The Long Beach City Council has taken a small but significant step towards overhauling the Long Beach Civic Center. At the Feb. 12 meeting, the City Council voted 7-2 (Councilmembers James Johnson and Al Austin dissenting) to move forward with a staff recommendation that extends an invitation to the development community to overhaul the city’s civic center. City Hall is approximately 36 years old, and a 2006 seismic study that analyzed how the building would fare under a moderate earthquake revealed major problems.
The 15-story city hall building has four wings on each corner that house the elevators, stairwells and restrooms, and Director of Public Works Michael Conway reported that while the core of that city hall building is “structurally sound,” there are still major safety issues. He said that the four wings have “weak connections,” that there are deformed columns, and that the wings’ concrete panels create excessive weight. Conway concluded that these problems, among others, would hamper those trying to exit the building in the event of a major earthquake.
The seismic study determined that it would cost about $119 million to retrofit the building, including the soft costs to relocate City Hall employees and services while the building is undergoing construction. Since that study is now several years old, those costs have been estimated to be closer to $170 million.
Assistant City Manager Suzanne Frick stressed the urgency of moving forward with a plan.
“So Mayor, Members of the Council, we need to do something about this,” Frick said Tuesday. “We can’t just let this building go unattended. We have to be making some decisions about how to deal with the seismic issues.”
Frick explained to the Council that the recommended RFQ (Request for Qualifications) will primarily see if the development community is at all interested in partnering with the City to provide a new Civic Center facility. She acknowledged that developers could propose to simply rehabilitate the current facilities.
Before he voted against the action to move forward with the RFQ, Councilmember Johnson asked if the Council could explore the possibility of adding a structure to the building to help people get out safely if the stairs aren’t available. He said that he understands that the building is structurally sound but that the elevators and stairwells would split apart from the building and employees would not be able to get out safely.
City Manager Patrick West warned of the dangers to the people in the lobby and on the stairs if the stairwell and elevators fell. Johnson still maintained a position that the Council should explore other options.
“I think everyone up here on this dais, I think, needs to take our employees’ safety seriously,” Johnson said, but he added that he would
like to see if the City has reviewed every possible mitigation.
Frick, however, told Johnson that a major earthquake could render the building “completely infeasible.” She said that determining how to exit the building was only one issue.
“What do we do after the earthquake?” Frick asked. “We don’t have a building. We don’t have a city hall. So we need to be planning, not just for the short term but for the long term.”
Frick’s report also noted that the City leases 112,000 square feet of offsite space because the City can’t fit everybody into the City Hall building. The cost to lease that offsite space is about $2.13 million a year. The total cost that the City spends to operate city hall is $12.57 million a year, including the cost to lease offsite space.
Mayor Bob Foster stressed the importance of entertaining ideas from the development community now. Recalling that the City of Los Angeles had seismic issues too, Foster said employees sued the City because of the unsafe work space.
“The danger of going down that road is that you lose a lot of the initiative and leverage, if you will, that you have,” Foster said. “If you are sued, and you have to change things, you’re under the gun. Now…everyone knows you have to change, and you’re not going to get the kind of great deal as you might get if you do it voluntarily. So I want to point out that I don’t think you ever want to get to that situation.”
“I think that if this were possible– to provide a new, seismically sound, usable, attractive public space here for the civic center at about the same level we’re paying today– it’s something that the Council should entertain,” Foster said.
Since the recommendation hinged on the findings of a seismic study that analyzed the civic center buildings in 2006, the Council deliberated whether to ask for a second opinion on earthquake safety of the building or to move forward with an RFQ that would seek out teams of developers. They discussed Councilmember Gerrie Schipske’s concern that the criteria have changed for determining earthquake safety and vulnerabilities and have become more restrictive since 2006.
The assistant city manager acknowledged that the peer review of the study would likely reveal a worse picture.
“We’ll get the peer review and everything,” Frick said, “but I want to let you know that it’s likely going to be even more of a priority and crisis based upon new methodologies.”
Ultimately, when the Council opted to move forward with the staff recommendation, they requested in their action to contact the firm responsible for the original seismic study and for the staff to request a peer review to determine if the 2006 seismic study is still valid given newer standards. If the peer review reveals that the 2006 seismic study was not enough in light of contemporary standards and methodologies, the Council requested that a second study be performed.
The possibility of completely rebuilding the civic center already attracted some attention from architects who attended the Council meeting. Cameron Crockett, a local architect, presented one vision for the library at the civic center. He addressed some of the issues with the library’s roofing problems. He praised the original design that placed part of the park over the roof of the library and proposed a design that would fix the roof’s drainage issues. John Glasgow, another local architect, praised the original architects responsible for the building of the civic center back in the 1970s.
“Personally, I’m a bit conflicted about this whole direction because I personally have some affection for the design of the civic center,” Glasgow said, adding that “this is very significant work for its time.”
Both Glasgow and Crockett said in a follow-up interview that they are primarily interested in addressing the library building needs, not the civic center earthquake needs.
Maureen Neely of Long Beach Heritage, an organization dedicated to preserving buildings and historical districts, emphasized the importance of public participation.
“Long Beach Heritage would ask that any decision to raze these buildings, develop these blocks or enter into any public-private partnership be vetted out in the open,” Neely said. “These parcels were deeded to the City strictly for use as a public park and Civic Center by the original developers of Long Beach. So our members and supporters strongly advise adherence to the public process as elected officials and staff look into any restructuring at the civic center.”
Neely’s request for transparency was not lost on Schipske. The fifth district councilmember had circulated an email and posted a blog about the city property a week earlier, warning that in a closed session of the Feb. 5 Council meeting, the Council was scheduled to discuss the potential sale of the city hall building, library and old courthouse building. Schipske said in her email that she objected to having that item discussed in a closed session and that the item would be discussed at that Feb. 12 Council meeting. According to the Feb. 12 agenda, the Council was only set to discuss both the seismic issues at the civic center and the staff recommendation that requested the city manager to issue the RFQ surrounding the development and construction of a new civic center.
“You know, this agenda item is substantially different than what was posted for closed session last week,” Schipske said at the Feb. 12 Council meeting, noting that for the prior week, the Council was set to discuss prices and terms for the civic center.