City Hall: Land deals ‘promising’

Westwego officials hope to free up space for new complex

Westwego officials are hoping to obtain two private land donations that could greatly change the complexion of the city’s new multimillion dollar City Hall but also delay the project even longer.

City officials are negotiating with Capital One bank and the Westwego Lions Club to donate two pieces of property along Fourth Street to the city.

Those properties would be used to house an Office of Motor Vehicles branch located at city hall and the Westwego City Court. If those two items are removed from the new governmental complex also slated for construction, it could free up almost 1,700 square feet in the 12,000-square-foot building.

“The whole complexion, the whole layout of the new city hall is going to change,” Mayor Johnny Shaddinger said.

Westwego has been waiting on a new city hall for roughly two years after winning an arbitration battle with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that obligated the federal agency to spend $3.5 million on the facility.

The current city hall on Avenue A has been flooded nearly two dozen times since 1970, and after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA decided to replace the building. However, the city and federal officials dickered over how much should be spent on a new facility.

In addition, city officials want to relocate City Hall to Fourth Street because it’s one of the main thoroughfares in Westwego and is more easily accessible. The city purchased a former gas station property for the site and then received a $100,000 grant from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to remove underground fuel tanks there.

City Accountant James Butler said the remediation process finished a few months ago, and the city has already submitted initial plans for the city hall to FEMA.

However, shortly after the submission, Westwego City Councilmen Ted Munch and Larry Warino broached the idea of the city acquiring the bank property.

Capital One is moving that operation to a new site on the West Bank Expressway.

The city is still negotiating with Capital One about the donation, and Shaddinger said things look “promising.” Maintenance of the building would be paid for through the $3 fee charged to everyone who renews their license in Westwego.

Munch said he sought the bank building to avoid having another empty property on Fourth Street because it was unlikely Capital One would ever rent it to another bank.

Plus, the site is a great location for a driver’s license bureau because of ample parking, easy access and secure testing areas, Munch said. With the driver’s license bureau out of city hall, it would it easier to conduct city business, he said.

“It would be a perfect fit for the driver’s license bureau,” Munch said. “City hall can then concentrate on being a true city hall.”

Shaddinger agreed adding that with the new space the city can expand the council chambers or shrink the total size of the building to concentrate on adding more amenities.

Munch mentioned expanding working space for city employees, finding better storage space for city records or increasing the size of the council offices.

Westwego has a special dispensation from FEMA that allows the city to start from scratch with its design instead of trying to replicate what is on Avenue A, Butler said.

The city is obligated to spend about $250,000 to demolish the existing city hall, but after that, the design is completely up to city officials.

“We’re going down a different path than the normal path,” he said. “What’s limiting us in our decisions now is the dollars. … It’s a lot of choices the council has that can still fit within the dollars we have.”

The Lions Club donation came up in the past few weeks, after the group approached Westwego Police Chief Dwayne Munch Sr. about donating the property since the group is disbanding. Munch said he planned to move the clerk of courts office to the site and offered it to the mayor for city court.

Munch already moved the police department out of the city hall complex into a new $1 million facility on Fourth Street, and he has asked the city to give the court more space.

Shaddinger said that without the need for a courtroom, changes could be made to the exterior of the planned building, or it could be made more energy efficient.

“We don’t have anything that’s going to hold us back,” said Shaddinger, who is working with W Engineering on the new design. “The delay in the construction of the new city hall is not that we’re waiting on any people.”

If the two donations are approved, Shaddinger would like to have FEMA’s approval on the design by the end of the year and begin construction in early 2013.

The city will vote on one of the donations at today’s council meeting.