Hunt on for City Hall

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey talks Monday about his desire to move City Hall to this building across from current city offices.

Last year, because of the heavy workload in North Charleston's planning department, the mayor and City Council agreed to split the duties.

Planning Director Bill Gore would become director of zoning, and a new person would take over a separate planning department.

A year later, the city hasn't finished the move, and Mayor Keith Summey said there's one big reason.

"There's nowhere to put them," he said. "We don't have any room in City Hall."

The mayor is eyeing a building under construction across the street as the city staff's new home because he wants it to be centrally located. He discounts the former Charleston Naval Base base as too far removed from the city's center and says the other location he might consider if the city has to build is near the convention complex.

Summey dismisses the notion that building a City Hall on the old Navy base would be a catalyst for redevelopment as part of the Noisette project, adding that the old Power House, as some have suggested, is too small and would take years to renovate.

"I don't think it's central to the city," he said of the upper end of the Navy base. "It's at one end of the city. Interstate 26 and I-526 are the center point of the city, and we are trying to keep it in that area."

Since City Hall was built in 1978, the number of employees has increased from 200 to more than 1,000. The city has sprawled from a core around Park Circle to a metropolis that stretches across three counties. It is still a city without a true downtown, although Summey says that the center of the city has moved toward the Tanger Outlet Mall and the convention center.

There is so little room in the current City Hall that the city has workers at the former Navy base in two locations, at Park Circle, at the city annex off Remount Road and on Aragon Street in Public Works.

The mayor wants to bring everyone except for the Public Works department under one roof.

"We are looking at finances now," Summey said. "We should be making some sort of decision within the next 30 days whether we are going to do it or not."

No decision has been made and it's just a possibility, but the new 150,000-square-foot office building directly across from City Hall on Mall Drive beside Verizon Wireless's call center could become the new center of North Charleston government.

"I would estimate the new building being upgraded and furnished at a cost of probably $35 million," Summey said. Early estimates for the initial cleanup of the city-owned 23,000-square-foot Power House were $6.4 million, with renovation to take five to six years.

The city is looking now at how to finance a new City Hall, including issuing bonds if possible, Summey said.

Summey would recommend selling the current 56,000-square-foot City Hall.

The annex on Remount Road would become offices for the Public Works department, Summey said.

"It's a great building," Summey said of the new office building across the street from his fifth-floor office on LaCross Road. "I think it would accommodate our needs for the long term. We could add things underneath in the parking area for detention areas."

Hardly anyone agrees that the old Navy base should be looked at as a possible site for a new City Hall.

"There are nice romantic notions of having it in connection with the old Power House on the Navy Base, but that is not practical," City Council Finance Committee Chairman Kurt Taylor said.

Summey agreed.

"It's not centrally located," he said. "If we have to build a new building, it would be farther north."

In support of the Mall Drive building, Summey said, "We haven't been able to find any other spaces that have the square footage that we need."

Summey said having everyone, except one department, in the same building would be much easier to manage.

"I would like to create a one-stop shop for our residents," he said.

John Bourne, the city's first mayor, also said the old Navy base is not ideal for public access because of its location.

"I don't think the seat of government should be that far removed," Bourne said.

The original City Hall was built on Mall Drive because it is central to the city as a whole, the former mayor said.

"By being close to Interstate 26 and I-526, it's easier access for the public and it's easier to get personnel where they need to be," Bourne said.

Eric Meyer, a real estate broker with Meyer Kapp and Associates, said the city has been offered a number of different properties.

"We are probably just one of them right now," said Meyer, whose firm handles the Mall Drive office building.

The three-story, raised building with 122 parking spaces beneath it is part of the N.Y.-based Carriage Hill Associates complex that includes the Verizon building.

Meyer called it a "world-class facility."

If the city decided to move into the building, it would have access to nearly 450 parking spaces nearby that are shared with the Charles Towne Square movie theater.

The 2405 Mall Drive structure is nearing completion on the outside, but its insides probably won't be finished until September, Meyer said.

"All of the interior work needs to be completed," he said.

None of the building has been leased, but Meyer said, "We have a number of prospects."

The building is a possibility, but the city doesn't have the money, Taylor said.

"It's attractive in its timeliness and we should certainly look at it, but I haven't done an analysis to see if it would be more affordable to do something on our own," Taylor said.

A new City Hall could be financed through bonds, lease-purchasing or taxes received through a tax-increment finance district, Taylor said.

"It's a critical need, but is it more critical than drainage and sidewalks and other things the city needs?" he said.

Gayle Frampton, who heads the city's Citizens Advisory Council and has lived near Park Circle almost her entire life, said without being prompted about the mayor's proposal that she always thought Charles Towne Square would be the perfect location for City Hall.

"I think that would be a much better place than the Navy base simply because of its accessibility to Rivers Avenue, I-26 and I-526," she said. "It's right in the center of the city."

Charleston Farms newcomer Susan Graham agrees.

"It should go somewhere in the area where the current City Hall is located," she said. "It is the heart of North Charleston."