Crews are putting finishing touches on Littleton’s newly renovated city council chambers, a project that city officials say will better accommodate COVID-era safety protocols — and that also tackles a longtime wish list for the space.
At a cost of $1.4 million, the project represents nearly a third of Littleton’s expenditures under its $4.4 million allocation from the federal CARES Act, meant to help cities and counties address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The project represents a total overhaul of the chamber, which was largely unchanged since Littleton’s City Center building opened in 1977.
In the most notable change, “the pit,” the terraced below-floor-level amphitheater facing the council dais, has been filled in, placing the entire room on one level.
The pit, with its tightly packed and immobile seating, was a barrier to social distancing, said public works director Keith Reester.
The new seating capacity is 175, up from 80 in the old arrangement. The level floor also improves access for people with disabilities, who previously could not easily approach the lectern to address council.
The room also features a new HVAC system that can exchange air with the outside, as opposed to the old system, which was a closed indoor loop.
The new council dais, though longer than the old one, is still not quite long enough to keep councilmembers six feet apart, Reester said, though he said seating may be extended beyond the end of the dais and Plexiglas installed between councilmembers’ seats.
The room also sports new audiovisual equipment, including a new screen above the dais composed of nine LCD monitors, and new camera and recording equipment.
Lighting has been replaced with higher-efficiency LED systems, and the dark brick walls have been covered with brighter white coverings.
The end result, Reester said, is a room that will be useful in coming years to host not just city council meetings, but could be booked by members of the public to host local groups or clubs.
“In the past this room was used for maybe eight hours a week,” he said. “Now it can really be put to use all week long.”
Though Reester said many of the improvements — like leveling the pit and replacing the HVAC system — were major steps toward making the room compliant with COVID restrictions, the changes had been discussed for years before CARES funds came along.
“This is where we would have eventually gone with the space, but we wouldn’t have gotten here for three or four years,” Reester said.
City officials haven’t yet decided when city council will reoccupy the space, said City Manager Mark Relph, but he anticipates it could be as soon as February — though bringing the public in could take longer.
City council has met virtually since March, with each councilmember appearing from home. Relph said that while the council has gotten its business done, the arrangement is limiting and virtual meetings make participation by members of the public more difficult.
“I think it hurts discussion and decision making,” Relph said. “We miss face-to-face robust conversation. We want to end virtual meetings sooner than later, and we want the public to be able to enter those meetings.”
Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes said the renovation will be conducive to reconnecting the public to their representatives.
“Ever since we went to virtual meetings, we have the same three or four callers for every public comment period,” Valdes said. “We don’t get as many people coming down to address their council.”
Valdes called the old chamber limiting.
“Councilmembers and guests were all sitting elbow-to-elbow,” he said. “We’ve talked about renovating the space for years. It was time for an upgrade, but we didn’t have the money to do it, because it always got pulled to higher priorities. Now with COVID, these funds were clearly allowable. In order to get us back into the chamber, we had to make these changes.”
Valdes said he considered the renovation a good use of taxpayer money.
Relph said he anticipates COVID restrictions could last through summer or into fall, but said the room’s renovation will be useful long beyond that.
“That space had never been very functional, and now we’ve created community space for the long run,” he said.
Relph dismissed the idea that the city could have spent less on the space, or only used CARES funds for narrower portions of the project.
“I don’t think those who believe we could have spent less understand what was in play,” he said. “We had electrical systems that hadn’t been touched since the 1970s. The old cameras were fixed in place, and we couldn’t get everyone on camera on the new dais. Every change we undertook spun out into other systems that had to be upgraded.”
After the $1.4 million for the council chamber renovation, much of Littleton’s $4.4 million in CARES Act expenditures are related to retrofitting other city facilities to accommodate social distancing, according to city documents.
After that, $836,301 went to grants for local businesses, $200,000 went to grants for nonprofits and $130,000 went to operating Weekends on Main, which hosted outdoor dining on Main Street last summer.
Littleton must submit invoices to Arapahoe County for reimbursement from CARES Act funds, said Nancy Sharpe, the chair of the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners.
The renovation received pre-approval by county staff in September, according to county documents.
Several Arapahoe County municipalities submitted requests to renovate council chambers, Sharpe said, though Littleton’s request was the most extensive.
Sharpe said the changes could be useful in the future.
“We don’t know how long we’ll have to operate under these restrictions, or how these changes could be useful in the future,” she said. “These precautions will have long-lasting benefits to the public using public spaces.”