State clarifies government center options

Legislators, still reeling from setback, inclined to move ahead on renovation without millions promised by FEMA

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  • The Orange County Government Center

The county's three options

Orange County legislators are left with three choices:
Drop plans for removing the exterior block facade and move the planned front addition to the back or over by the courthouse. This would save the FEMA grant.
Refuse the FEMA grant and proceed as planned.
Sell the government center. Prominent New York City architect Gene Kaufman offered a new design for a completely new government center on the same lot the current one occupies, in return for the existing government center. Kaufman said he would use the Rudolph building for artists’ studios and other public uses. This offer prompted the county to develop a request for proposals and to offer tours last week to any other interested buyers.
A private person who bought the building and renovated it would be eligible for a 20 percent tax break, while also being subject to an even more detailed historic review.
Because of the millions already spent on the project and the need for additional work to meet historic standards, the second option has a lot of support among legislators.
County officials will continue to meet with caucus leaders to see if any appealing offers come in before the next full session of the legislature, in the first week of August.

— It may be baseball season, but there was plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking on how a small army of legislators, architects, lawyers, and consultants could have gotten the Orange County Government Center restoration so wrong for so long.

Legislators now seem inclined to pass up millions just to get the project going again. The government center was shut down three years ago this August because of flooding.

Two misunderstandings are at the bottom of the problem: the widely held belief, promulgated by the former county executive, that the building is "sick" with mold, when there is no mold; and a consultant's wrongheaded assurance that the center would evade state scrutiny because it was never placed on the historic register.

In June, the State Historic Preservation Office objected to the county's renovation plan because it would deface a culturally important building. The state's objection threatens to derail a $3.6 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that would have been put toward the $74 million renovation. Legislators now seem inclined to not put FEMA money toward the renovation so that they may proceed with a project they've already spent so much time and money planning.

FEMA had earlier said the county could use most of the money — 60 percent — on another "public good," as long as it is spent by Sept. 2015.

"Should we have been surprised?" demanded Legislator Dennis Simmons, Republican of Port Jervis, during an especially contentious meeting of the legislature last week. "Should we have seen this coming?"

"We hired four professional companies," said Matt Turnbull, Democrat of Hamptonburgh, referring to all the engineers and architects the county has hired over the past few years to work on the government center. "One would think that most architects would understand what the sequencing would be."

He asked again and again how the State Historic Preservation Office found out about the decision to replace the center's facade when the legislators themselves didn't know about some of the more advanced design decisions.

The building committee decided to replace the facade to avoid lawsuits. The mold problem once believed to have infiltrated the walls, and the widely publicized characterization of the building as "sick," would make the county subject to litigation if the facade remained, legislators believed.

Former County Executive Ed Diana claimed repeatedly that the building was full of mold, and required that people touring the building in 2011 wear protective masks. Diana swore he would never risk bringing employees back to the building. But a preliminary examination found the walls do not contain mold.

State: 'Our rules are simple'

Ruth Pierpont, deputy commissioner of the State Historic Preservation Office, and John Bonefide, director of the office's Bureau of Technical Preservation Services, said legislators should have seen their objection coming because the renovation they were planning would disturb a famous building. The government center was designed by the famed architect Paul Rudolph and included on the World Monuments Watch List.

Simmons said a history consultant told legislators extensive renovation was possible because the building was never put on the historic register. Pierpont and Bonefide said the consultant had misled legislators.

Simmons then asked the state reps: Did they consider the burden further delays and design changes would put on county taxpayers?

They said their office follows some very simple rules. Renovation becomes an issue when:

1. There is demolition, in part or whole

2. There is loss of historic fabric, that is, an element that makes a building special

3. The building is isolated

4. The building has suffered benign neglect

"The rules are very clear," Pierpont said. "Our office becomes involved whenever there is federal or state money involved in a project."

Since the block facade was Rudolph's design aesthetic, Bonafide said, taking it away "would be taking away the historic fabric. This would be altering his vision for the building."

Next, legislators asked how they could either meet or avoid the historic criteria.

"If we do not take the FEMA money," Simmons asked, "do you go away?"

FEMA representative Chris Holmes, included in the meeting by conference call, said yes: if no FEMA money is spent on the project, the entire historic review "goes away."

Some FEMA money has already been spent on temporary office space. Holmes assured legislators it would not trigger a review.

But one legislator, feeling burned, yelled out: "I want a blood oath on that!"

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