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

March 26, 1995|JOHN SCHWADA | 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.

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