These Days, It's Getting Harder to Find City Hall : Government: Evacuation for seismic retrofitting is temporarily scattering employees across Downtown.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Time was when Los Angeles City Hall was easy to find: it was that Spring Street landmark, the Daily Planet building from the 1950s "Superman" TV series, city government's nerve center.

You know the place, right? Well, not anymore. These days, City Hall is more a concept than a place.

In 1995, "City Hall" can be found in Little Tokyo, where the city's cable TV regulators inhabit a bank building, and its pension experts occupy a rehabilitated Art Deco structure; on Figueroa Street, where city employees work in two buildings, and in Downtown's historic core, where bureaucrats from two dozen city agencies occupy eight structures.

The deconstruction of City Hall is a trend that's been several years in the making, driven by the hungry space needs of the city's bureaucracy and a search for alternative quarters for workers housed in aging, inadequate and unsafe Civic Center structures.

But the trend is rapidly accelerating.

By Monday, about half the City Hall work force will have been moved out to clear the way for a $154-million, three-year seismic strengthening project of a structure that was originally built in 1927 for less than $10 million.

Remaining at City Hall throughout the renovations will be the landmark building's most visible denizens, the mayor and members of the City Council.

The official explanation for letting the elected brass stay at City Hall is that their offices are located on the lower floors, making them easier to rescue in the event of a quake. The unofficial speculation: The top dogs don't want to be inconvenienced.

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Elected officials aside, bureaucrats and constituents are feeling the pinch caused by City Hall's fragmentation, finding it tougher day by day to gain access to increasingly scattered colleagues and city services.

There's a huge hidden cost of time lost when city workers, whose existence is often bound up in meetings, have to go from building to building to do their work, a top city official said recently.

City workers are "going back and forth all the time" between the Civic Center and city outposts on South Spring Street, five and six blocks away, said William Mercer, one of the city's top space management advisers.

Nor are all city employees thrilled about working on South Spring, parts of which have a down-at-the-heels, Skid Row-adjacent ambience.

South Spring is an unsavory work environment, said Jeanette Ross, a union chief at the city's Architects and Engineers Assn., which represents hundreds of city workers. "If you put employees in an unsafe area, we need additional security," she said.

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Diana Plotkin, a citizen activist on planning issues, is watching the deconstruction of City Hall with trepidation. "It's going to be tougher for us," Plotkin said. Her role of monitoring development projects now may require her to traipse among three different buildings to meet with city officials and gather information.

Molly Wong, who gives directions to City Hall's befuddled and sometimes irritated visitors, is also anxious about decentralization. She expects more questions--and more ugly comments--from people who come to her City Hall information booth, trying to find city agencies.

Most recently, Wong said, the big problem was confused senior citizens seeking discount transit passes from the city's Transportation Department. Until recently, the department occupied several floors at City Hall--now it's blocks away on Figueroa.

The City Hall lobby directories don't make things any clearer; many show agencies that have relocated.

Some mourn a loss of City Hall's unique identity as Schmooze Central for city workers. "The city family is now spread out all over the place," one worker complained.

The logistics of moving are staggering. Four days a week for the past four weeks, dozens of movers have hauled thousands of boxes of city documents, hundreds of desks and scores of computers from City Hall and loaded them on trucks headed for the City Hall outposts of the near future.

The primary destination is Figueroa Plaza, at 201 and 221 N. Figueroa St., where the city is leasing about 150,000 square feet to house about 600 employees working on everything from environmental affairs to contract administration.

"There's even a tiny bit of Building and Safety in there," said Bill Koenig, the city administrative office analyst in charge of the logistics of moving.

The total three-year cost of relocating the City Hall workers displaced by the seismic retrofitting project was recently estimated to be $22.9 million--nearly four times the amount originally planned. That's because the number of workers to be relocated greatly increased after the Northridge earthquake; officials were concerned that workers in City Hall's top 21 floors would be in significant jeopardy if another big quake struck.

"We were told to get the people out fast," Koenig said.

While some workers complain, others are delighted with their new digs, among them city planner Linn Wyatt. After years of inhabiting a knee-bumping cubbyhole on the sixth floor of City Hall, Wyatt is now luxuriating on Figueroa.

"I really like it," Wyatt said recently. "I have my own office, with a door that closes, a view of a garden. It's great. But I guess I couldn't have gone anywhere but up after what I had at City Hall."

Workers aren't the only transplants. When portable office partitions from the city's Transportation Department were unloaded recently at the agency's new Figueroa Plaza offices, hundreds of cockroaches poured out, refugees from their old stomping grounds at City Hall.

The massive relocation for seismic work is only temporary. But a tug of war continues over what the city should do, over the long term, to house a work force that is bigger than the current Civic Center complex can hold.

That struggle started years ago, when City Hall outgrew its landmark building enough to spawn nearby annexes--City Hall South, built in 1952, and City Hall East, constructed in 1970.

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The outward bound movement picked up again in 1987, when the City Council adopted a policy of establishing a "City Hall extension" in the South Spring Street historic core as one way of revitalizing an area that had lost tenants, investment capital and confidence to newer developments in the western part of Downtown.

By 1990, the city had leased several hundred thousand square feet in the South Spring-Broadway area. Today, the city spends nearly $10 million annually to lease more than 650,000 square feet of office space in the historic core.

At the same time they were starting to send workers to South Spring, city officials also began making plans to ultimately bring many of them back home to the Civic Center, where a major new office structure was to be constructed on property next to Little Tokyo and the Parker Center.

It was to be called 1st Street North, a pioneering $151-million project built by a private developer but owned by the city. Many in city government saw it as a long-range, more convenient alternative to the South Spring Street moves.

But in 1994, the 1st Street North project was killed by city officials, led by Mayor Richard Riordan, who decided it could not be justified in an era of city deficits, a shrinking municipal work force and opportunities spawned by a depressed real estate market to rent or build at lower cost.

Finally, Riordan also argued that the about-face was needed to keep faith with the city's pledge to renew South Spring Street. "At a time when Downtown is deteriorating, public dollars should be used to leverage improvements in this core," instead of in the Civic Center area, he wrote in a letter urging the City Council to drop the 1st Street North project.

The demise of 1st Street North has kept the city's space management problems alive, with some arguing that something like that project still needs to be built, while others see a strong city presence on South Spring as critical to the revitalization of Downtown.

Naturally, suggestions of political intrigue have accompanied the debate.

Led by Michael Barker, 1st Street North's private developers, who were picked to build the project after fierce competition, have filed a $30-million lawsuit against the city to recoup the losses they said they have suffered by the city's pullout.

"It's all a political game at City Hall," Barker said recently.

You can hear similar talk on South Spring, where the biggest city landlord is L & R Towers, a firm headed by Jack Lumer. Two buildings L & R owns are now being leased by the city for nearly $5 million a year.

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But Lumer recently lost out on a city plan to lease 17,000 more square feet at his 600 S. Spring St. building. Although the City Council already had ordered a lease drawn up, it recently changed its mind, at the instigation of council members Rita Walters and Richard Alatorre. They successfully urged their colleagues to rent instead from a nonprofit arm of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which owns an aging architectural landmark structure at 634 S. Spring St.

"It was taken away from us for political reasons," Lumer said angrily at the time.

The move is part of a rethinking of how the city is handling its Spring Street leases, according to Dan Rosenfeld, the city's new space management czar.

Although the city was spending millions yearly to lease on South Spring, this large public investment was doing little to revive the area, Rosenfeld wrote in a March 2 policy statement. The city was renting nondescript buildings and invisibly occupying the upper stories of these structures. Renting the lower floors of the landmark MALDEF building would signal a new city approach, he said.

Howard Gantman, Walters' press secretary, also noted that without the city lease, the MALDEF building was in danger of "going under financially."

Seeking to set a course for a space management strategy buffeted by earthquake relocation, reversals in policy and political squabbling, the city two months ago hired a consulting firm to begin plotting out its long-term needs.

For now, confusion is the order of the day. At the City Hall information booth, Wong tries to keep up with queries from the public about the constantly moving target known as the city work force.

"I guess people should notify us," she said, "but they're so busy moving that they forget."

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The Deconstruction of City Hall

These days, Los Angeles City Hall is more a concept than a place. City government offices, which have been in the imposing building at 200 N. Spring St. since 1927, are now scattered throug1752135028is virtually emptied to clear the way for a $154-million, three-year-long seismic strengthening project. Although there are dozens of bureaucratic outposts throughout Los Angeles, these are among the most significant. For more details, call the city information desk (213) 485-2891.

1. Figueroa Plaza: 201 N. Figueroa St.--Social Services, Environmental Affairs. 2. 221 N. Figueroa St.--Planning, Transportation, Contract Administration, Building and Safety 3. 316 W. 2nd St.--Transportation 4. Civic Center Plaza: 207 S. Broadway--Controller 205 S. Broadway--Transportation 5. 354 S. Spring St.--Community Redevelopment Agency 6. 419-433 S. Spring St.--LAPD, Information Services, Sanitation, Cultural Affairs, Animal Regulation 7. Security Pacific Building 215 W. 6th St.--Transportation, Community Development 561 S. Spring St.--Engineering, Street Lighting 8. 600 S. Spring St.--Engineering, Street Lighting 9. 634 S. Spring St.--Engineering (proposed) 10. 650 S. Spring St.--Engineering 11. 400 S. Main St.--Housing 12. 120 S. San Pedro--Telecommunications 13. 360 E. 2nd St.--Pensions

Source: City of Los Angeles Department of General Services

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