St. Helena City Hall

St. Helena City Hall, which also includes the police station, was built in 1955.

In a nice bit of irony, it took a billowing cloud of noxious smoke to bring clarity to what’s become an agonizingly drawn-out and complicated debate over the future of City Hall.

The Dec. 18 near-disaster that caused smoke damage inside City Hall and rendered it temporarily uninhabitable should remind us all of the most obvious and salient fact at issue here: The building is at the end of its life and needs to be replaced as soon as possible.

The simplest, cheapest and most expeditious way to do that is to rebuild it right where it is. On Jan. 14 the City Council will appoint the Civic Infrastructure Task Force, and we encourage financial experts to apply by the Tuesday, Jan. 7 deadline. Different city councilmembers seem to have slightly different ideas about what this committee should do, but we share their general consensus that the group should focus on what the city can afford to build.

We believe they should set their sights on a functional, cost-efficient City Hall building at the current site, plus any upgrades to the library that library staff and trustees deem necessary and that the task force deems financially feasible given the rest of the city’s to-do list: storm drains, water and sewer systems, wastewater treatment plant, streetscape, etc. A council chambers/multi-purpose room/community center would be nice, but it’s not absolutely crucial. We already have the library, firehouse, Native Sons Hall, St. Helena Performing Arts Center, and Vintage Hall, which offers an imperfect but perfectly serviceable venue for City Council meetings.

The people who call for a more ambitious event space on Adams Street that could host St. Helena’s equivalent of the Aspen Ideas Festival aren’t necessarily wrong. They’re just injecting a visionary, controversial and expensive concept into the relatively simple, urgent process of replacing City Hall.

The community might decide to build a council chambers/multi-purpose room – or maybe even a hotel – on Adams Street. But history has taught us that doing anything on Adams Street requires years of debate, and we still tend to wind up back at square one.

As the ominous near-fire reminded us, we don’t have years. We need to get our city workers out of City Hall now before someone gets hurt. The SHAPE Committee spent months studying this very issue within the context of the city’s facilities and financial resources. What are those members saying now?

The committee’s number one recommendation/option was to rebuild City Hall where it is, former chair Mark Smithers wrote in a Dec. 19 letter to the editor. He suggested that the process has gone “off the rails” into territory that goes against “good fiscal sense.”

“Enough already,” committee member Pat Dell wrote in a Dec. 26 letter to the editor. She’s come around to a “minimalistic” viewpoint of keeping City Hall where it is, sprucing up the library and building a modular Parks & Rec building at Crane Park.

We agree with Smithers and Dell. Let’s say no to mission creep and resist the temptation to build a monumental grand statement. Let’s crunch the numbers, build what we need, and leave the interminable Adams Street debate for another day. On Dec. 18 it was a malfunctioning heater after hours, when the building was empty. On Feb. 18 it might be faulty wiring in the early afternoon, when the building is full.

It’s time to rebuild City Hall.

Your favorite St. Helena Star letters to the editor of 2019

We get hundreds of letters to the editor every year, but usually only a few stand out. These were your favorite letters based on total page views.

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The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Christopher Hill, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.