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VOL. 127 | NO. 81 | Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In Need of Repair

County administration building one of many requiring renovation

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County Trustee’s office is out of the Vasco Smith County Administration Building and in the county government building across Second Street at 157 Poplar Ave.

The Vasco Smith County Administration Building, far right, is in need of repairs. The building dates from the 1960s.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The last workers and their boxes were moved the week before Easter.

“We’re all under one roof now. We do have signs at our old location and signs at our new location,” Trustee David Lenoir said of the switch, which affects not only employees but also citizens. “We went from two floors, really one-and-a-half floors, in the old space to three-and-a-half floors over here.”

The renovated building at 157 Poplar is older than the county administration building built in the mid-1960s. It was the first site for some parts of county government as city and county government began to outgrow the Shelby County Courthouse, which was the seat of both governments for most of the first half of the 20th century.

The administration building at 160 N. Main St. is one of several government buildings – including City Hall and the Odell Horton-Clifford Davis Federal Building and the Donnelly J. Hill State Office Building – that were constructed at about the same time as part of a civic center plaza plan of the early 1960s.

When climatologist Iben Browning predicted Memphis would be hit by a major earthquake on Dec. 3, 1990, then-Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris famously marked the passing of the predicted quake time by telling a group of reporters, local and national, at The Racquet Club of Memphis, “Now if you will excuse me, I am going back to work in my low-bid government office building.”

The plaza outside the county building these days is in better shape than parts of the building itself, according to a recent briefing Shelby County Commissioners got this month from Cliff Norville, deputy administrator of county support services.

The plaza has finally been evened out after years of barricades around the uneven concrete slabs now made even.

“We have an inventory of buildings that are old. The average age of our primary office buildings is over 60 years old,” Norville said of the eight buildings under support services maintenance. “In many of our buildings we are well beyond the useful age and it’s costing us.”

The cost is, in part, in monthly utility bills.

“The average office building in the state of Tennessee runs a utility bill of between $2 and $2.50 per square foot,” Norville said before turning to the county administration building. “We are close to $4 a square foot in this building.”

The HVAC system in the building featuring bench seat air conditioning units that line the walls are also not the most efficient use of space.

“You can go around the perimeter of the building and see our air conditioning,” Norville told commissioners in their committee room. “That eats up two feet on each wall of the building. When you remove all of that, it’s surprising. It adds up to almost an entire floor of the building consumed by that air conditioning system along the wall.”

Norville outlined plans for the renovation of the county building as well as a redundant air conditioning plan and loop for five of the buildings that became a priority when the Shelby County Courthouse chiller failed several years ago during the worst of the summer heat. To keep the courts up and running, lines to the courthouse were run from a temporary trailer parked outside the 100-year-old building.

The chiller in the Criminal Justice Center was upgraded after a similar failure six to seven years ago.

“It’s the most efficient and it’s the newest,” Norville said as he acknowledged the chiller and cooling tower in the courthouse are close to running afoul of the building’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

The idea is for the chiller plant at 201 Poplar Ave. to run all five buildings in the loop and the chillers in each building would become the back-up systems. Other parts of the Criminal Justice Center, however, are showing their age of more than 30 years.

The biggest issue, according to Norville, is courtrooms in the lower level of the CJC.

“The waterproof membrane that keeps water out of that underground area has failed us in many places. And we routinely have water damage in the lower level,” he said.

“That’s not going to be an easy pill to swallow,” he added, referring to the cost the county will be asked to program into future budget years.

The generators are as old as the CJC, which means parts aren’t made for them anymore. Norville’s department recently bought the last manifold it could find in the U.S.

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