Renovation of 3 Whatcom County-owned buildings could cost more than $5M

Support was only lukewarm from two members of the Whatcom County Council, and one member was strongly opposed, but the county will move forward with remodels of three public buildings at a cost of about $5 million.

The remodels are part of a staff reorganization in the buildings at 509 Girard St., 322 N. Commercial St. and 1500 N. State St. The council purchased the 22,157-square-foot State Street building in April from county Medical Examiner Gary Goldfogel for $2.6 million.

The sale was closed after contaminated soil was found on the State Street property and a nearby parking lot on Champion Street that was included in the sale. The parking lot was formerly a railroad depot, and the State Street property was a gas station and an auto repair business. The building property now is the site of health department offices, the morgue, the medical examiner’s office and Goldfogel’s business, Avocet Environmental Testing.

Council decided to buy the building and parking lot, and immediately remove the contamination, even though a county consultant had said the properties could be used as-is, as long as the soil under the pavement wasn’t disturbed. County Executive Jack Louws said combined cleanup cost of both properties should be less than $500,000.

Remodeling the State Street building to create a one-stop permit center with planning, health and public works staff will cost up to $2.5 million, Louws said. The Commercial Street building, called the Civic Building, will be remodeled to make room for health administrators on one of the floors, and to “improve functionality” on another floor for the current public works staff, Louws said.

This work, also expected to cost up to $2.5 million, follows a $1.5 million renovation of the exterior of the Civic Building last year.

The cost of renovations in the Girard Street building, to accommodate health officials who would move out of the State Street location, is just $135,000, but that’s only a fraction of the budget for a more significant remodel of the building, Louws said.

Barbara Brenner, the only council member who voted against the renovation plans on Oct. 14, said they were too haphazard. The county already has a history, she said, of wasting money by completing a renovation, only to undo some of the work during the next upgrade.

“This has not been done in a real cohesive manner,” Brenner said in an interview on Monday, Oct. 20. “They’ll just come in and ask for more money, and ask for more money.”

The county executive also seems to be signaling the demise of the planning department offices at the Northwest Annex, 5280 Northwest Drive, by not including the building in the renovation plans, Brenner said.

“It’s an important building,” Brenner said at the Oct. 14, meeting. “It’s centrally located so that it would serve people .. throughout the whole county. Now we’re shoving this in downtown Bellingham.”

Council member and former County Executive Pete Kremen said the Annex would need to be demolished if the county were to keep the planning department at that location.

“That particular building is not suitable for anything even near intermediate-term for providing housing for the Planning and Development Services Department,” Kremen said.

“I think (the current plan) is really the only viable way to get everything done as efficiently as possible and be mindful of the taxpayers’ pocketbooks and wallets,” he said.

Kremen and council member Ken Mann agreed with Brenner, however, that the Annex’s central location at Northwest and Smith Road was preferable to State Street.

“I’m probably going to support (Louws’ renovation plan), and the reason is because I haven’t come up with a better idea,” Mann said. “I just wish we could spend less money and not renovate buildings that essentially are functioning very well ... already.”

A detailed timeline of the renovations hasn’t been determined, Louws said, but he expects all the work to take “two-plus years” to complete.