Hubbub halts renovations, leaving City Hall's walls with gaping holes

With a new mayor and new City Council moving into City Hall, carpenters and movers are busy renovating, repairing, and helping employees settle into new offices throughout the building.

The greatest changes are going on in the offices of the City Council on the fifth floor. The council this year expanded from nine to 13 members when Boston switched to a system of district representation. Renovations - including the construction of several new office suites - are necessary.

Planning has been under way for more than a year, and actual construction started months ago. Now, as the project nears completion, work in part of City Hall has ground to a halt. Questions about the cost and the necessity for some changes are belatedly causing controversy among some of the councillors.

Councillor Albert L. O'Neil has been the most vocal critic of the renovations , charging they will be a waste of taxpayers' money. He has spoken at length on the council floor against the renovations. When all the figures are tallied, he says, the cost will reach $2 million.

James M. Coyle, staff director of the City Council, defends the changes, saying the entire project will cost between $900,000 and $1.2 million. This includes the new offices as well as much-needed repairs to the heating and electrical systems, new furniture, and renovations to remove asbestos from the present offices.

At the heart of the controversy is an enclosed bridge that would join new offices with the old. The two sets of offices share a common hallway, but because of City Hall's modern design they are in different wings of the building - separated by a courtyard two stories below.

Victor Hagen, associate director of the city's Real Property Department, which worked with Mr. Coyle on the changes, says the bridge will do more than simply connect the two sections. It will unite them, he says, making it possible to share one reception area. Otherwise, councillors will require twice the reception staff and twice the security, he says.

Councillor Maura Hennigan says it's important for the councillors to have offices in City Hall, as opposed to district councillors having offices in their districts. And all councillors should be on the same floor, she says. ''It's amazing how much you miss unless you're here.''

Yet, she says, the councillors were never consulted about what they wanted, or needed, and what renovations would be appropriate.

Because the bridge is expected to cost between $150,000 and $200,000 - and because questions have been raised about its necessity - she and Council President Joseph M. Tierney met with the contractor last week to discuss possible alternatives.

Although work on the bridge has stopped pending other options from the contractor, Councillor Hennigan says it may be too late to turn back. If the bridge were not built at this point, it could cost more money to undo the work that's been done, she says.

The custom-made steel has already been ordered, she says. And an office in the original section has been torn apart and the outside wall opened up. Similarly, a hole has been opened in the wall of the new section to accommodate the bridge. Until work resumes, boards and sheets of plastic are trying to keep out the winter winds.

Why is this controversy only now coming to the front?

President Tierney says the council, under terms of the city charter, is not allowed to become involved in contractual matters. In this case, it's the responsibility of the Real Property Department, he says. But as the costs and scope of the project increased, the council felt it had to act, he says. Council members voted to return some of the furniture it had ordered. And he expects the council to meet again to consider the future of the bridge.

In spite of the commotion, the cost of City Hall renovations is not considered excessive by everyone.

Samuel R. Tyler, director of the independent Boston Municipal Research Bureau , is one who consistently calls for fiscal austerity. Yet, he says, the price of the renovations is not too high. After all, he says, the Boston City Council is the legislative branch of a major city government.

Mr. Tyler says the city's chronic revenue shortfall is, and should be, seen as a much greater concern than the necessary renovations to the City Council offices.

By contrast, work on the School Department Building to accommodate a school committee, growing from five to 13 members, cost much less. Ian Foreman, School Department spokesman, says renovations there cost less than $150,000. But, he admits, that building is different from City Hall, and much less work was involved.

Councillor O'Neil's disapproval of the renovations stems from his opposition to district representation, and the corresponding increase to the size of the council.

Yet Boston voters chose this new system, and its benefits have been lauded by many. Proponents say district representation will make city councillors and school committee members more responsive to the needs of their districts. It will also ensure representation for some Boston neighborhoods that haven't been represented in City Hall for decades.

Doubtless there are many Bostonians who feel greater accountability and representation are well worth the price of the new offices.

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