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As Bank Building Works on Its Fire Woes, More Than a Few Occupants Are Fuming

Times Staff Writer

Ford Broncos and Chevy pickups lined the curb two deep outside the Great American Building early Friday morning, while security guards escorted small groups of office workers past the yellow tape cordoning off the entrance. Workers were allowed into the beleaguered high-rise at 600 B St., closed until at least Monday because of a series of electrical fires, only to pick up their personal belongings.

But some workers, carting computer terminals and office equipment, were clearly preparing for more than a two-day relocation.

“We’re going to move out,” said attorney Tom Tosdal of the law firm Georgiou & Tosdal as he surveyed the scene from the street.

Tosdal said the lease on his 15th-floor office will not be up until September, 1990, but added: “I think we have cause to break the lease right now.”

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“In a way, they’ve already broken the lease by allowing the building to break down,” he said. “If you had a car and it caught on fire twice in one week, wouldn’t you get rid of it?”

The 24-story building, evacuated three times this week for a continuing streak of electrical problems, including two small fires, will remain closed while electricians work on repairs. Before the building can be reopened it must pass inspection by the fire marshal, city building inspectors and three investigators from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who will meet late Sunday to make the decision.

Fire Marshal Jim Sewell said he did not know whether the structure will be safe for occupation by Monday morning.

“We’re still evaluating it,” he said Friday afternoon. “It’s hard to say when it will be open. There may be a lot of work that may have to be done.”

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He added: “We don’t think it’s a firetrap. . . . We had no reason to believe up until the fires started that there was any problem. Now the problem is being addressed.”

Building manager Colin Stillwagen, in his first public statement in four days, said teams of engineers and inspectors will be working around the clock to repair the damage and ensure that the building reopens Monday.

“We are sparing no expense to not only repair the damage from Thursday but to further ensure the safety of our tenants by bringing in other outside consultants for additional opinions,” Stillwagen said in a prepared statement.

He added, in response to questions: “I think anytime you get into a situation like this it’s embarrassing. We had no way of knowing this was going to happen.”

The exact cause of the fires and other electrical disturbances in recent weeks had not been determined Friday, and no cost estimates for damage had been formed, Stillwagen said.

Electricians have told the Fire Department that the service entry buss, a series of electrical conductors that feed the building’s main electrical supply, has one or more ground faults, according to Assistant Fire Marshal John Hale. In addition to the shorts, he said, the building’s fire alarm system is out of order because it was doused by sprinklers on the first floor in Thursday evening’s fire.

Sewell said it appears that the city will not fine the building’s owners or managers but said the Fire Department is still considering sanctions.

However, OSHA officials said citations, fines and other penalties are likely. Two federal inspectors were sent to the site Tuesday, a day after the first electrical fire forced workers to be evacuated, to look into the electrical hazards and into the building’s evacuation plans, said OSHA safety supervisor Jack Rhodes.

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Said They Weren’t Informed

Great American has an emergency evacuation plan in place for its 450 employees, who occupy about 60% of the building. The building management has an evacuation plan for the rest of the tenants, but some of them have told OSHA that they were never informed of such a plan, Rhodes said.

On Friday, a third OSHA inspector was sent to the building to check an asbestos hazard after five firefighters were contaminated by the substance Thursday night, he said.

“Basically, the asbestos exposure now is limited to the area from the garage up to the third floor, but we are monitoring the whole building,” Rhodes said.

The contamination has been limited to the contained rooms where the fires occurred, and only electricians and firefighters were at risk, Rhodes said. “No other employees in the building were exposed,” he said.

The discovery of the asbestos has slowed repairs, Rhodes said, because now only specially trained technicians are allowed near the contaminated areas.

The presence of asbestos in the 14-year-old building could prove costly for its owners if the City Council approves an ordinance Monday requiring older downtown high-rises to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers. The Great American Building, built before city codes were enacted in 1976 to require sprinklers in all new buildings, has sprinklers on only the first floor and in the basement.

Bought for $50 Million

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The cost of installing sprinklers is about $1.50 to $2 per square foot, according to Sewell, but the price jumps to $17 to $23 per foot if asbestos must first be removed. At those rates, retrofitting the 347,001-square-foot structure could cost $5.9 million to $8 million.

The current owner, Tokyo-based Kowa Real Estate Investment Services, purchased the building in 1982 for $50 million. Locally, the building is managed by Coldwell Banker Realty, which employs Stillwagen.

Great American spokesman Ken Ulrich said the bank has been inundated with phone calls from worried customers who mistakenly believe the building is owned by Great American First Savings. Bank officials have already sent a letter to the building owners “expressing our concern,” he said.

The bank has been negotiating to move its San Diego headquarters to a site on West Broadway, where a 30-story building is to be completed in late 1991. “But moving out sooner than that is one of many contingency plans being considered,” Ulrich said.

Many office workers in the building took Friday off. Great American managers were on the phones all night Thursday, contacting employees to tell them which branch office they would be relocated to for the day. The employees will remain at the branch offices until Great American is satisfied, after an investigation by an independently hired contractor, that the building is safe, Ulrich said.

Other occupants are not waiting to find out. Employees of Corrigan Commercial Real Estate Services took advantage of the two working elevators Friday to move boxes of business materials from their top-floor offices. Employee Richard Murdock said they were moving immediately to a new office in Mission Valley, and planned to come back later for the furniture.

‘I Was Very Happy Here’

Janneke de Ruyter, while loading her car with computer equipment, said she is moving her small word-processing business to her home until she finds a new office.

“I am losing money with this down time. I can’t afford to carry on like this. I was very happy here,” said de Ruyter, a tenant of the building for three years, “but I’m not convinced they’re going to cure the problem immediately.”

Coldwell Banker leasing agent Jim Scala, who leases offices in the building, said no occupants had informed him they intended to break their leases or move out. But a few other leasing agents downtown reported that they have already been contacted by disgruntled Great American tenants.

Allan Arendsee of Walsh & Chacon Real Estate said he received an inquiry from a small firm interested in moving into the new Bristol Square building at 145 F St. The first occupants of the 7-story building will arrive in December, and Arendsee said he hopes that several former tenants of the Great American Building will be among them.

Arlin Miller, in charge of leasing space in the 24-story Imperial Bank Tower at 701 B St., said she also had received inquiries. “We had one this morning come in and say they are fed up with all the inconveniences over there and they’re ready to move,” Miller said. “We are 97% leased, but hopefully we will be able to accommodate a few people if the need arises.”

Mike Peckham, leasing agent for the 23-story First Interstate Plaza building at 401 B St., said he intends to aggressively recruit tenants from his troubled neighbor. Great American Building workers who return Monday will be greeted by mailers “letting them know we have a nicer building and we have space available,” Peckham said.


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