Mar 30 2021

OPINION: Use of Public Property? Public and City Needs vs Private Use !

A Community Room for Piedmont at 801 Magnolia Avenue?

How should the public 801 building be used? Public or Private purposes?

If I read the tea leaves right, City Council won’t be holding any public hearings on the use of the 801 Magnolia Building. City staff has negotiated the lease renewal behind closed doors and there seems to be a majority on Council that couldn’t be bothered with public input on matters other than the lease.  That’s too bad because over the years residents have proposed creative ideas for 801 and were Council to engage in an open conversation with its constituents it would lead to better use of the building.

So if the West Wing is lost, let’s talk about the East Wing.  It’s a pretty utilitarian space with a series of cubicles left over from its days as a Sunday School Building.  Sort of a conference room with cubby holes.  Others have commented that the East Wing is well-suited for tutoring, historical displays, and other small group activities.   It might hold 20 comfortably around a conference table or more dispersed throughout the room. A that capacity, it is perfect for a community room. Many cities offer such rooms in libraries or municipal buildings at no or little cost to residents and non-profits.  Open the doors to the East Wing and Piedmonters will find a way to use it.

For that to happen, two things need to occur. First, city staff needs to occupy the offices in the West Wing.  Based on my time on Council, staff has every reason to do this – City Hall is packed to the rafters – or more accurately the basement – and staff was always asking for appropriations to rehab the downstairs.   Why do that when there is perfectly good office space in 801?  But more to the point, having the City occupy the West Wing offices would put staff in proximity to an East Wing community room which would enable public use of the room, particularly as a drop-in center.  Staff would be on hand to “chaperon” the space.  In my experience Piedmonters don’t need chaperoning but I suspect this would be required legally. 

Second, the Piedmont Center for the Arts (PCA) needs to agree to City use of the office space.  That may be hard for PCA to do.  The current tenant of the office is an ex-board member of PCA who was given a below-market rent for the space. Abrogating that arrangement could lead to some bad press for PCA.  The proposed lease for 801 currently has PCA retaining control of the office spaces in the West Wing which it will presumably continue to rent to the ex-board member.  Why should PCA be allowed to rent a public space at below market rates while the City charges higher rates to other non-profits?  If PCA does not need the office space for its own programming, then let the City use the space for its needs.

Surveys of the community have consistently shown that residents want more gathering spaces in the civic center area, be it public or commercial space.  The East Wing offers an excellent opportunity to meet this need and Council should consider how use of the West Wing could facilitate operation of a drop-in center in the East Wing.

  Residents with ideas on how the 801 Building should be used should contact City Council at:

Garrett Keating, Former Member Piedmont City Council 
Editors Note:  Opinions expressed are those of the author.

One Response to “OPINION: Use of Public Property? Public and City Needs vs Private Use !”

  1. While I would have preferred a more public process, I believe City Staff and Council are now aware of the many issues raised by the public since the Nov. 16, 2020 first reading and are now working to find a solution that meets the needs of our community.

    Regardless, some numbers raised by Garrett’s “below-market rent” comment, should be made public. The Nov. 16, 2020 City Report states the 801 Magnolia office space “could be rented at an estimated market value of $50 a square foot.” For the 615 square foot office space that is $30,750 annually. For comparison the City Report states that the Piedmont Educational Foundation rents City space of nearly identical size at the less desirable Veterans Hall for $19,020 annual rent in 2020 or about $36 a square foot.

    My research indicates that the sub-tenant at 801 Magnolia set their own lease amount while still an Art Center Board member at $15,600 annually or 51% of the estimated market rate. Initially, sub-tenant the Piedmont Post, was to have allowed some storage of a theater group in the space so the disparity is not as excessive as it seems. However, my understanding is that the sub-tenant after taking possession of the office space at 801 Magnolia Avenue claimed exclusive use of the space and denied other activities throughout the building that the sub-tenant found bothersome or noisy.

    I welcome documented contradictory information from the Art Center Board, as to my specific numbers, if I am wrong. Given how contentious the lease process on 801 Magnolia has become and that the sub-tenant may in fact be controlling use of the entire building during day time hours, I ask for more forthcoming information from the Art Center Board.

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