Seismic Concerns Prompt San Bernardino To Leave 44-Year Old City Hall

The City of San Bernardino is abandoning its 44-year-old City Hall, some nine years after a structural engineer offered an assessment that the building is likely to collapse in the wake of a major seismic disturbance centered along the region’s fault line.
The issue was brought to the forefront in early October, after a succession of minor but recurring earthquakes, referred to as a swarm, were registered near the Salton Sea in late September. Afterward, the California Office of Emergency Services put out a warning that the chances of a magnitude 7.0 or greater earthquake was slightly greater than normal.
On the evening of October 2, a Sunday, San Benrardino City Manager Mark Scott, saying he was doing so “out of an abundance of caution,” called for canceling the city council meeting scheduled for the following day, Monday October 3. Concerned that cancelling the meeting to protect members of the public who would normally attend the meeting might damage employee morale if they were to be on hand to work at San Bernardino City Hall and were being subjected to the same risk, Scott elected to shut down City Hall entirely for two days.
A reexamination of the stability of City Hall followed.
In 1971, the City of San Bernardino was moving toward building a new City Hall in Downtown San Bernrdino, on property reclaimed from a longstanding historic section of the city, where nearly a score of buildings had been demolished to undertake an urban renewal effort that was to include government-sponsored capital improvements entailing a new civic center. To design City Hall, the city commissioned César Pelli, a highly accomplished Argentine American architect who emigrated to the United States in 1952, married Diana Balmori, a landscape and urban designer, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1964. He established himself as one of the world’s leading architects, particular with regard to designing majestic buildings as well as some of the world’s tallest structures, including the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which were for a time the world’s tallest buildings, as well as the World Financial Center complex in downtown Manhattan, Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, the Sao Paulo Corporate Towers, Xuzhou Central Plaza in Xuzhou, the Unicredit Building in Milan, and scores of others around the world.
In the early morning of February 9, 1971, the San Fernando earthquake also known as the Sylmar earthquake, occurred in the west foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The unanticipated thrust earthquake had a moment magnitude of 6.5 or 6.7 on the Richter Scale. The quake did damage to the San Fernando Valley and other densely populated areas north of central Los Angeles, causing several buildings to collapse. This demonstrated the inadequacy of the building standards that had been put into place in California following the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933. California lawmakers acted quickly to develop legislation related to seismic safety, tightening construction standards. Already at that point, architects and engineers had introduced the concept of incorporating rollers into the foundation of high rise buildings, which would allow the foundation to roll or shift with a seismic disturbance. Two decades later, rollers would be replaced by massive vertical springs in the foundations of large buildings. But San Bernardino City Hall had neither of those features. What is more, it would utilize pillars composed primarily of concrete, nearly a dozen of them, to support the building, including a major portion of the upper stories on the building’s east side, an overhang which was architecturally striking. Because of this, the easternmost portion of the building – all five of the upper floors, are not supported by a ground floor. Seismic integrity calculations done three decades later would determine that under the stress of a major earthquake, those pillars would be very likely to crumble.
City leaders of a generation-and-a-half ago, rather irresponsibly, elected to hurry the timetable on the completion of the $4,950,579 City Hall project using Pelli’s original design and its accompanying specifications, instead of incorporating the stricter standards that were put into place in the years following the Sylmar Quake. The result is that City Hall, which was supposed to have a life of as long as a century or a century-and-a-half, now represents a potential hazard to those who work within it or citizens who come to it for municipal services or to pay municipal utility bills.
A structural engineer brought in by the city nearly a decade ago to examine telltale signs of instability and aging that were manifesting in various spots around the 104,000 square foot building came to the conclusion that it would in no case be able to withstand a locally-based temblor greater than 7 on the Richter scale and would likely collapse in the face of a 6.5 scale quake. The building’s hopes would be marginal if shaken by a 6.0 event, the engineer prognosticated. The city, which had been facing progressively harder financial challenges going back two decades until it sank into the economic abyss and filed for Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection in 2012, did not have the means to tackle the issue and so it went unaddressed until the Salton Sea swarms jammed the matter into Scott’s cortex early last month.
Since that time, Scott has formulated a plan that calls for city employees departing from City Hall beginning in February and being completely cleared out by April. They will move to quarters in the Vanir Tower, in property owned by Vanir across D Street and two offices in the recently abandoned offices that housed SBETA, the San Bernardino Employment and Training Agency. City employees will stay in place there for two years, while a seismic upgrade is being made to the building adjacent to City Hall that formerly housed the San Bernardino Economic Development Agency, the city’s erstwhile redevelopment agency. In the meantime, according to Scott, the city will seek funding to do a complete seismic retrofit to City Hall that will cost somewhere between $14 million and $20 million.
Many city residents were skeptical about the seismic assessment, and questioned whether a move from the edifice, which entails six stories above ground and one below, is necessary. Some suggested that Scott had inappropriately panicked over the Salton Sea earthquake swarms and reacted in a way that was out of proportion to the actual danger.
Tim Prince, whose father was the longest serving city attorney in San Bernardino history, told the council that it was being stampeded into a foolhardy departure because “some unknown consultant nine years ago told us this building has to be closed.” Prince upbraided city officials for having placed the discussion of the closure of City Hall on the November 21 city council meeting’s consent calendar, which is reserved for noncontroversial issues.
“This building can likely be retrofitted while it is occupied,” Prince said, suggesting that there was no need to move city employees elsewhere. “That would save taxpayer money.”
Prince was likewise critical of the $1.80 per square foot rate the city is paying on the lease, saying that despite his own personal friendship with the broker handling the lease of space in the Vanir Tower, Frank Schnetz, he believed the city could do better, much better. “At Chase Bank Building you can get space at less than a dollar. There is all kinds of space in this downtown.”
Prince was further critical of the city’s simultaneous abandonment of the Carousel Mall, just a stone’s throw west of City Hall. “You are going to vacate the 60-acre Carousel Mall,” he charged. “You are going to attract homelessness, crime and blight. You are going to destroy downtown.”
Brian Robbin was similarly critical of the move.
“My father and uncle owned a business in this city,” Robbin said. “They owned it for 43 years. Downtown is the soul of the city.” He chided the city council for abandoning City Hall for a “high rise hotel. This will destroy that soul irrevocably. For what? Abandoning it for earthquake retrofitting? Nearly 40 years ago my father and uncle had to retrofit the building that they owned and their business was in with two other businesses. They didn’t abandon it when it was finished. It was the soul of their existence just like a vibrant downtown is the soul of this city’s existence. Let’s set aside the fact that we’re abandoning City Hall for Vanir Tower and above-market rents. That doesn’t matter one iota, if we get the big one here because Vanir Tower will come down.” He said the exodus from City Hall was an example of “careless, haphazard and shortsighted planning.”
The council, in this instance led by councilwoman Virginia Marquez, invited Scott to put their collective best foot forward and offer a defense of closing out operations at City Hall proper, at least for the next two years, and finding alternative accommodations.
Scott, who has had a relatively upbeat relationship with the council and the public since he arrived in February to replace embattled former city manager Allen Parker, noted that he has suffered a reputational contusion as a consequence of his decision to close down City Hall.
“The honeymoon is over,” he said, before offering an explanation/apologia.
“I can assure the council and the public that in what we’re talking about doing – moving out of this building so that first and foremost we can eliminate the danger that exists to the public and our employees who are working in this building right now – the intent is not to demolish this building. The intent is to save this building The easiest and best and most cost-effective way of saving this building is to do the work when there’s not the staff inside the building However, it is a significant cost to do the work here. It is estimated between $14 million and $20 million to do the work to preserve this building and in order to do that we probably want to look at other alternatives on financing, including potentially having a partner who goes into it with the city and/or to pursue grant opportunities, for instance with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. That’s not a sure thing. We’re working on it and we’re hoping. I’m trying to not make it too optimistic because we don’t know if we’ll get it, and I don’t want people to count on it until we’ve had a chance to obtain that kind of funding. But every effort will be made to preserve this building.”
Scott said a major portion of shoring up the building structurally will consist of “wrapping” the pillars, that is, encasing them so they will maintain tensile strength and their integrity under stress.
“In fact, we will be working on the wrapping [of] the pillars that hold up this building because seismic science being what it is they can predict in a large earthquake those pillars will fail,” Scott said. “This building was build pre-Sylmar Earthquake. Sylmar was in the early 70s, and after the Sylmar Earthquake they learned some things about seismic engineering and they changed the codes. Then we had other earthquakes in California –Loma Prieta, Whittier – and every time there were additional earthquakes, the codes changed. They learned new things and they changed the codes. After the Northridge Earthquake, the codes were changed even more, especially as it relates to what they call soft story construction. This building is a perfect example of that. When you look at the building, it is held up in the middle by pillars. You wouldn’t do that today. You wouldn’t build a building with that kind of construction today. Lucy Jones from Cal Tech has been the expert on seismic issues in Southern California for a long, long time. She has recently put us and other cities on notice that, not only the way our City Hall is constructed, but that there are other buildings that we need to change our codes so we can provide a more safe environment for people to live and work in this city, and that other parts of this state are further along in doing that than we are and furthermore our risk is greater literally because you can see the fault from City Hall. The report that we have on City Hall says that in a six point earthquake there is a likelihood of building failure. That’s strong language. The way this building is built, when we have even a smaller earthquake, we get damage.”
Scott pointed to a crack along the council meeting chamber’s south wall.
“The seismic engineer that did the study in 2009 says that wasn’t here in 2009,” he said. “There are other places around the building he has cited in recent visits that suggest this building is in fact very much in danger of significant damage in a six point. The 2009 report says that a 6 point or greater earthquake epicentered in this region has more than a ninety percent chance of occurring in a fifty year period. We’re some years into that already. It’s likely that someday that’s going to happen. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen tomorrow. And I would agree the Salton Sea Earthquake Swarms were not a tremendous risk. However, when we thought about not having the council meeting that Monday night it made no sense to tell our employees it was okay for them to be in the building but it wasn’t safe for the public to have a public meeting. So, we took an extra step. What we’re doing in moving out of this building doesn’t have anything to do with the Salton Sea Earthquake Swarms. It has to do with this building has been studied and studied and it is confirmed this is a building that shouldn’t be occupied in this day and age this close to a major earthquake fault. So, we’ve made arrangements to move out of the building. We’re not looking for a new City Hall building. We’re in fact proposing we move into the old building the city has behind City Hall – the 201 building or the EDA [Economic Development Authority] Building. That building needs some seismic structural work and it made no sense to move out of one into the other until we did that. It’s much less expensive to do and over the next roughly 18 months we’ll be working on getting that work done in the 201 Building. We will then make that our new location for City Hall at least for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, we’ll continue to work on this building and on the Convention Center Building, which has got its own set of issues, to see if we can get those upgraded to the point where other options are available for the continued use of this building. It would be a shame to lose the continued use of this building. We need to do work to preserve it before something terrible happens to it. When we looked [for] temporary facilities, we wanted something that would be near here because we don’t want to contribute to the death of activity downtown. So, we did in fact look at the mall first. That was the very first place we looked. The trouble with the mall building [is] first of all it’s obviously not viable for retail right now. If it were, we’d already be doing it. It’s already the plan of this city to work with developers to look for other opportunities with that site. It’s already in our plan that the mall portion – not the parking portion, certainly not the Harris building – that the mall portion be demolished in the future so it becomes more attractive as a development site. Those plans are already part of city policy and city plans. But in looking at trying to move City Hall into that building we learned the building systems there – plumbing, mechanical, electrical, even structural – need significant repairs. Plus, it is extremely expensive to operate that building. We wouldn’t have furnishings available. We wouldn’t have an IT [information technology] system available, wiring for the kinds of uses City Hall would need. There just wasn’t anything about that move that made any sense. It was much more expensive. So we instead looked at the Vanir Building. We looked at the building owned by them across the street – the 290 and 250 sites – that are in the lease proposals. We’re also looking at moving some of our staff over to the building where SBEDA [the San Bernardino Employment Development Authority] was located, which is fully furnished with furniture we bought and it’s an opportunity for us on a very quick basis to get into another building that will be functional in a hurry. We are picking up a whole city operation. We are an emergency services operation and we have to do that right away. We have to be able to move out of one and into the other and stay functional while we do it. So, these are all opportunities for us to do fairly easy moves. It’s not simple, but it’s easier to do the IT part of the move. It’s easier for us to do the telephone part of the move. In most of the cases the tenement improvement part of the move is minimal because of the fact we are renting space that is set up for us. Rents may be a little higher than you would normally get because we are only doing a two-year lease. If you do a twenty-year lease, you get a better rate than if you do a two-year lease. It doesn’t make any sense to do a longer lease. So those are the conditions we are able to come up with. I very much appreciate the cooperation we’ve had from Vanir and from their team in trying to make this happen and happen in a hurry. It’s been an extraordinary effort and I just want to assure everybody, we’re not at all looking at doing something precipitous here. This is something we have studied and studied and evaluated. We have to get our employees and get the public out of this building, and we plan on doing it as soon as we can.
I can guarantee you there will be some chaos. You don’t move a city governmental operation without some.”
Along those lines, Scott said he believed confusion on the part of the public would be minimized by “putting an information counter in the bottom level of the Vanir Building’ and keeping the lion’s share of the city offices near to where they are now located and putting in signs to alert the public to the move and exactly where the new offices are. The Vanir Building is very proximate to City Hall, next to the City Hall parking structure. “Most city facilities [will be] in Vanir or across the street,” Scott said, with the community development, engineering and parks departments in the SBETA building.”
Critics of the move such as Robbin had questioned the seismic stability of the Vanir Tower. Scott offered reassurances on that point.
“We had the ownership certify to the stability of that building before we did the deal,” Scott ssid. “That was the first question for us. Let’s not move out of one bad building and into another. So the first thing we had them do was provide certification of their building. First of all it is built very differently, and they’ve made that certification.”
Councilman Henry Nickel told the Sentinel the Vanir Tower was constructed with rollers built into its foundation.
In response to questions about whether city staff could remain in place during the seismic stability retrofit of City Hall, Scott reiterated that “It is much less expensive to do without the employees in the building,” he said, saying the major work in hardening the building against collapse would consist of “putting wrapping on the pillars.”
Scott further responded to Tim Prince’s suggestion that less expensive quarters could be found elsewhere in the heart of the city.
“We started off by looking at every opportunity we could find where there are spaces big enough that we could occupy enough of the operation so we didn’t end up with ten locations,” Scott said. “There’s a number of spaces we found that are less ready for occupancy and smaller and further away from this location but what we found was right next door and I’ll give credit to the people from Vanir for reaching out and contacting us because they actually contacted us first and said, ‘We’re right next door Do you want to see the space?’ So, we went and looked at it and the space in the Vanir Tower is excellent space. It’s very usable, very convenient. There were some security issues we had to work out. There were some IT issues that their building lent itself to. But their building was not big enough to handle everything. We did not find any other spaces that were larger and readily available where we could have met the timelines we set for ourselves.”
Scott said future council meetings will likely be held in the former economic development department building, at the Norman Feldheym Library or, less likely, in the board meeting room at the school district administration office.
Asked point blank by councilwoman Bessine Richards why the city operations will not be maintained and staged out of City Hall during the seismic retrofit, Scott said, “Because it’s dangerous. This is not a building we should be in. This is a building which any seismic engineer who looks at this building will tell you… can collapse in a 6 point earthquake. This community is way behind other parts of the state in adopting seismic safety codes. We have not imposed them here in the way it has been done in other places and our City Hall building is a perfect example of that. It is time for us to take the leap and do that. No one needs to take my word for it. We can talk to all the seismic engineers in the state and I’m sure we’re going to get the same results as everyone who looks at this. This is a dangerous building in the condition it is in today.”
The council voted 7-0 to follow Scott’s recommendation. The city will pay $1.80 per square foot for Vanir Tower, which is at 290 N. D Street and $1.55 per square foot for 215 N. D Street — $21,566 and $42,688 per month during the first year of the two-year lease.
The current City Hall is San Bernardino’s fourth formalized official municipal headquarters. Its current 43 year life, which is considerably shorter than was originally envisaged for it, is a lengthier tenure than any of its predecessors. San Bernardino’s first City Hall, completed in 1872 and lodge on the second floor above the Meyerson & Company dry goods and grocery store, lasted 29 years at its Fourth and D Street location. D Street was then called Utah. In 1901, the city’s second City Hall, located very close to where the Vanir Tower stands at Third and D streets, was dedicated. City officers occupied the ground floor. Above it was a dentist’s office. The life of that City Hall was 18 years. In 1919, the city purchased the Farmers Exchange Bank Building, built in 1888 on the west side of D Street between Fourth and Fifth streets. Municipal offices moved into that location, becoming the city’s third City Hall, on August 30, 1919. In 1937, the city began work on its fourth City Hall at 426 Third Street. The two-story building was constructed as a federal Public Works Administration projects, and was completed in February 1938. That facility lasted 31 years, at which time it was knocked down to make way for the current City Hall.

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