December 23, 2015

Town Hall renovation makes good sense

As published in The Erin Advocate

Advance planning for improvements to Erin’s Town Hall is an excellent idea, even if completion is many years down the road.

It would be naive to think that Town operations will not expand. There is a huge pent-up demand for development. The province (and local residents) continue to demand more tasks of Town staff. And we could end up with a wastewater department before long.

The current space at Town Hall is adequate in many ways, but there is also some inefficiency. With this in mind, Paul Sapounzi of +VG Architects was invited to prepare some concept drawings for both short- and long-term renovations, which he presented to Council at their December 15 meeting.

On the short-term side, the province is demanding compliance with accessibility standards. That means eliminating an unnecessary platform in the council chamber and installing an elevator from the lobby to the lower floor. Since the logical spot for that elevator is next to the door, currently the clerk’s office, Mayor Al Alls suggested that perhaps Clerk Dina Lundy could add Elevator Operator to her job description. 

A preliminary concept from +VG Architects, with a darker area showing an addition
to the Town Hall and lighter shading for areas of renovation.

The foyer and other public areas need better counter design to welcome visitors, to add privacy for confidential business and to provide a more secure division between public and staff areas. There is a need for an additional small meeting room off the lobby, and for reorganization of storage space and other room functions.

The larger, longer-term project is a small addition that would extend the peak of the roof over the council chamber towards the parking lot. There are no cost estimates attached to any of these architectural concepts, but councillors made it clear that with the Town facing many other financial obligations, an addition will have to wait. The first step is to make better use of the space they already have.

If there is a future need for more space, however, a modest addition will be less costly than a new building and more efficient than satellite offices. The Town has often been criticized for a lack of long-term planning, so this is a positive move.

One of the attractive features of the conceptual plan is a two-storey window on the new front of the building, facing the parking lot. An excavated area with a sloped rock wall would allow natural light to shine into the basement office area.

The centerpiece would be a larger council chamber, turned 90 degrees from the current design, with the new window behind the councillors’ seats. The room would be 80% larger, and hold twice as many spectators – there are several occasions every year when there are not enough seats for a meeting.

If well designed, the council chamber could be converted on short notice into an attractive multi-purpose room, available to be rented out for medium-sized events. The space below the chamber would be expanded as well, allowing for the addition of 8-12 work stations.

Of course, some people will consider any changes to the Town Hall to be needless and extravagant. An addition must be justified and withstand constructive criticism, but I think it should be seen as a valid opportunity to improve the function of the building and add a touch of class. When the time is right, it should be given serious consideration.