The Storm Before the Calm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like hosts entering the early stages of pre-party panic, workers at Los Angeles City Hall this week are scrambling to complete finishing touches on a three-year restoration project in time for a dedication ceremony today and the arrival of a new city administration on Monday.

The building teems with an army of workers focused on the nitty-gritty of wet grout, unlaid tile, unassembled modular furniture and a final coat of paint here and there.

The refurbished City Council chamber will be dedicated today and, on Monday, council members will move from City Hall East into their new offices on City Hall's fourth floor, a space currently occupied by dusty boxes, carpet scraps and electrical wiring dangling from ceiling panels.

"They're going to be here Monday--can you believe it?" said Stan Morimoto as he led a hard-hat tour and dodged scurrying workers. Morimoto, a city public works manager, is heading the effort to meet the project's deadlines, culminating on Sept. 1 when City Hall's 1,300 employees all will have moved back in. "We're going to do whatever it takes to get it ready. It's called 'just-in-time management,' I think."

After 38 months of construction, Morimoto said, city employees are prepared to welcome the arrival of a freshened up civic monument, a place that Angelenos can call "their building."

City employees have been moving in waves to renovated office space in the building's tower since late last month. Renovation of the mayor's suite is being finished in time for Mayor-elect James K. Hahn's arrival this weekend. Hahn will be sworn in Monday on the south lawn.

A helicopter crew will remove the last of the scaffolding from the City Hall exterior Saturday morning, marking completion of the exterior renovation project.

The renovated building will have more code-conscious safety features, such as modern fire-sprinkler systems.

The project began nearly five years ago when Mayor Richard Riordan formed a panel to explore options for seismically retrofitting the building after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Plans were approved to retrofit City Hall with base isolators, which allow the building to move in any direction during a major quake.

But the City Council wanted more. Members voted to increase the project's funding by millions of dollars to modernize the structure, which was crumbling in places, and restore it to its 1928 Art Deco grandeur, from shiny elevator paneling to opulent but energy-efficient light fixtures.

Now, with the $299-million project near completion, workers are feeling the pressure. Electrician Manuel Palomeque has logged 14-hour days for months, arriving at City Hall at noon and often working until 2 or 3 a.m.

"We're used to it, to the responsibility," he said. "We get paid, yes, but we want to put extra energy in, as long as we get to see this done."

Carpet installer Chris Hernandez says he is working 12-hour days, six days a week.

"Once you get going and once you know the deadline, you just do what you have to do to finish it up," he said.

As Morimoto recently led City Council member-elect Janice Hahn on a tour of the new offices, she asked: "Are you sure you're going to be ready?"

His answer, as it has been again and again: "It'll be ready."

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