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Moving Down The Road

Caltrans’ 700,000 square-foot tower owes its existence to earthquakes, union muscle, and a tincture of politics.

July 10, 2003

By CHIP JACOBS

At $191-million, the single largest highway job underway in the Los Angeles-area today eschews white lane-markers for steel girders, and will probably never elicit a single expletive from the traffic-bleary masses.

Unless, that is, it’s in the spanking new employee parking lot preceding a three-day weekend.

The biggest Caltrans construction project these days is not a freeway or an overpass, but a 13-story, block-long headquarters building in downtown Los Angeles for its own workers. When completed in January 2005, the aluminum-encased, fortress-like structure, designed by noted architect Thom Mayne, will consolidate some 1,800 local California Department of Transportation employees under the same atrium-topped roof.

In doing so, they will be reunited from a spray of leased offices and a pair of wobbly state buildings that some state workers have fretted might be their disaster tomb.

Approved by the legislature in the relatively banner days of 2000, the rising, modernistic hulk at First and Main Street will stick out for more than its environmentally sensitive windows and child-care center. There is scant chance it would have made it off the easel if proposed amid the state’s current $38 billion budget hole. It is also appearing in an era in which not a single new local freeway is in the hopper – an era in which Caltrans own might is receding.

But public work projects often have peculiar alchemy. This 700,000-square-foot tower owes its existence to earthquakes, union muscle, and a tincture of politics.

WRITING ON THE WALL

For years, Caltrans engineers, planners and other administrative staff have worked out of a boxy, World-War II-era building on Spring Street and a 1962-circa annex directly behind it on Main Street. Freeways were once a growth industry, and the know-how to design them required a small battalion of people. Unlike the Spring Street office, which is girded with reinforced concrete, the annex was designed with jacked-up floors moored to columns – a then-revolutionary approach.

The 1994 Northridge temblor revealed the weakness in it. The older building survived okay but the annex didn’t. It suffered cracked walls, dislodged ceiling tiles and other damage.

A state General Services Administration report prompted by the devastating Bay-Area quake but released after the 1994 Northridge one recommended that both buildings be vacated. The Main Street office had floors that could pancake, the analysis said, while the Spring Street building rested on a foundation that flunked seismic standards.

Rejecting the idea it had to clear out the workforce, Caltrans instead reinforced columns and did other structural shoring-up. Some employees were incensed that officials red-tagged a state-owned parking lot on Broadway Street yet still failed to evacuate an annex with 800 people working inside.

For them, the cavalry turned out to be the state Fire Marshall, which concluded in a post-inspection report that the annex was over-crowed and contained inadequate electrical and fire alarm systems – a perilous combo in case of an emergency.

“When we stumbled across that report, we realized state officials in Sacramento had been sitting on it,” said Arturo Salazar, a Caltrans engineer and legislative chairman for the Professional Engineers of California Government that represents Caltrans engineers and related state positions. “By 1999, the employees and union felt we were being given a snow job about the retrofit. Morale was very low. People feared for their life.”

The union sued. Under the settlement, about 45 percent of Caltrans District-7 staff was shuffled off to privately owned buildings on Wilshire Boulevard, Grand Avenue, Bunker Hill and elsewhere. (The yearly lease tab is $21 million.) The major fire-alarm systems were fixed.

Just as important, it was decided those were Bandaid solutions. Something permanent – and safety-hardened – was needed.

Salazar believes one of the state’s motivations for this decision was preempting lawsuits and embarrassment. A number of Caltrans workers had retained attorneys to represent them for health-related damages.

“They saw the writing on the wall,” he said.

A SWEET THING

Whatever the impetus, state brass found that retrofitting Caltrans’ two existing buildings would’ve cost $200 million. A brand new office appeared to be a better deal, even if some employees had to stay put in the old ones until it was opened.

“We had buildings essentially worn out, but we were not worried about them falling down on people,” said Bob Dennis, Caltrans deputy director of administration and the man who helped orchestrate the new headquarters. Besides economics, he said, “the new building also made sense from an operational sense. For the first time in 20 years, we will have all the staff under the same roof. If someone is in Norwalk, and someone is another building, it complicates things.”

Gov. Gray Davis’ regime was considerably more sympathetic about a new Caltrans L.A.-area headquarters than his Republican predecessor. Serendipity was on the agency’s side, too. Maria Contreras-Sweet, the Davis-picked head of the Business, Transportation and Housing agency that oversees Caltrans, was in one of the two structures when the elevators failed. A handicapped woman had to be carried down the stairs to get out during that incident. It made an impression.

“When you get a building like this approved by the legislature, you need to have the right legislators and the right governor,” Dennis added. “We had in our favor that that the Davis Administration came in with a fresh perspective and Maria Sweet took on our building as a personal issue.”

But was a fancy new place a smart real estate buy? During the same timeframe, downtown Los Angeles was saddled with glut of vacant commercial office space, with roughly out of every five floors empty, according to the county’s Economic Development Corp.

Conditions have improved slightly today, though there are still 6.2-million square feet of unused office space, including a large chunk of the Transamerica Building that some public entities are courting. Nonetheless, most agencies crave new, not recycled in what insiders refer to as “edifice complex.” Two of the county’s most powerful bureaucracies, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Water District, are proof of that with their signature headquarters, observers point out.

“They say: ‘We’ll amortize the new building over 55 years. And we control our own destiny,’” explained Carl Muhlstein, a senior director at brokerage Cushman & Wakefield. “We are having a hard time keeping toilet paper in the elementary schools,” because of the state’s fiscal meltdown, so outfits “better wake up about how they spending their money.”

WHY NOW?

Project-wise, Caltrans’ glory days of road building has gone the way of the typewriter.

The eastern extension of Foothill (210) Freeway extension is done. Plans to widen the Ventura (101) and Long Beach (710) freeways were dropped in the face of community opposition about the loss of homes. And, as the Weekly has reported, officials have determined that construction of a 4.5-mile surface extension of the 710-freeway from Alhambra to Pasadena is virtually un-buildable because of political, legal and community barriers. A tunnel may be the last resort.

Nip-and-tuck jobs — carpool lanes and interchange-connectors — are the new vogue. Altogether, the three biggest highway jobs this year in Caltrans’ District 7 amount to a relatively skimpy $321 million.

Caltrans doesn’t fully control its purse strings anymore, either. Legislation (SB-45) by former Sen. Quentin Kopp confers on county transit officials the power to approve roughly three-quarters of all freeway work. This 1997 law, which Caltrans has tried weakening in the last few years, was needed because of resentment about the agency’s ability to effectively guide projects through an often swamp-like process, Kopp, now a Bay Area judge, said in an interview.

The new headquarters has its own uncertainties. Because of potential staff cuts at Caltrans, a whole floor is expected to be vacant, and the state will have to find a tenant, Dennis said. (Under an existing agreement, the city of Los Angeles’ own Department of Transportation will rent two floors in the new Caltrans office for 250-300 workers under an existing agreement.)

It’s this tectonic shift that State Sen. Tom McClintock, D-Thousand Oaks, believes makes Caltrans look like an empire with evaporating colonies. He thinks the headquarters construction should be mothballed under California’s fiscal health is restored.

“We produced a highway system that is the best in the world with door-to-door service for every Californian,” said McClintock, vice chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee. “That public work mentality has turned from public service to self-aggrandizement. That’s the tragedy. Why do you need a $191-million complex when you can look at high-rises in downtown and see the sun on the other side?”

SAFETY, NOT POLITICS

Caltrans’ Dennis, however, argued that the department explored leasing or buying an existing office tower. Each had their own seismic weaknesses or would have isolated on different floors departments that need to work together.

Some suspect L.A. City Hall wanted the new structure to further burnish the civic center, which has added the Disney Concert Hall and Catholic Cathedral to a growing repertoire of public spaces. Caltrans’ project may also drive panhandlers out while enticing other developers into aging part of downtown.

Caltrans had planned on paying for its new headquarters in cash, and had squirreled away the money for it. About $75 million has been spent so far. With the state’s finances in tatters, however, Caltrans will ship $125 million back to the state highway fund for other projects and issue revenue bonds to bankroll the balance of construction costs.

Salazar, the Caltrans engineer and union official, said safety, not politics, should count the most. The existing Caltrans offices, which he and others say is the most productive of any statewide, pump black particles out of the air conditioners and have posted signs warning of lead inside.

“It’s a tribute to the people who work here” for not boycotting the conditions, he said. “We could have held back. We took pride in our work.”

The state engineers union, which is still livid about an approved ballot measure allowing the state to contract out for technical services on transit projects, was a major fundraiser to Davis. In the last three years, records show, it gave $267,000.

The department’s new headquarters will not house the traffic-monitoring and emergency-dispatch operations overseeing Southern California’s freeway grid. It is not seismically resilient enough to keep the system intact in case of a ferocious quake or other disaster. A new center to perform that task is under construction in Eagle Rock. The cost: $45 million.

A nearly identical version of this story appeared in the Pasadena Weekly. Copyright Chip Jacobs