloped floors at the police station underscored the difficulty of the task facing the committee assigned with assessing St. Helena’s public facilities and making recommendations to the City Council.

Deteriorating buildings suffering from decades of deferred maintenance are only one piece of the puzzle. There’s also the question of how to use them most efficiently.

The Head Start building at Crane Park is only occupied for eight weeks a year, the Carnegie Building has been reduced to a venue for exercise classes and recreational programs, and the tenant who leases a city-owned office building on Railroad Avenue is vacating the building at the end of the year. Meanwhile, in a cramped City Hall cubicles are awkwardly installed in an area that used to be reserved for printers, which have been relegated to a break room.

City employees who led the tour pointed out various challenges, starting at City Hall, which is plagued by a meandering floor plan, poor insulation, accessibility problems, inadequate storage, outdated heating and cooling units, code violations involving electrical panels and roof access, and chronically overflowing sewer lines.

A bathroom shortage occasionally sends City Hall workers to Lyman Park in search of relief. The overall lack of space is so severe that the committee’s meeting had to be called to order in the break room, since the building’s only conference room was being used by financial auditors.

The building’s exterior walls are stained by moss, lichen and rainwater that can’t be corralled by the gutters. On the roof, a black tarp covers a plywood wall to prevent leaks.

Inside the police station, cinder block walls make it impossible to hide wires and cables, which instead snake across the walls and ceilings. A hand-painted cardboard sign warns “Caution Uneven Surface,” over a visibly slanted floor.

Police Chief Bill Imboden assured the committee that the sign was “not a joke.”

“I’ve had employees fall flat on their face walking through here,” he said. “It’s caused some injuries that have caused time off.”

The city’s Railroad Avenue property – home to the Teen Center and an office building — has been floated as a possible site for a new police station. Adventist Health, which had been leasing the office building, is moving out at the end of the year, leaving the future of the building uncertain.

Meanwhile, the city’s recreation staff have been trying to make better use of the adjacent Teen Center. Since only six to eight teens visit the center on a regular basis, staff moved the teen activities to a separate game room and converted the main building into a headquarters for the parks and rec department, which had been split between the Teen Center and the Carnegie Building.

That leaves a lot of unused space at the Carnegie Building, where an elevator installed as part of a seismic retrofit in 2010 has caused endless headaches. On three occasions people have become trapped, due to water entering the basement and activating the elevator’s emergency shut-off feature. One city employee had to stand in calf-high water for hours until she could be rescued from the elevator.

“We thought we’d figured out (the cause) of the first two, which were rain events,” said Carlos Uribe, Public Works maintenance manager. “Then we got one in August.”

A track system was installed to divert water out of the basement through a pair of sump pumps, but the elevator has still been red-tagged as unsafe.

The lack of a working elevator prevents the building from complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which rules it out as a venue for public meetings. However, the SHAPE Committee could evaluate other uses for it – factoring in a quirky floor plan that makes it hard to use the building efficiently and bad windows that need to be replaced.

Perhaps worst of all was the Corporation Yard on Charter Oak Avenue, where temporary trailers installed after the 2005 New Year’s flood have turned into permanent offices for Public Works staff.

Committee members arrived to discover two major roof leaks that had occurred during the previous night’s storm: one leaving large coffee-like stains on the floor of a common area and the other soaking a desk in Uribe’s office. Uribe said the leaks occur every year at the seam where the two temporary trailers are joined.

The low-lying yard is susceptible to flooding from Sulphur Creek. Every time the creek threatens to top its banks – most recently last year — city employees scramble to evacuate the city vehicles that are stored on the property, or else risk having them destroyed or cut off from the rest of the city during a disaster when they’re needed the most.

The flooding risk is bad enough, but even during heavy rain the low-lying areas in the center of the yard where the vehicles are stored become “one big puddle,” Uribe added.

The tour also included stops at the firehouse, Scout Hall, the secondary fire station on Dowdell Lane, the library and the Signorelli Barn, which is used for storage.

The committee’s next meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29, at Vintage Hall.


St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.