Office building security tightened after 9/11

High-rise office towers in Los Angeles are a lot more secure — sometimes exasperatingly so — than they were a decade ago.

Fears turbo-boosted by the terrorist attacks pulled up the welcome mat of yore, when the only obstacle to visiting the 50th floor was finding the right bank of elevators. Since 9/11, local landlords have spent tens of millions of dollars buttoning up their buildings in an effort to ensure that no unwelcome strangers make it inside.

Such strict security is here to stay at the region's trophy office buildings, industry observers said, but the darkest predictions about the future of America's downtowns made in the aftermath of 9/11 did not come to pass.

"In the first several weeks there was a great deal of concern that tall buildings, at least, were obsolete; maybe concentrations of employment were obsolete and maybe even cities were obsolete," said Patrick Phillips, chief executive of the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based think tank devoted to real estate issues.

Our greatest fears proved to be unfounded, Phillips said. Cities across the country, including Los Angeles, where downtown's population has more than tripled since 2000, are experiencing an urban renaissance. The impulse to decentralize passed rather quickly.

"Cities are where innovation happens, and innovation is critical to the economy and driving job growth," he said.

Post-9/11 security has made some streets less friendly, though, especially around government centers such as Washington and L.A.'s civic center district, where sturdy posts along the sidewalks make barriers for would-be bombers in vehicles. Entering court houses, city halls and other public buildings often requires passing through a metal detector and enduring the time-consuming indignities of being, momentarily, a suspect.

Security in most private office buildings such as those found in L.A.'s financial districts is less personally intrusive but still considerable. Tenants are expected to register their expected visitors with security. Arriving visitors can't pass through turnstile-like barriers to the elevators without handing their driver's licenses to crisp and sober guards for inspection.

"They put their face on and they are very serious about their jobs," said Lenny Fodemski, an insurance broker who has met many guards while calling on corporate clients. "It can be inconvenient and comforting at the same time."

Woe be to the visitor who is late for an important meeting and discovers that his or her name somehow didn't make it to the guards' list. "I have witnessed some very upset folks," said Fodemski, managing director of Lockton Insurance Brokers.

Such inconveniences usually can be resolved with a phone call, clearing the way for a guard to program one elevator to reach just the right floor.

Security costs have climbed as much as 20% for landlords since 9/11, said Michael Prabhu, director of property management for real estate brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle.

"Before, guards were lobby ambassadors," he said. Now they are patrolling and monitoring multiple camera images while trying to mitigate safety risks and manage emergency preparedness.

"Security is much more proactive today," he said. "We don't hear that people are apprehensive about it. They accept security as a normal part of doing business in downtown L.A."

No terrorists have been caught trying to strike a Los Angeles office building, but enhanced security is a deterrent to other crimes, Prabhu said.

Guards who work for Universal Protection Service have reported hundreds of suspicious activities to Los Angeles police, said Steve Jones, chief executive of the Santa Ana company that provides security for many of the region's best-known buildings, including the 72-story U.S. Bank Tower in downtown L.A.

"We have foiled crimes against persons," including assault, he said, and vehicle theft.

Pay for security guards has risen substantially, Jones said, peaking at about $16 an hour today compared with $11 before the terrorist attacks.

The economic downturn hit commercial property landlords hard, but most kept spending on guards, surveillance and other protection measures.

"Buildings cut back a little, but not much," Jones said. "Most building owners take security pretty seriously."

roger.vincent@latimes.com

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