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City Hall Reopens to Cheers, Glitches

Working: Employees like the restored building. They'll be glad when the rehab is complete and the offices more user-friendly.

July 07, 2001|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The gripes run the gamut: My phone doesn't ring. The elevator stalls. My boxes are in the wrong office.

As council members tout the beauty and history of restored Los Angeles City Hall, which formally reopened this week, the everyday employees--clerks, guards and janitors--are the ones struggling to make the new building work.

"The character is nice," said Maryanne Keehn of the city's employee benefits office, which had been without air-conditioning since it opened six weeks ago. "But give me air . . . and I'll like the character even more."

To cope with the heat and humidity, Keehn brought in a fan, dressed casually and carried a change of clothes for when she had important meetings. "It was pretty bad in here" until Thursday, when the air-conditioning finally began working, she said.

As City Hall employees wrapped up the week Friday, construction workers still seemed to outnumber visitors. Those few members of the public who found their way had to maneuver around fences and moving trucks just to enter the building. One man paid for parking twice after accidentally driving up to the wrong side of the building.

Then came the numerous elevators, some stopping on only certain floors as construction continued on some levels of the building, causing confusion for more than a few.

"People are settling in," said Stan Morimoto, the city public works engineer who managed the project. "Business won't be what it could be until they are settled. I would expect to see more people here next month when the building is more user-friendly."

The $299-million renovation and seismic retrofitting is nearly over. But the final moving, unpacking, settling and readjusting are not. More than 1,300 employees began moving to their new offices before Memorial Day and are expected to be moved in by early August, Morimoto said.

The smell of new carpet wafts through the hallways on many of the building's 28 floors. Signs marking construction zones are still posted on walls, and stacks of boxes fill offices.

Built in 1928, City Hall sustained serious damage during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Now engineers say the building is sturdy enough to survive a 6.8-magnitude quake centered less than one mile away.

The project was more than a retrofit. Architects restored the building to its original style, installing ceremonial staircases and marble columns. The historical and artistic value of the building was not lost on security guard Robert Correa, who compared City Hall to the Roman Forum.

"It's spectacular," he said, pointing to the painted ceiling in the rotunda dome. "Look at the symmetry, the chandeliers, the arches. It brings me back to Rome."

Hamid Behdad, project manager of the economic development office, also praised the project. "The price may have been too much, but to preserve a part of American history it's worth it," he said. "It should have been a shame to demolish it."

Behdad spent Friday looking for his boxes, but his computer and phone worked. "That's all I can ask for," he said. "I can connect to the outside world."

In the Environmental Affairs Department, Amy Canonizado said the phone is a "tad more complicated" than her old one. In fact, she had a 42-page booklet to explain its operation.

Dante Henderson, a clerk for the same agency, got a great view of the stairwell recently when the elevator stopped and he had to trek down 19 floors.

Despite minor complaints, employees said they were glad to be back in the original building. And they praised the matching furniture and the restrooms on every floor. Visitors said they were impressed by the architecture and shiny new appearance.

Naman Alex Poe, who came to City Hall to get a fund-raising permit for his youth organization, called the building amazing.

"It's the first real face lift it's had," said Poe, who lives in South-Central Los Angeles. "I couldn't believe I was in City Hall. I thought I was in one of those big oil companies."

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