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Workers Want Out of Van Nuys City Hall

Quake damage: Officials may spend $3 million to relocate them for safety.

September 10, 1997|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — In response to complaints from Van Nuys City Hall employees who feel they need hard hats and surgical masks to protect themselves from quake debris and dust, Los Angeles city officials are considering spending up to $3 million to relocate 160 workers from the quake-damaged facility until a replacement is built.

Although it has been more than three years since the Northridge earthquake shook the region, huge cracks still split the concrete and masonry walls and ceilings of the 62-year-old Art Deco-style building.

"If this were a prison, the prisoners would riot and Amnesty International would file a protest," said Frank Bonoff, district engineer for the city engineer's office.

Department of Building and Safety officials say the aging facility has been inspected several times and was found structurally sound. But that does not appease several employees who have been protesting the poor condition of the building, a smaller-scale replica of the downtown City Hall that serves as the San Fernando Valley annex for employees of the city engineer's and city attorney's offices.

Crews have recently begun trying to reinforce the building but that has only generated more complaints about dust and falling debris. Many employees who fear that the building is unsafe want to be relocated while the repairs are made.

"There is a lot of debris, and who knows what's in it?" said Ken Platner, an engineering technician who wears both hard hat and surgical mask as he drafts maps of the city's sewer system.

"Don't inhale," joked another employee wearing a surgical mask.

Many workers in the city's engineering department say that dust covers their desks, leading them to wear surgical masks for fear of breathing it in. City officials say the building does not contain asbestos, a once-common insulating material that has been blamed for causing disease in people who inhaled the fibers.

Other workers don hard hats to shield themselves against falling ceiling tiles and other debris, they say.

In response to such concerns, Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who represents the Van Nuys area, has instructed city officials to survey vacant buildings near the Van Nuys City Hall to find office space for the 160 employees who work there.

But Miscikowski has yet to inspect the damaged building herself and is waiting to view the survey of neighboring sites and study the cost estimates before deciding whether to support a relocation plan.

The councilwoman plans to inspect the building this week, said aide Rosalind Stewart.

Dan Rosenfeld, the city's real estate chief, said he has already located several buildings that can be used as temporary quarters for the city workers, some within walking distance of their parking spaces and courtrooms. In total, it would cost up to $3 million to relocate the workers for the next three years, he said.

The relocation would have to be approved by the City Council. It would only be temporary because the city has approved a massive renovation of the entire Van Nuys Civic Center that will include a new, $35-million municipal building with retail shops, a market plaza and a 300-space parking structure.

The new building is expected to be completed by spring 2000. Once it is ready, city officials hope to renovate the Van Nuys City Hall and perhaps convert it into a community auditorium or library.

While Rosenfeld and Bonoff support a relocation plan, they say they have heard some city officials suggest that the city keep the employees in the building until a new structure is built to save the $3-million relocation cost.

"It sounds to me like someone is trying to squirrel away some money," said Bonoff.

Rosenfeld noted that the city has already agreed to spend about $60 million to relocate hundreds of employees from the main City Hall while it undergoes earthquake repairs.

He said it makes sense to do the same for employees at the Van Nuys City Hall.

"To me, it's largely an ethical issue as well as a fiscal issue."

But Building and Safety officials say the Van Nuys City Hall does not pose a danger to the employees there.

"Overall, the structural integrity of the building is all there," said Bob Harder, who heads the Valley division of the city's Building and Safety Department. "I'd rather be in that building than a lot of other buildings."

Richard Schmidt, who heads the city attorney's office in the Van Nuys building, said he feels safe in the structure and does not share the concerns of other workers in the building.

"I think the old girl has held up pretty well," he said.

Most of the damage to the building appears to be scattered randomly throughout. The main lobby has been closed and blocked off with plywood and chain-link fences.

While Miscikowski and other officials consider relocating the workers, city crews have begun trying to reinforce the building by installing steel cross beams between some floors of the seven-story site.

City officials say crews are also set to inject a special epoxy glue into the cracks and gaps of the walls to keep chunks of debris from coming loose.

Bonoff said the most visible example of the damage is in the second-floor men's bathroom, which has inch-deep cracks running the length of most walls.

"The only advantage is that the employees don't sit and read in the bathroom for too long," he joked.

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