Francis says Raleigh rebuilding City Hall because mayor wants 'nicer office.' That's misleading

Charles Francis says Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane supports the idea of a new City Hall "just so she can have a nicer office."
Charles Francis says Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane supports the idea of a new City Hall "just so she can have a nicer office."

It’s one thing to criticize Mayor Nancy McFarlane for wanting to build a new City Hall in downtown Raleigh — and to contend that the project is too expensive.

It’s another to say McFarlane wants to build a new $165 million City Hall "just so she and City Council members can have nicer offices," as challenger Charles Francis posted on his Facebook page.

The race for mayor of Raleigh this year has been one of the most contentious since 2001, when Democrat Charles Meeker narrowly beat out Republican Paul Coble in a runoff. McFarlane is a three-term unaffiliated incumbent and Francis, a Democrat, is the first viable challenger from her political left. 

Francis has campaigned on the idea that the city should divert money from unnecessary projects to more basic needs like air conditioning in gymnasiums and affordable housing. He has repeatedly referred to the city’s plans for a consolidated municipal campus as the "Taj Mahal City Hall" and said the $165 million — the estimated cost of the project — should go elsewhere.

PolitiFact North Carolina approached Francis about the claim on the campaign trail on Nov. 4. He defended it, saying the city could move to different, better functioning offices without building anew.

PolitiFact can’t read minds. And there’s no way to tell if City Council members would like cushier offices. So we’re not rating this claim on our Truth-o-Meter. But since there’s ample evidence for other motivations, PolitiFact saw a need to clarify the record.

How much would it cost to consolidate city offices into a new City Hall? And what has McFarlane said about why the city should build a new City Hall? First, the cost.

A $165M City Hall?

Raleigh has a tentative plan to either renovate or replace its current City Hall on Hargett Street, consolidating several city government offices into that location.

Francis, in campaign materials and on the campaign trail, has said the project will cost $165 million. That estimate is the gross cost and doesn’t take into consideration potential revenue the city could generate by selling some of the downtown property it currently owns.

"That amount is considered a placeholder as staff works with the consultant to evaluate options," city spokesman John Boyette told The News & Observer in June. The cost could go up or down, he said.

The city in June estimated it could avoid about $38.2 million of the $165 million if it sells its space in One Exchange Plaza on Fayetteville Street and other downtown properties, Boyette said at the time.

It’s possible the city sells the properties for more than expected. The city in 2015 held an auction for a 1.2-acre property on HIllsborough Street in downtown Raleigh and ultimately sold it for $6.3 million – twice the land’s tax value.

So $165 million isn’t a hard number. It could go up or down, depending on the building’s final design and how much money the city can get by selling other properties.

Services spread out

City leaders began seriously discussing a municipal campus in spring 2016, when they mostly talked about how a consolidated campus would make things more convenient for staff and the public.

City Hall is 34 years old and can't house all of Raleigh's government offices. Raleigh spends about $500,000 a year to lease office space in five other buildings, the N&O reported last year.

The city’s permitting and inspections operations are in One Exchange Plaza. The city’s Urban Design Center, which is part of the planning department, is located above the City of Raleigh Museum while most of the planning department is located in One Exchange Plaza.

Meanwhile, a former police station sits vacant next door to City Hall at the corner of South McDowell and Hargett streets. City leaders don’t want to use it because many of the mechanical systems don’t work and renovating them would cost too much, said Damien Graham, the city’s communications director. 

"There’s no fresh air intake. All the plumbing and the ductwork need replacing," Graham said Monday. "Because the building’s age, the ductwork would have asbestos in it. The floor tiles would need to come up, and there’s asbestos underneath those."

He noted that the old police building is small compared to the lot it sits on, so the city would probably get more bang for its buck by tearing it down and building anew.

The city’s intentions

A "media guide" the city distributed this summer outlines three goals that city leaders hope to achieve by consolidating departments into a new City Hall. It says city leaders hope to improve customer service and civic engagement, increase staff efficiencies and spark economic development by selling its smaller downtown properties for private development.

The only mention of aesthetics comes under a list of "potential benefits:" building a new municipal campus would allow for "broader development and design opportunities to complement Nash Square and surrounding blocks," the guide says.

In an N&O story on June 21, some council members are quoted talking about what physical features they’d like to see in a new City Hall.

Councilman David Cox talked about its appearance, saying a new campus should have more windows, more green space and more reasons for residents and downtown workers to engage with City Hall.

"One thing I'd like to avoid is a lot of office space with no windows," he said.

But most council members quoted in the story talked about a City Hall’s structure in the context of its functionality. McFarlane said the campus should also accommodate city employees who are parents.

"It needs a daycare on site," McFarlane said. "It's a challenge many families face."

PolitiFact couldn’t find any news stories that included quotes from McFarlane talking about the physical appearance of City Hall.

PolitiFact’s conclusion

The city has tentative plans to consolidate its offices into a municipal campus and/or new City Hall. There are no designs yet, and city leaders say the $165 million estimate is "a placeholder" until they work with designers to establish a firm plan. So Francis’ repeated references to a "$165 million Taj Mahal City Hall" certainly lack a lot of key details. 

In his Facebook post, Francis asserts that McFarlane supports the project "just so she and City Council members can have nicer offices." While it's impossible to know anyone's true motives behind the project – and PolitiFact doesn’t attempt to judge people’s intentions – city officials have given plenty of reasons for the project that go beyond aesthetics. Francis’ claim leaves out that context.