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Dome and Dumber 

Q: How's it possible to spend $244 million to renovate one city building? A: Do the words "toilet partition metal head assembly" mean anything to you?

Wednesday, Dec 20 1995
of $44 million will go for design and management for the seismic retrofit and the Prop. A work. Much of that money goes to outside consultants. But not all of it. Some makes its way back into the Department of Public Works, the Office of the Chief Administrator, and the Department of Real Estate.

On Prop. A, for example, the Board of Supervisors last month approved an expenditure of $1.7 million for planning, design, and bid services, contractors' overhead, and DPW management. Of that $1.7 million, 20 percent -- $352,870 -- went back to nine city employees, who billed the project an hourly rate between $46, for secretarial work, and $96, for property management, for their services. On an annual basis, those rates work out to $95,680 a year for secretarial work, $180,960 for project management, and $199,680 for property management.

CAO Bill Lee made and broke several appointments to speak with SF Weekly about the retrofit.

But it rubs some people the wrong way.
"What goes on in DPW projects is astounding," says Calvin Welch, the longtime affordable housing activist, who describes the department as "a total and complete cluster fuck."

"I think that the DPW does a terrible job," he adds.
So does one union official, who, requesting anonymity, says that it's easy to require that bids for the job be based on the highly specific requirements of historical renovation -- but not so simple to make sure that the work is actually done to those specifications.

"The cheating on public works jobs is enormous," the union official says. "You don't get what you pay for. The compliance officers of the city and county of San Francisco don't check on the work."

That sentiment is echoed by another construction industry official, who runs a trade organization based in Oakland.

"We've been rather unhappy with the level of the lack of enforcement, once the project gets under way," the official says. "I think they need to have job inspectors on the job monitoring for compliance in all aspects of the job."

Ask around San Francisco, and you're hard pressed to find anyone who takes issue with the idea of restoring City Hall to its former grandeur, even at a price tag of $244 million. People tend to agree that City Hall is an important building for the city, for a number of different reasons.

Certainly the building has history: McCarthy's anti-communist hearings were held in its lobby; Dirty Harry walked in its halls in the movies; kings and queens have been greeted there; Harvey Milk and George Moscone died within it.

And, as even Calvin Welch says, a landmark is a landmark, and should be restored as befits one.

But at the same time, there is one question that gets repeated about the project: Why this, and not something else? As necessary as it might be, who's setting the priorities about bond money?

And the answer, as it turns out, is no one.
"What this inevitably means," Welch says, "is that we get a situation in which seismically retrofitting fish tanks at the Steinhart Aquarium or an Asian Art Museum goes on the ballot, but it's almost impossible to get rec centers on the ballot. It becomes this kind of unseemly behind-closed-doors logrolling in various departments, and I'm not sure that results in the best priority-setting."

Over the last decade, San Francisco has gone bond-crazy. In 1986, the amount of bond debt the city had taken on amounted to $94 for each San Franciscan; by 1994, that amount was $812 a person and rising, says Controller Ed Harrington. "So clearly we've been issuing a whole lot of debt," he says.

At the same time, the city's assessed valuation -- currently at $56 billion, according to Harrington -- has not been growing. By increasing the amount of bond debt issued against a static assessed valuation, San Francisco is running up against the limit on the amount of new bonds it can issue without having to raise its debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is something like it sounds -- a cap on the amount of debt a city can incur without risking having its bonds downrated, which would make them more expensive to pay off.

"A lot of people actually believe bonds are free money, which is ridiculous," says James R. Elwood, treasurer of San Francisco's Libertarian Party, which was the only group to oppose Prop. A in the ballot pamphlet. "This city's on the edge of getting downgraded seriously."

Two weeks ago, a group of top city administrators met to discuss raising the debt ceiling to allow for new bond issues: for affordable housing, a new jail, a youth guidance center, the de Young museum, the expansion of the Moscone Center.

But in discussing the issue, Harrington says, the officials -- all of whom are staff, not elected -- ran up against a familiar wall.

"There's always been a discussion of, should we set the priorities or should elected officials set the priorities," he says.

"That has been the problem with this dispersed system of government," agrees T.J. Anthony, aide to Supervisor Barbara Kaufman and an expert on the new City Charter, which -- passed by voters this November -- could substantially alter the way bond business is done in San Francisco.

Under the current system, city staffers make recommendations for bond projects to the chief administrative officer, an appointed official who serves in a tenured 10-year term. The CAO, in turn, passes the bond projects on to a vote by the Board of Supervisors, who give a thumbs-up or -down as to whether to place the proposal before San Francisco voters. According to Welch and others, it's a catch-as-catch-can system that operates without firm priorities.

"The fish rots from the head. The basic problem has been for the last two administrations the Mayor's Office has not addressed the capital improvements plan for the city and county of San Francisco," Welch says. "And the Board of Supervisors is hopeless. These folks routinely pass whatever comes in over the transom and put it on the ballot."

Anthony agrees.
"Right now we're all baffled, and the first part of it is these decisions are being made oftentimes without any real oversight," says Anthony. "It's one of the great failings of the current system that we end up squandering more money than perhaps would be the true value of that construction."

But when the new City Charter takes effect on July 1, 1996, the Office of Chief Administrator will be abolished and replaced by a city administrator who will report directly to the mayor.

"We said when the day is done the decisions should be made by people you elected," Anthony says.

In the meantime -- and for 2 1/2 years afterward -- the City Hall project will go on.

At the moment, the seismic retrofit part of the project is 13 days behind schedule, according to Huber, Hunt & Nichols' Bill Sexauer. Two months ago, the project was six weeks behind -- a sizable chunk when each day over the final due date means a fine of $40,000 that the general contractor will have to pay the city. Cause of the delay: a problem with the footings in the basement, which were higher than the engineers expected. The footings are what the base isolators sit on, so a height problem there was a height problem indeed. The footing issue and a shortage of ironworkers slowed the project down, but now that the rains have come, shutting down other projects and driving workers inside, Sexauer predicts, City Hall will be getting all the workers it needs.

"It's going real good," Sexauer says.
And Irons, the city's project manager, concurs.
"They're 13 days behind schedule, but they have three years to make it up," Irons says.

In 1998, when City Hall reopens, the building will be 82 years old. Older than some buildings around, to be sure, but not ancient, even if it does look like the Louvre. And not new enough to be considered modern, even if it didn't look like the Louvre. Clearly, the place it occupies in S.F.'s heart is more than a matter of architecture or chronological time -- especially in light of the $244 million the city collectively has decided to spend fixing it up. And Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and author of Building SEX, a book ab

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Ellen McGarrahan


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