Should Montco sell or rehab its old county buildings?

The 19th-century Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown is undergoing energy-efficiency renovations but needs an extensive retrofit, officials say.
The 19th-century Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown is undergoing energy-efficiency renovations but needs an extensive retrofit, officials say. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 23, 2014

Once looking to shed its real estate holdings, Montgomery County is now considering spending tens of millions of dollars to overhaul or expand its headquarters and surrounding offices in Norristown.

The Board of Commissioners is hiring a consultant to study a range of possibilities, including rehabilitating One Montgomery Plaza, building atop the county courthouse plaza, replacing an underground parking garage, renovating or tearing down the old stone prison, or even expanding the county footprint by buying the Post Office building behind the courthouse.

Over the last year, the county succeeded in selling off its Human Services Center in Norristown and the sprawling Parkhouse senior complex in Royersford. But with no good offers for One Montgomery Plaza, commissioners say the smarter move may be to double down instead of getting out of the game.

"While there's a bit of frustration" with the delay, Commissioner Leslie Richards said at a meeting this month, "it would be absolutely irresponsible to move forward at this juncture without taking a full, comprehensive look at all the properties around here, how they relate to each other, how they could complement each other, what are the full uses."

The possibility of a redeveloped county center could spur a revival in Norristown, similar to what happened in Media, Delaware County's seat, two decades ago.

A core demographic of county workers, lawyers, and people seeking county services helped woo upscale businesses such as Trader Joe's and Iron Hill Brewery to Media in the 1990s. Crime fell. The economy grew, and downtown Media has a mix of eclectic local businesses, and the good kind of nightlife surrounding its quaint, walkable center.

One Montgomery Plaza needs at least $17 million in repairs. The 10-story building on Swede Street, which serves as county headquarters, has suffered from years of deferred maintenance and structural deterioration, not to mention needing interior retrofits and modernization to make better use of the space.

"That's going to cost tens of millions of dollars," Commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro said in an interview last week. "So the question is, combined with the debt that's already on this building, is that a better way to do it than building a brand-new building at DeKalb and Airy? Or building a new building on the courthouse plaza?"

Shapiro said the county got plenty of offers last year when it put the building up for a sale-leaseback arrangement. But no developer offered a price high enough to overcome the $28 million in remaining debt on the building, Shapiro said.

The county had an easier time selling the Human Services Center and Parkhouse. Those sales netted $58.5 million, which the county used to pay down debt and plug holes in the general fund, in addition to reducing its burdens for repairs, insurance, staff, and other resources.

Commissioners were thrilled to get rid of those buildings, with Bruce Castor saying of the Human Services Center: "That giant sucking sound you heard was county tax dollars going into a rat hole."

"We looked at the core functions of county government. Nowhere in there . . . did it say the county should be a landlord," Richards said in July.

One Montgomery Plaza was the more problematic asset. The 2006 purchase of the building - for $26 million, followed by nearly $5 million in repairs - left the county owing more than the building was worth, Shapiro said.

Even then, the building was in need of repair, and by the time Shapiro's administration took over, the facade was literally crumbling off.

The county has invested just enough to keep the building safe, Shapiro said, but has concentrated its capital on other projects.

In January, commissioners approved $4.6 million in repairs to the parking garage on the south side of Main Street.

Engineers found the courthouse garage, which sits beneath the tiered plaza facing Main Street, was too far gone and needs to be replaced.

The courthouse itself, a 19th-century gem with a green dome, marble staircase, and stained-glass windows, is undergoing energy-efficiency renovations, but, according to the county, it will require an extensive retrofit to make better use of the staggered, disjointed courtrooms and offices.

The prison at the corner of DeKalb and Airy Streets, built in 1851, "has enormous environmental issues because of asbestos, lead paint, things like that," Shapiro said. Within the 3.3-acre stone walls are paved yards, and next door is a 190-space parking lot.

The prison has been shuttered for decades, and county spokesman Frank Custer said he couldn't even make it through a tour of the facility. "I had to leave," he said. "I just was having trouble breathing. The air is so heavy, it's disgusting."

The Postal Service announced last year it planned to sell its 1934 marble-columned outpost in Norristown. The consultant will take it under consideration because of its location - between the courthouse and the old prison - but Shapiro was skeptical it would meet the county's needs.

A consultant will be selected in July, and Shapiro said he hoped to settle on a proposal by the end of the year.

"It will be a pretty basic analysis," he said. "It's, 'Here are your four or five options. Here is what each one costs,' and then we need to make a decision as to what's in the best interests of our employees and taxpayers going forward."

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

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