Threat of litigation looms over faulty Board of Equalization tower
|By Jon Ortiz, The Sacramento Bee|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
"I was on the fourth floor," she recalled. "And you could see the little brown spots. I was sitting right on top of a water leak."
Vaughn is one of 2,200 employees who work in this downtown building, 24 stories of chronic trouble. Over two decades, employees there have dealt with:
"Of all the buildings that I've worked in," Vaughn said, "this is the worst. It looks good on the outside but the problems it has are horrendous. I've been with the state 20 years. I've never experienced anything like this."
In the latest development, a
Equalization officials are becoming more vocal in their concerns.
"Even though my lawyers told me not to say this, I don't think it's safe," board Chairman
After learning that implementing the latest fixes could take five years -- including two years just to do the paperwork -- board member
"If this building was owned by a private entity, the city would not allow it to be standing there with scaffolding around it," Runner said. "They'd insist it be fixed. But since this building is owned by the state, they can't."
Problems from the start
The agency might still be in its former headquarters across the street from the Capitol if not for the aligned interests of two powerful institutions --
For many years, the board's central unit worked at
"But there just wasn't any place downtown big enough," said Dronenburg, who served on the board from 1978 to 1998.
Lawmakers, however, coveted the office building for their own expanding operations.
Meanwhile, CalPERS was developing a downtown real estate investment -- an 18-story tower on
Construction on the site of a former Safeway started in 1991, and two years later, the board moved about 2,000 employees into what was called the
Almost immediately, the building drew complaints that it was built on the cheap and was ugly -- in stark contrast to the relatively opulent
State officials countered that the tower was a good investment for CalPERS and a good deal for taxpayers footing the board's
The new tower had been open for less than three months when
After overpowering a security guard, Holloway took at least seven hostages on the building's 18th floor. He died in a storm of bullets after he leveled his shotgun at a police officer. No employees or police were hurt.
Witnesses said Holloway was angry over personal tax problems, but was probably confused about where he was. The Franchise Tax Board collects personal taxes.
"He wasn't even looking for our people," said Dronenburg. "He got the wrong building."
The leaks begin
From its earliest days, the Equalization building leaked water during the winter.
Although documents obtained by
It is not clear why CalPERS did not sue. No one involved with the project remains at CalPERS, a fund spokeswoman said.
By 1998, water was coming into the tower via stairwells and an elevator serving the parking garage. The concrete-and-glass skin on the 23rd floor was leaking, too, along with a door on that same level. Planters on the 12th floor also allowed water into the structure.
"Nine times out of 10, it starts with a water-related problem," such as leaking windows, Miller said. "Improper slopes, corrosion, mechanical systems, improper ventilation. ... It's rare to find a building without some version of these problems."
Repairs and responsibility
Per the original lease agreement with CalPERS, the
General Services Acting Deputy Director
Hensel Phelps, which recently won a
"The contractor and architect completed all repairs in 2000 based on the best available knowledge at the time," Ferguson said. "They repaired all the known issues."
Miller, the construction-defect lawyer, said that the parties may have come to terms because insurance covering the work may have been exhausted -- and that's if the companies had coverage at all.
"There's no requirement that builders have insurance," he said. "And we see situations where developers have minimum limits of liability insurance that don't cover their exposure. If those policies aren't enough to cover the risk, we wind up accepting that and moving on."
Even if the state hadn't settled, the government wouldn't have legal recourse now. California's statute of limitations for defective construction is four years or 10 years, depending on the type of defect. That clock ran out a dozen years ago.
State buys building
The state was in settlement negotiations with the builder and architect when an exterior glass panel popped off the building's east face on
Eleven months later, two panels broke and threw off glass shards, one between floors seven and eight and the other between floors eight and nine. The following winter, rainwater leaked into the building below the 23rd floor.
Another panel fell from the tower's south side on
The bats came in 2007, settling in on the 12th floor. A company brought in to control them never figured out how the bats got in.
Vaughn, who writes state contracts, started working in the tower that same year. Not long after, she was diagnosed with asthma, she said, and she attributes it to mold in the structure.
"They said they cleaned it," she said, "but people keep getting sick."
"From my first day on the job, I tried to move us out," said
Despite all that, when an opportunity to buy the building emerged, Leonard supported it.
"We were paying an exorbitant interest rate," he said, and purchasing saved
The state bought the building for
No end in sight?
Leonard knew his way around the halls of the Capitol and tried to persuade former legislative colleagues and then-Gov.
He and other public officials who have since pushed to relocate the board's headquarters have run up against the same fiscal roadblock. The state owes bondholders about
"Everyone told me, 'You're free to move as long as you find someone to take your place,' " Leonard said.
Finding new tenants would be hobbled by the building's sullied reputation. Even if one tenant or several could be persuaded to move in, the building would first have to be stripped to its bones and refurbished. A state estimate says that would take at least two years, cost unknown.
No one has suggested razing the structure, Runner said.
"What we've heard in conversations the building could be salvaged," Runner said, but it would need to be empty to give work crews complete access.
A half dozen bills in the last four years have proposed moving the agency to other facilities. The latest, by Assemblyman
Dickinson said he's heard, however, that Gov.
"The governor wants to look at managing existing assets first," Dickinson said. He said he hopes a state audit of the building due this summer will help swing the political pendulum in the other direction.
A spokesman for Brown declined to comment.
Equalization board members are tired of waiting. Republican Runner and Democrat Horton have been particularly pointed in their criticism of perceived bureaucratic foot-dragging.
"What frustrates me is the lack of attention from governor's offices," Runner said. "There are sexier ways to spend money than spending it on a building. ... But this isn't a political issue. It's a government efficiency issue. It's a health issue."
General Services spokesman Ferguson, however, said the tower "meets all government safety guidelines" and is regularly monitored for toxic substances.
"This is one of the most tested buildings in the state inventory," he said.
The costs to fix the tower continue piling up.
Inspections and lab tests have confirmed defects from the building's core to its outer shell. Pipes carrying wastewater from toilets and sinks are corroded throughout the tower. Inspectors say improper pipe angling and insufficient venting are to blame.
After another glass panel fell from the tower's east side more than two years ago, the scaffolding returned. About 2,000 suspect panels still need to be replaced. And the state is spending about
Last month officials found that a pump that directs water for the building's fire-sprinkler system was defective. The state fire marshal put the building under a "fire watch" until the pump could be repaired. The order forced the state to assign staff to walk the building looking for potential fire hazards.
And costly litigation looms unless the board settles the
"The claim asserts that management has told employees that the building is mold-free and safe," Perez said, "when in fact the building is not mold-free and is not safe."
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