Building a City’s Future on the Past

Richmond Civic Center, Richmond, California

by R. Michael Walden, director of design, Nadel Architects, Inc.

From Architectural West Jan/Feb ’10

When the Richmond Civic Center was completed in 1952, it was heralded as the first modern-style civic center to be constructed in the United States.  The mid-century campus, with its low, linear forms and sleek use of red brick, was originally master-planned by architects Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler, and later brought to fruition by Timothy and Milton Pflueger.  At the time of its completion, the city manager believed that Richmond was a city, “destined for great industrial and cultural progress,” yet his vision went unrealized as the city slipped into a spiral of economic, racial, and cultural tensions.

         Nearly 40 years later, the civic center was badly damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake, necessitating the relocation of many city functions to the City of Richmond’s Marina District.  The rise of urban crime led to a further decline of the central business district, where the civic center is located.  Today, however, the ten-acre civic center once again stands as a symbol of hope, prosperity, and growth for the city.  Thanks to a $100 million revitalization, Richmond Civic Center has already started showing signs of restoring not only the area surrounding the city’s central business district, but also the entire downtown area to its original glory.

A Modern Team

         It takes a thoroughly modern and collaborative approach to revitalize a campus of Richmond Civic Center’s historic, cultural, and architectural significance.  Under the leadership of the City of Richmond’s Redevelopment Agency, the revitalization effort consists of three phases.  Phase I included the renovation of three buildings:  City Hall, the Hall of Justice, and the Civic Auditorium.  Phase II will include a brand-new, 80,000-sq.ft. Public Safety Building, a full block of public parking with 400 spaces, and over 100 spaces for “black-and-white” patrol vehicles.  Phase III will bring in mixed-use structures incorporating market-rate and affordable housing, office space, and ground-level retail along the MacDonald Avenue Corridor.  A library building is also slated for future work.  The revitalization effort is currently being led by Richmond Civic Center Partners LLC, a partnership consisting of Los Angeles-based Alliance Property Group and Mission Viejo-based Wasatch Advantage Group, LLC; and implemented by Nadel Architects, Los Angeles, Calif., and general contractors Charles Pankow Builders, Ltd., Oakland, Calif., with C. Overaa & Company Inc., Richmond, Calif. 

         Since the civic center itself was in imminent need of repair, it required an aggressive design and construction schedule of 24 months.  In order to accomplish this goal, the first phase was completed using a design-build strategy and project delivery methodology.

         Under the design-build model, design decisions were constantly under review and revision from the client and end users.  Meetings among all team members were scheduled monthly and periodic site visits were arranged on an as-needed basis to facilitate the design process.  Subsequent to the start of construction, the design-build team met at least weekly to review construction schedules and issues, and also met monthly just to focus on design issues in order to ensure that all operational objectives were fully realized.  As a result, the project was completed in May 2009 – right on schedule and within the development budget.  The revitalization of Richmond Civic Center has been called, “the most significant historic rehabilitation of any civic project in California in decades.”

Renovation and Expansion

         The Nadel design team’s main objective for the revitalization was to bring critical city administrative functions back to downtown Richmond after seven years of absence, while restoring the central business district.  Designers also wanted to pay tribute to the historical architecture of the original buildings, as well as bring in an important environmental sustainability component to the civic center.  The scope of the revitalization plan included complete seismic upgrades, sustainable elements, exterior envelope rehabilitation, system upgrades like heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) and electrical, adjusted floor-to-ceiling heights, interior renovations, and building expansions.

         The revitalization of Richmond Civic Center is composed of 440 Civic Center Plaza (former Hall of Justice), the combination Civic Auditorium/Art Center, and the City Hall, which functions as administrative offices for the city’s mayor and staff, and also houses the Building and Planning, Fire, Financial, and Information Technology departments for the City of Richmond. 

440 Civic Center Plaza

         City Hall and community service functions have expanded into the old Hall of Justice, which is now known as 440 Civic Center Plaza.  This facility includes an additional 80,000 sq.ft. of space, a new modern city council chambers and supporting facilities, and the necessary technology to support Richmond’s Public Television Station, KCRT, including state-of-the-art audio and video capabilities, as well as data and power provisions for city staff and council members.  In order to accommodate this particular function, the design team created a control room within the council chambers for KCRT.

         The police themselves are being temporarily housed offsite, until a modern facility can be constructed in Phase II.

City Hall

         The ground floor of City Hall has expanded to create a full floor, similar in size to the upper levels of the building.  To enclose the expanded ground floor and recall the “lofting” effect that had been achieved in the original design, floor-to-ceiling glass has been employed to minimize the disruption to views from both inside and outside the building.

Civic Auditorium/Art Center

         The combination Civic Auditorium and Art Center will cater to the city’s thriving art community by bringing culture to a government facility.  Improvements to the hydraulic floor of the auditorium allow a floor the size of a basketball court to lower into a raked position for auditorium style seating. 

The Plaza

         The most prominent feature of the civic center campus is the two-acre public plaza, which has undergone significant enhancements that redefine it in terms of its scale, function, and use.  A modern central water feature and art element, conceived by artist Archie Held, is located at the central axis of all three buildings.  Flanking the east and west sides of the monumental plaza is a colonnade comprised of horizontal concrete slabs supported by slender concrete columns.

         To compensate for the loss of a recessed base at City Hall, and the subsequent cover it afforded pedestrians, a new canopy was added to its base, spanning the entire length of City Hall on its south-facing façade.  This canopy was designed with the most minimal of structural profiles, and with a clear glass top, thereby providing the least obstruction to views.

Historic Preservation

         To pay tribute to the city’s architectural and cultural history, many of the materials used in the renovation were sourced or manufactured locally, if not retained from the original buildings.  Large portions of the original walls, floors, and ceilings were re-used instead of demolished.  Both the site and buildings incorporate the cubic, linear, and transparent forms, and a minimal range of materials and colors consistent with the mid-century modernism architecture found at the civic center.  Custom red brick was made to match the original, while the Sapele wood paneling, concrete (paving, slab, white-painted colonnade canopies), natural anodized aluminum and glass were used throughout.  A beautiful 63’-long recycled glass and concrete service counter installed in City Hall’s One-Stop Permit Center was made locally by “green” countertop manufacturer Vetrazzo.

         Glass art walls by artist Gordon Huether in City Hall’s entryway feature a photo montage tribute to the industrial history of Richmond, showing scenes of ship-building, commercial fishing, car manufacturing, and the like.  The city’s history tells a narrative of overcoming tremendous challenges and weathering the changes of time; the Richmond Civic Center honors the past through its architecture.


         The project team at Richmond Civic Center felt nearly as passionate about preserving the history of the civic center as they did about being environmentally responsible.  Great efforts were made to incorporate as many sustainable elements in the revived buildings as possible, without impacting the budget.  As such, the City Hall and 440 Civic Center Plaza have achieved LEED® Gold certification.  Major sustainable elements include bioswales, secured bicycle spaces, drought-resistant landscaping, heat-island reduction, low-flow plumbing, energy-efficient high-performance heating and cooling systems, photovoltaics, low-emitting materials, controlled lighting, and the use of recycled construction materials.  

Back to Future

         By paying tribute to the city’s architectural heritage and building upon its mid-century modernist image, the revitalized Richmond Civic Center will re-establish Richmond’s place as a city of the future, making it truly a part of the 21st Century.

Please follow and like us: