The ad hoc City Hall Advisory Committee had its first meeting on April 26. Between now and late September, it will explore and recommend the most suitable site, among four, for construction of a new City Hall. Meetings are open to the public. It is imperative that we citizens take part early in the process as the stakeholders ultimately using and paying for this construction.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, this same project absorbed years of heated discussion. The “Our Town” citizens' committee rallied in opposition to an administrative determination to move City Hall off its current site for more space. The successful resolution was to acquire the old Hillah Building and restructure it for the Planning and Engineering Departments. Now talk is about seismic standards as well as more space. My own concerns, like then, are City Hall's historical significance linked to its siting.
In 1884, the pioneer Helman family sold to the city, for $1, the land that now includes City Hall and the Plaza. The deed says in perpetuity. Attorneys might find ways to dismiss that honorable intention, but that would be foolhardy because the current site is perfect for its function. That declaration is based on following quotes targeting City Hall sites from two recognized leading authorities in city planning.
Historically, according to “American City Halls” (l984), city halls have “antecedents in 12th century Europe, where the feudal order was collapsing and control of towns was passing from the royalty and the church to urban inhabitants. To exercise these new responsibilities, citizens needed a place to assemble, discuss and promulgate rules, thus the town hall emerged as a distinct building type.”
The early town hall was a two-story structure “facing a plaza.” The market was on the lower level until they needed more meeting, office and storage space. This expedient prototype is seen throughout the USA and around the world as form following function. The town hall was a vital element in a streetscape that historically contains a major church and commercial structures. Locally, our glorious Lithia Park fills the secular role of the church. Today “one-stop shopping” describes the configuration.
The following paraphrasing and quotes are from “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander (1977). These patterns are considered by city planners to be absolutely relevant to a successful cityscape.
First and foremost, “... town halls die if they are badly located ...” They must not be “... physically located out of the realm of most citizens' daily lives ...” They must be “... highly visible and accessible ... on major pedestrian intersections.” The site must “... be clearly recognizable as community territory ...” with the “... possibility of access to the local government ...”, that is,“... a political center of gravity ... for every person to feel at home in the place of his local government with his ideas and complaints... .” Especially note,“... the open space around the building is shaped to sustain people gathering and lingering ... with access to storefronts...”, all of which describe our current Plaza and City Hall.
Similar criteria are expressed in “American City Halls,” citing civic buildings as “anchors,” “the cornerstone of civic identity, participation, and responsibility.” They “can't be just anywhere.” They should be situated in the “historic center,” “downtown, in the heart and soul of the community.” They “shall be aligned with the principle street on its perimeter.” They must be “easily accessed ... located in the core of city center where people can pass, enter, on their way to and fro from daily routines,” where, with high pedestrian traffic, people “naturally congregate.” They must suggest “permanence,” a “sense of place, and a “link with the past.”
To ignore these professionally acclaimed criteria would be derelict of responsibilities. Albeit, our current City Hall, often remuddled, is ill-functioning. However, the only site among those selected for study that matches these proven prerequisites is the existing site of our City Hall.
Attend the ad hoc committee meetings as the stakeholders you are.
Dates are posted on the city website.
— Marilyn Briggs lives in Ashland.