The chairman of a special advisory panel named to take a fresh look at seismic retrofitting of Los Angeles City Hall has warned that not all the costs may have been identified even in the latest $240-million estimate for the work.
"Maybe, we're looking at a $300-million project," said Stuart Ketchum this week, as the 14-member panel held its second meeting since being appointed by Mayor Richard Riordan and City Controller Rick Tuttle.
Seismic retrofitting work on the 26-story building, damaged in the Northridge quake, was suspended in September when new cost estimates far exceeded the authorized $153 million for the project.
Ketchum said deferred maintenance, new furniture for offices, landscaping and other work may all be additional costs, although managers of the project said some items under these categories have been included in the $240-million figure, which itself was an increase from an earlier projection of $92 million.
One of the panel's missions is to explore alternative ways of doing the retrofitting for less money. But Ketchum said in an interview Thursday that revising plans would in itself cost money and lead to new delays.
"We have yet to determine if there is an alternative plan that would save enough money to be worthwhile," declared Ketchum, a real estate developer.
"We've spent $20 million on plans so far. If there's to be new plans, it would cost more. We don't want to save $15 million, if it costs us $20 million, and it may not even be totally acceptable to save $15 million if it costs $12 million."
Ketchum also said most future meetings of the panel will be in closed session. "We're trying to get people to talk more freely and openly," he said. A written report will be submitted when the panel is ready with its recommendations.
During the panel's first two meetings, he said, every member of the management team was present, and some were defensive in front of their colleagues when specific questions arose. "Some members of the team are in a little state of culture shock," he said. "The executive session will allow us to call in people one by one, and we may get franker views."
At the end of its meeting Wednesday, the panel was advised that in order to avoid scrutiny by the press, it should not continue videotaping and recording its executive sessions because such records are subject to requests by reporters under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Riordan's chief operating officer, Mike Keeley, urged the panel to hold its deliberations behind closed doors when he addressed the opening session Dec. 15.
A representative from the city attorney's office said the advisory panel's sessions are not subject to the state Brown Act, which requires open meeting by government bodies in most situations.
From the open discussion that did go on Wednesday, it appeared that some panel members may favor major changes in the plan to use seismic base isolation systems at City Hall, either moving the shock absorbing isolators up from the lowest basement level, thus saving excavation, or possibly even using a different reinforcing system.
Structural engineer Nabih Youssef, designer of the proposed base isolation system, testified that the system would be much more effective than shear walls in reducing the danger to City Hall from a new earthquake.
"Shear walls attract energy to the building in a quake," he explained. "Our tests show that base isolation would narrow drift of the top of building as compared to other systems."
Youssef said that in its present state, City Hall would not collapse in a large quake, but he warned that there could be "a permanent distortion of the building frame and a serious falling hazard" for those who happened to be standing below when the quake struck. Staircases would also likely be warped to such an extent as to impede timely exit of occupants, he said.
On another issue, Ketchum said Thursday that the panel may favor moving the mayor's office and City Council out of City Hall during the retrofitting, even though the move might delay the project about eight months.
"It would be like living in a war zone if they stay," the panel chairman said. "Halfway through the work, they might say it was untenable. And a decision to keep them there would have terrible consequences if we changed it halfway through."
City employees who occupied offices above the fourth floor have been moved to other facilities for the seismic retrofitting.