Calling the building “underutilized,” state officials said this week that they hope to sell the state office building at 108 Cherry St. in Burlington.
The number of employees assigned to the John J. Zampieri State Office Building stands at 439, according to Jennifer Fitch, the buildings and general services commissioner. But on an average day, she said, only about 150 people are working inside the building. The majority of employees would move to offices in Waterbury if the building were sold.
An official from the state employees’ union said news of a possible sale “came as a surprise,” and he criticized the state for a lack of communication with employees in the building.
“The state as an employer really ought to be thinking about how to re-envision the use of state office space,” said Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association. “And that should be a full discussion with the frontline employees who use that office space.”
Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for the Agency of Human Services, said a communication was sent to employees in the building who would be affected, letting them know of a potential sale.
“We're going to keep them in the loop on everything as it develops because right now we don't have a lot of information because this is in the early stages, but we want staff to know that every step of the way, we're going to be in constant communication,” Feldman said.
Howard said he didn’t hear about plans for the Cherry Street building until after Gov. Phil Scott’s budget address last week. Seven Days first reported the proposed sale.
Howard said he worries about the effects of uprooting employees from Burlington and shifting them elsewhere.
“Hearing about this for the first time with a voicemail left at 4 o'clock of the day of the governor's speech, it's probably not an indication that there's been robust discussion or consideration of the unintended consequences,” Howard said.
To Howard, those consequences could include people leaving for other jobs because of the relocation. He said that could be particularly damaging to the Department of Health, which he said already has “a pretty alarming vacancy rate and a lot of lost talent and turnover in that department.”
Howard said he thinks that a move of this size deserves more discussion, “especially since the folks who usually make these decisions don't always understand the work that our members do on the front lines.”
Fitch said if the Legislature approves the proposal to sell the Cherry Street building as part of the Capital Bill, her goal is to have the building on the market in the next year or so, but it could take up to two years. One reason for the extended schedule is to allow time to find other space for 80 to 90 employees whose jobs rely on keeping a presence in the Burlington area.
The agencies housed in the building include the Agency of Human Services, including the Department of Health, and a limited number of people from the Agency of Digital Services, according to Fitch.
Feldman said “central office” employees in the Burlington building would be sent to the state office complex in Waterbury. Those working directly with clients, along with district employees, would move to other spaces in the greater Burlington area.
The move to Waterbury, Feldman said, is part of a plan to “foster the collaboration” between departments within the agency.
“We believe it will be most advantageous to bring the central office staff for Vermont Department of Health to the Waterbury complex, which is where the other central offices for the other five departments are located,” Feldman said.
Fitch, who has been in her position since 2017, said the potential sale of the Cherry Street building would be the largest move of state employees since she’s been on the job. If the Legislature grants its approval, the next step would be to focus on moving employees before the building is posted for sale.
The location has a lot of potential, according to Fitch.
“The timing is right,” she said. “It's a great location. There's not a lot of spaces left up for sale in the Burlington area and I know there's some development across the street, so I think it will be actually great as an opportunity to redevelop this building into something that hopefully will serve the community.”
Across the street from the office building is the CityPlace construction project. Additionally, further development could take place if another nearby property owned by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is sold. The Catholic parish in charge of that property recently won approval from the city’s Development Review Board to demolish the former cathedral, but that decision is open to appeal.
Built in 1993, the state office building was named for John J. Zampieri, who served in the Vermont House of Representatives from 1965 to 1985, then as the state’s Buildings and General Services commissioner until 1997.
The building has already shown some signs of deterioration. The parking garage beneath it was evaluated by a consultant in 2019, who said the state should repair the garage. At that time, the cost was estimated at $12.6 million.
Fitch said the consultant's report recommended that, by the end of this year, either structural repairs should be done in the garage or it should be closed. Fitch noted her agency has been watching the garage closely and doesn’t think the condition has deteriorated any further from when the report was done.
The building also has a number of alcoves near the entrances that have since been closed off with fences and boards, as there has been “spalling” over the top of those alcoves, where some concrete was starting to fall, according to Fitch.
“We're making sure that everybody is safe and not harmed by any falling concrete in that alcove area,” she said.
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