Visalia City Council approves foundation of new civic center

Visalia City Council approves groundwork for Visalia’s civic center, which sees additions of updated building layouts, on-site parking and potential designs plans

VISALIA – The city’s new civic center finally has the groundwork laid out for building locations and on-site parking, as well as some ideas on how the future center’s design will best represent Visalia.

An update of the project was brought to council by the city’s engineering division at the city council meeting on Oct. 17. Joining the engineering division was James Wirick, studio director and architect for LPA Design Studios, who presented council with a site layout of the future civic center complex.

In addition to the upcoming Visalia Emergency Communications Center (VECC), the site layout includes a two-leveled public safety office building, a single-leveled police services building with evidence, training and crime lab sections, a single-leveled building for council chambers and a two-leveled city hall building. 

The previous layout for the civic center had the project in the southern section of the site, but the updated version moved the police services building, public safety building and city hall building up north, so the civic center is facing East Goshen Avenue. As it stands now, the updated plan has the police services building sitting on the northern corner of Goshen and Burke Street, with the public safety building below it and the city hall building south of them both. City hall is also planned to be across the street from the future council chambers on the northeast corner of East School Avenue and North Burke Street.

Wirick said staff hopes to eventually get a firing range for the police services building on the northwest corner of the site, but that is something that will happen in the far future. He also said staff hopes to establish a connection between council chambers and city hall somewhere down the line.

The current plan of a separation between council chambers and city hall raised questions from Councilmember Greg Collins, who said he has not come across a location where the two were separated. Wirick said the idea came about when city staff took tours to other locations to get a better idea of what the civic center should look like and found a city where the two were separate from each other.

“We felt that this was a workable solution,” Wirick said. “Not an unheard of solution, but one that works for this city in this climate at this time.”

According to Wirick, the plan for council chamber is to seat up to 156 people, in preparation for important future council discussions that would yield a large audience. Collins said he is uncertain if council has ever seen such a large number of meeting attendees but in those circumstances, council typically adjourns to the Visalia Convention Center.

“We visited several chambers and communities that were similar to the size of Visalia,” the city’s civil engineer Mike Porter said. “150 seats with an overflow of around 50 was sort of the sweet spot out of the various chambers that we’ve cited.”

Councilmember Liz Wynn agreed with Collins that the number of seats seems excessive, but hopes to eventually have enough community engagement with council meetings somewhere down the line.

“One of my goals is that we would have more public participation,” Wynn said.

Although there was an initial plan for a parking garage in their original layout, Wirick said staff ultimately decided to forgo that idea and opted for on-site parking instead, which saves the city approximately $7 to $8 million dollars in funds for the project.

Another thing staff inquired of the council was the site’s design, which council members had some difficulty coming to a set decision on. Although most council members said the architecture of the civic center should represent the city of Visalia, they had some different ideas on what that could look like.

“That’s not an easy thing, because you have four or five folks up here with different opinions,” Collins said.

Although he would have preferred a more historical touch to the future civic center to match other notable Visalia buildings, like the city’s transit center, Collins ultimately said he is in favor of a prairie-style approach that emphasizes horizontal lines on buildings with low, shallow roofs and patio-like styles. 

This idea was echoed by Wynn, who initially said she is in favor of more windows on the buildings to bring in natural light, but understands glass is not ideal with high heat temperatures in Visalia through the majority of the year.

Councilmember Brett Taylor said he would prefer to see something that would be “timeless” for Visalia, with Spanish-styled architecture or brick buildings. He said modern styles look too futuristic and don’t age well, and he does not think the style would accurately represent Visalia. Vice Mayor Brian Poochigian said he would also like to see something that will stand the test of time. He said he would prefer low maintenance features, and is in favor of low maintenance green-space and locally-made sculptures for the civic center’s courtyard.

Mayor Steve Nelsen agreed with the vice mayor about keeping the center’s site low maintenance by forgoing any water features and cutting down on green space for the site. He said he is in favor of clean lines and glass, not for a modern setting, but to match a modern office building. He also said the council chamber should be inviting to the community.

Vice Mayor Poochigian made a motion to accept the engineering division’s recommended layout and accept the floor plan layouts as recommended and accepted, with Mayor Nelsen seconding the motion. The motion carried 3 to 2, with Councilmembers Collins and Wynn in opposition.

Wirick said the project will come back to council a few times before the civic center can undergo construction, but said this is to work out more schematic details for council to vote on at a later date.

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