The history-proud town of Alexandria, Va., learned last week that some of its oldest buildings are in danger of structural, electrical or heating system failure, and repairs and renovations could cost up to $272 million.
A year-long study of just 36 of the city’s 123 facilities turned up evidence of an aging boiler “that could go any day,” unsupported rafters, steel windows that leak cold and hot air, and 143-year-old mortar binding a brick wall. And that’s just in City Hall.
The problems “are not a life-safety issue or [proof] that a building’s going to come crashing down at any minute,” Alfred Coleman, deputy director of the city’s Department of General Services, said in an interview. But without investment, repair or renovation, facilities will continue to deteriorate, and those now ranked as below average or average could slip into more critical circumstances, the report said.
Experts say the buildings’ condition is a result of delayed maintenance after years of tight budgets due to the recession and federal budget cuts. It is a problem being seen in localities across the United States.
In a 2013 assessment of the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) said cities, counties, states and the nation have fallen far behind where they should be. Virginia as a whole received a grade of C-minus, or just barely mediocre, with roads and wastewater infrastructure ranked as poor.
“It’s a problem we all face,” said Brian Pallasch, ASCE’s managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives. “If you forgo maintenance, you end up in the long run with a larger bill. What we’ve seen nationwide is that we need to focus some spending on our infrastructure . . . because we actually pay for that bad infrastructure every day in lost time, lost productivity and lost GDP.”
Alexandria has yet to survey all its facilities — fire stations and recreation centers were not included in the 2015 assessment, for example — but among those it did study, eight buildings were ranked with an F grade, and seven received a grade of D. The grades, Coleman said, take into account each site’s condition, divided by the value of the building.
The city’s fuel island at Duke and Wheeler streets, where city vehicles go to gas up, failed the assessment because rotting electrical service conduits lie beneath the pumps. The city courthouse, at 520 King St., ranked below average because of an aging heating and air conditioning systems and roof. (See the full report at wapo.st/axdecay.)
A dozen of the city-owned properties are more than a century old, and five are more than 200 years old. Eight of them — of varying ages — could have critical systems fail at any point, said Jeremy McPike, the city’s director of general services.
City Council members, briefed on the situation last week, worried about the cost of bringing the facilities up to a merely average level. Only $56 million has been set aside in the capital improvement project budget for these types of repairs, and addressing them all could cost triple that budget, or more. Repairs at City Hall alone would take $53 million, the city’s facilities staff estimated.
Last year, the condition of City Hall became a campaign issue after then-Mayor William D. Euille (D) suggested that it could be so expensive to fix that the city should consider selling or leasing the property to a developer and moving the seat of government out of Old Town, to a place more central to most Alexandrians. He later said he had no intention of selling City Hall.
Mayor Allison Silberberg (D), who brought up the issue during her campaign against Euille, argued that repairs should be taken slowly.
“Just as I do fixes in my condo, I don’t do everything at once,” she told the council last week at a meeting in City Hall, which was built in 1871. “I just ate in Gadsby’s Tavern Restaurant. It’s functional. We’re in this building right now, and it’s functional.”
City Hall has a 70-year-old gas-fired boiler that should have been replaced 40 years ago, according to the city report. Its 56-year-old steel windows have a replacement cost of $470,000, and 143-year-old mortar holding a brick wall together will cost $3.6 million to repair. Portions of the building will probably have to be gutted, McPike told the council, and it will cost about $12.5 million to relocate offices while work is underway.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said the council should listen to the city’s professional staff and assess all the city’s infrastructure needs before making “a huge, gigantic capital investment in this building.”
Other council members agreed, though they and Wilson were careful to note that they were not advocating selling or demolishing City Hall.
Council member Paul Smedberg (D) called the condition of the building “a disgrace” and “appalling.”
“Forget about whether the windows work,” Smedberg said. “There are serious structural issues with this building.”