By Kevin Collison
Almost three years after launching its search, the city now has solid design plan and price tag for reviving the crumbling Barney Allis Plaza, but appears to be no closer to figuring out how to pay for it.
At a briefing to a Council committee Wednesday, consultants said the Plaza built in 1955 in the heart of the downtown convention district could be rebuilt to “world-class” condition with a smaller, 600-space underground garage for $112.4 million.
Peter Sloan, the HOK senior principal working on the project, total the Council Finance and Infrastructure Committee the Plaza design was the culmination of years of community meetings.
“The goal is making sure we create a world-class destination for all members of the downtown area,” he said.
“We want to elevate the current experience for all residents, employees and visitors. It’s creating essentially a Swiss Army knife of utilization for the city at a park level and an event level.”
A schedule indicated if the Council approves the design and a financing plan by late spring, construction could begin this Fall with a Winter 2024 opening. City officials originally had hoped to have a revamped Barney Allis ready for the 2023 NFL Draft.
“We’re at a point right now where we delivered the schematic design, guaranteed maximum price and development schedule,” said William Crandall of CBC Real Estate.
“We know what it’s going to cost but we don’t yet have it figured out how we’re going to finance that.”
The design prepared by HOK calls for the Plaza to be lowered to street level and include a 37,000 square-foot event lawn and plaza that could accommodate up to 5,000 people along with water features, play space, a dog park and public art.
The current 980-space, three-level garage which has been partially closed for several years because of deterioration would be replaced with a 600-space garage. The plan also would strengthen the foundation to allow construction of potential residential tower.
The cost of doing nothing also was made clear.
In April 2020, an engineering consultant had recommended the city immediately close the garage, citing structural problems and code violations.
The city then spent $3 million to shore up and patch the facility although the lowest level of the garage remains closed.
City Architect James Freed told the Council members the temporary fixes don’t alter the garage’s long-term problems.
“The garage remains on life support,” he said. “It’s stable, but there are certainly concerns the amount of deterioration on underside of second floor is substantial.”
He pointed to the collapse last summer of condominium building in Surfside, Fla. that killed 98 people as an example of potential structural risk.
“It was a catastrophic failure,” Freed said, referring to the Florida accident. “We have no reason to believe the lower level of Barney Allis Plaza garage would have a significant failure.
“What I need to share is we’ve learned the floor systems are tied into the perimeter walls so if at any time the third floor would have a failure it could risk the perimeter walls that retain the dirt around the streets.”
The consultants also suggested several potential trims to the Barney Allis Plaza and garage proposal that would save about $20 million, the largest being eliminating 200 spaces from the garage, reducing the price by $12.7 million.
Another option that was discussed and discarded was eliminating the underground garage altogether. Freed estimated it would cost $30 million to remove the garage and fill its cavity.
City officials however, have warned that Barney Allis Plaza and its garage were used as collateral in the debt financing of Bartle Hall, and removing the parking would violate its terms. Nearby hotels also have contractual parking agreements.
How to pay for the rebuild remains a quandary.
When the Council approved funding last March to further study what was then estimated as a $70 million project, there had been anticipation it would be eligible for funding from the federal infrastructure program.
While Washington has approved a massive infrastructure bill since then, there has been no indication the Barney Allis plan was included or could qualify.
“I know this is a priority of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Downtown Council, not so much the parking, but the public space on top,” said Councilman Eric Bunch.
“This is a tough one based on the (city) financial circumstances.”
The consultants recognized the Council members would experience sticker shock regarding the final cost estimate.
“We realize that’s a big lift and a big ask, but it’s an important part of the city’s hotel and convention network,” Crandall said.
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