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State Engineers, Building Owner in Standoff Over Quake Safety

The seismic workers say they were moved from one unsafe building to another. They want it retrofitted -- for the third time.

July 07, 2003|Kenneth Reich | Times Staff Writer

A dispute is brewing over the earthquake-readiness of a 90-year-old building in downtown Los Angeles that houses 450 state workers.

Last summer, the independent engineering firm of Brandow and Johnston Associates concluded that the 13-story Washington building at 311 S. Spring St. does not meet building codes and would suffer "potential severe damage" in a nearby moderate earthquake. The firm found the problems even though the building had already undergone two retrofits costing $4.7 million.

Now, a lawyer representing 45 state seismic safety and structural engineers occupying the four top floors of the building has filed a motion in Sacramento Superior Court contending that the state Department of General Services has been dilatory in reacting to that report and asking that the court order her clients moved.

A hearing has been set for July 24.

The state is paying more than $2 million a year on a 20-year lease for use of the office building, where it has moved hundreds of workers who lost their workplace when the nearby state office building at 107 S. Broadway was closed after being deemed earthquake unsafe. That building is now being demolished.

Most of the state workers moved without protest and have not been involved in the continuing dispute over the Washington building's safety.

But the seismic safety engineers immediately questioned the logic of moving from an unsafe building to one they termed also unsafe. They finally agreed to a settlement with the state that they would move pending further study and yet another retrofit, if one was merited.

The new motion by attorney Kelley Stimpel Rasmussen contends that the state and engineers working for the building owner, Gilbert Dreyfuss, have been unable to agree on a new retrofit that would meet state earthquake safety criteria.

But both a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, Nathan Barankin, and the owner say that the engineers need to show more patience.

"The Department of General Services is working with the building owner on a plan to retrofit the building," said Barankin.

The owner, Dreyfuss, said he believes a plan might be ready to present to the court by the time of the hearing, although he acknowledged that there continues to be some debate over what criteria have to be met to constitute a successful retrofit.

Also, just who would pay for the retrofit -- the owner or the state -- remains to be settled. Dreyfuss said he expected the state to pay for it.

In the meantime, Dreyfuss said, he believes that what the seismic safety engineers really want is to be moved to the new Caltrans building now being constructed two blocks away.

Schani Abeyesundere, a leader of the engineers, did not deny this when he was asked about it.

"We understand they will have a vacant floor over there," he said. "That would be a good spot for us."

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