Supervisors Discuss Massive Overhaul of OC Civic Center

Kaitlin Washburn for Voice of OC

Orange County Civic Center sign

The Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday discussed a 20-year plan to overhaul and redesign its aging Civic Center, and in doing so improve public access and reduce maintenance and operating costs for 16 county-owned and leased buildings.

The Civic Center Master Plan, which was first drafted in 2006, proposes reorganizing the Civic Center into four “neighborhoods” and remodeling facilities in four phases over the next twenty years. In total, the plan as currently constituted calls for six buildings to be demolished, the construction of three new buildings, and the remodeling of a number of other aging facilities.

During a study session on Tuesday, supervisors agreed that many of the county’s buildings are in poor condition.

“Over the last 28 years, I’ve worked in six of these buildings,” said Supervisor Andrew Do, who serves on the board’s Civic Center Master Plan ad hoc committee. During his time working for the District Attorney’s Office, Do said employees brought their own fans and space heaters.

“We have a lot of dead space, hallways leading to single offices that lead to inefficient heating and cooling,” he said.

The overall goal is to upgrade the facilities and make more efficient use of county real estate. In 2016, maintenance and operating costs for the current Civic Center properties will total $25.8 million. Over the next 20 years, the price tag would be $512 million, according to a staff presentation.

The plan would reduce the number of square feet per employee from 375 to 260, and move toward owning rather than leasing space to save on operating costs, according to county real estate director Scott Mayer.

The plan is still preliminary and so far offers little details about how much the overhaul will ultimately cost and how it will be paid for.

“There’s a cost to doing nothing – that’s a fallacy that people commit all the time,” Do said. “They think doing nothing costs no money, but you’re always going to have maintenance.”

The firm selected to lead the design and development of the project, Los Angeles-based Griffin Structures, would finance construction and development and be paid back by the county through long-term leases. The county also hopes to pay for the project by shedding leases and selling off extraneous properties.

“It is our hope that our infrastructure and land assets can help pay for, if not the first phase, future phases as well,” Mayer said.

So far, the county has one agreement in place with Griffin Structures for the demolition and reconstruction of Building 16, which was used by the Sheriff’s Department in the 1990s for storage, but has since stood vacant.

The $150 million project includes demolition of the existing structure and construction of a six-story building with two levels of underground parking. The new building would be home to the departments of Public Works, Waste and Recycling, and Treasurer/Tax Collector.

A contract for the design and construction of that project won’t come before supervisors until March, according to county spokeswoman Jean Pasco.

Griffin Structures would finance the construction and development of the project until it is occupied, and the county would pay the company back through a 30-year lease, with the ultimate intention of owning the property.

The current Public Works building at 300 N. Flower Street would also be renovated during phase one to house the District Attorney’s Office, which currently leases a building at 401 W. Civic Center drive.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer noted the importance of keeping county services close to the Civic Center, pointing to the relocation of the county’s Social Services Agency last year from a deteriorating building at 888 N. Main Street in Santa Ana, to an office space in Orange.

The building, which is owned by downtown developer Michael Harrah and was leased by the county for almost two decades, had major mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems that have not been replaced since the building was constructed in the 1960s.

Although Spitzer and Supervisor Shawn Nelson both voted with the last board to relocate the agency, Spitzer said they were both against moving county agencies away from the downtown core.

“Once you start bleeding services around the county, you remove the core ability of the county to serve the public. We’ve spread them so far that we’ve made it difficult [to serve the public],” Spitzer said.

Under the Master Plan, the Social Services Agency would not return to the Civic Center until phase four of the project, which would be at the end of its current 15-year lease, according to county spokeswoman Jean Pasco.

While the Master Plan is, in theory, a plan for the county’s real estate and property holdings, it is also in part a vision for how the public is able to access public services.

Do said the layout of the current Civic Center can be confusing to navigate for both employees and members of the public, especially those unfamiliar with the area.

“It’s hard to find what we do, where our departments are, it’s a maze,” said Do.

The plan for the newly reconstructed Building 16 includes multi-purpose public counters where members of the public can access records and services that were previously strewn across multiple buildings.

Some have criticized the Master Plan for not taking into account the large homeless encampment at the Civic Center, which has grown substantially in recent years as city and county leaders have failed to adequately address their needs.

Increasing publicity and public concern over the issue has pushed supervisors in recent months to approve the purchase of a property in Anaheim for the construction of a year-round homeless shelter, as well as the purchase of an abandoned transportation center in Santa Ana as a temporary cold weather shelter.

Jennifer Muir, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, wrote in an editorial for the Orange County Register that although the Civic Center overhaul would benefit both county employees and the public, the approach to homelessness is “piecemeal” and construction would “simply move families, veterans and mentally ill homeless residents down the street, only to return when construction is complete.”

“Shouldn’t the plan include steps that ensure not only the homeless communities have access to the resources they need, but also the workers and public who visit these new buildings are safe from health and safety risks that the homeless encampments bring?” Muir wrote.

Following the meeting, Spitzer said the Master Plan is about “buildings and employer work space” and that, given the construction of the year-round shelter and other services for the homeless, the county should have no homeless living in the Civic Center by the second phase of the overhaul.

Do essentially agreed, saying the Civic Center overhaul and the homeless problem are two “distinct issues.”

“They are not mutually exclusive, or dependent on each other. We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Do.

Contact Thy Vo at or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • talkinghead

    With the exception of having to blast holes between floors to provide cabling for VOIP data and installation of custom A/C units to keep VOIP equipment at specific cooling temps, these buildings are perfectly serviceable.

    • David Zenger

      I couldn’t agree more. Building 16 had a nuclear fallout shelter in the basement. The sign is still on the building. Fortunately those new cables can be placed in existing chases, or maybe even use remote wireless technology for environmental stuff.

  • Philmore

    “….”They are not mutually exclusive, or dependent on each other. We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Do….”
    What an idea for a charity fundraiser, a public demonstration of that ability ! Too bad it can’t be a condition of the raises just approved for top County Management (and why not add those who approved it to the list ?)

  • kburgoyne

    I couldn’t help but think “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. Okay… maybe not EXACTLY like that. 🙂

  • L Santos

    Best discussion of this boondoggle to date.
    Politico’s are experts at overspending and ignoring the ultimate

    total cost (including interest on debt). As far as who will be ultimately
    responsible for the payback, the BOS could care less.
    They will all be retired or in a deep sleep by that time.

    Voice of OC is a jewel.

  • Paul Lucas

    “Griffin Structures, would finance construction and development and be paid back by the county through long-term leases.”

    So now this comp[any owns our public property and we pay them over 30 years? WTF? Sounds alot like Poseidon.

  • LFOldTimer

    “The plan is still preliminary and so far offers little details about how much the overhaul will ultimately cost and how it will be paid for.”
    Why worry? Let’s just buy the Maseradi MC12 today with other people’s money. If we end up short we can just tax the peasants more so we can live like Kings and Queens.
    So Spitzer says there will be no homeless living in the civic center? Does he plan to turn Civic Plaza into a police state and make it illegal for the homeless to camp there? Good luck with that. The homeless population is going to go exponential in the OC in the next 10 years. You’ll have sparkling new buildings with hundreds of poor people pushing shopping carts within eyeshot. But why should Muirs care? She’ll have a nice new hi-tech office with all the latest bells and whistles. But the feigned rhetoric of compassion looks nice in print from someone paid a fat 6-figure salary. 🙂

    • David Zenger

      The real goal of this “plan” is to create a fund-raising bonanza for the Supervisors. Each big project will involve a new “developer” or design/builder; each project will require an outside project manager; and an outside construction manager. All these contracts will be the awarded after intense lobbying (i.e. casting of lobbyist bread upon the campaign account waters).

      Meantime the County employs its own stable of “project managers” in the Public Works Department whose job it will be to oversee the horde of outside consultants. And by the time this army of “experts” is done nobody will be accountable for anything because everybody will have been complicit in bad decision making. Anyone who is the least bit curious about this scenario need only examine the disastrous history of the Alamitos Pump Station project to get the right odor.

      In the end the County will hire “developers” who, at very little risk to themselves (not like private sector development) will build and rent back buildings that the taxpayers will own once they are becoming obsolete. This makes no sense that I can fathom.

      Meanwhile, with the exception of Building 10, the core buildings (11-12-14-16) at are well constructed and perfectly serviceable. They are structural steel with proprietary precast cladding that will, if maintained properly last virtually forever.

      • LFOldTimer

        All great points. There’s no real need for new county buildings. Go to other cities throughout the nation. Many have government buildings nearly a century old. Particularly on the east coast. They work just fine. As you said, this is just another sham to accumulate political kickbacks. But they’ll tell us the county workers have to bring their own heaters and fans to work to tug at our heart strings. By the time it’s obvious that we’ve been duped again we’ll have 5 new clowns on the Board and all will blame their predecessors. Right out of the same old playbook.

        • David Zenger

          I was always amazed by the idiocy involved in real estate decisions at the County, but the purest gem of all was the nonsense that Building 16 needed to be demolished because it was full of asbestos!

          (Actually the asbestos is all non-friable and was in the floor tiles and the stucco on the roof penthouse)

          I loved to point out that if Building 16 were demolished the first necessary step would be to…abate the asbestos! All I got was deer in the headlights stares.

          • LFOldTimer

            No wonder you don’t work for the county anymore. You make way too much sense.

      • Kathleen Tahilramani

        BOOM you nailed it – good summary of the motive, I will not call it a plan as it is more of a plot & the BOS could not pull off a plan if they tried. Most county buildings suck and have for years the BOS could care less than less if that was even possible. Follow the money and watch their greedy noses and that will tell you all you ever need to know.

        • LFOldTimer

          The County buildings don’t suck. Those buildings are perfectly suitable for government workers. These people aren’t JP Morgan employees. They’re civil servants. They shouldn’t expect to work in palaces. Most municipal buildings throughout the country are old. But that doesn’t mean they’re obsolete and need to get torn down and replaced. If the county government personnel want to work in the latest and greatest architecture tell them to go apply for jobs on Wall Street. Otherwise let’s cut their salaries, take away their fat pensions and put them on straight 401-k equivalents to help defray the costs of the proposed renovations. Let the county workers decide whether to keep their cadillac compensations or go for the luxurious working environment. Leave it up to them. But they can’t have both. STOP the taxpayer abuse!

          • Kathleen Tahilramani

            Gawd Almighty! Who yanked your chain and danced on your last frazzled nerve? People deserve decent working spaces and I know for a fact that although the County has improved many employee work spaces over the years, there is plenty left to do to make certain offices/buildings decent. Your average county worker is not pulling down a wall street style salary and all people government or not should have safe and comfortable work stations. Go take a nap or eat a snickers – you are not yourself when you are hungry. 😉

          • LFOldTimer

            So they demand risk-free bullet proof job security, great salaries (for their level of work), retirement w/ 80% of their salaries at 55 years of age when the average lifespan is about 80, 8-5 M-F with weekends off, holidays paid, free time, flex time, maternity and paternity time off…..and now they want new buildings to work in that will cost the county over half a billion dollars. The taxpayers are getting tired of this malarkey. There’s nothing wrong with their current buildings. I’ve been inside. All are perfectly fine for government work. You should travel a little and check out other municipal buildings throughout the country. The ones in OC are in much better shape than most. STOP the taxpayer abuse!

          • Kathleen Tahilramani

            I would bet the real push for “new” buildings is from the BOS not employees. The BOS have many motivations as pointed out by Mr. Z to revamp the Civic Center. And, it took most of us over 30 years plus of hard work to get that retirement & we don’t get Social Security and don’t forget that county employees pay a significant amount with each paycheck for that retirement. You sure make assumptions, I have seen many other municipal buildings all over the US and abroad. Check yourself on your frustration and as I mentioned assumptions. You are sounding a bit green with envy. The vast majority of people who are pulling a county retirement worked hard for that retirement and contributed to our community.And, as far as I can tell sadly, the community could care less about taxpayer abuse – not a darn and that is just dandy for the BOS,

          • LFOldTimer

            Apparently you were a career government worker from your comment, so I wouldn’t expect you to agree with me. I’ve seen both sides of the picture and from my experience I know how government workers are coddled and get far too much in salaries and benefits for their output. And I’m not speaking from “frustration” or “envy”. I’m just being honest. Government work rewards mediocrity. Very few are fired for repeated substandard performance (due to union protections) and it’s not uncommon for productivity to get punished. Government work generally rewards mediocrity so that’s the bulk of what government workers produce. In the private sector a worker could make $200,000 a year for 40 years and social security would pay him a maximum of about $30,000 at 66 years of age – which is about normal SS retirement age. So comparing the county retirement options with SS is like apples and oranges. Government workers don’t really know what ‘hard work’ is compared to what’s required to hold a job paying the same compensation in the private sector. Government work is practically ‘risk-free’. I’ve known absolute basket cases working for the government who had guaranteed lifetime employment due to union protections. That never happens in the private sector where the boss can fire you and not even give you a reason for your termination. Oh, and Jennifer Muirs certainly didn’t oppose the $500m plus plan to revitalize the Civic Center, did she? I’m not here to argue with you. And I won’t reciprocate by accusing you of being this or that. I’m just providing the facts as I’ve experienced and witnessed through my own two eyes. You don’t have to accept it. I have no expectations that you would. My original point was that the existing structures at Civic Center are good enough for government work. And I stand by it in defense of the taxpayers.

          • Kathleen Tahilramani

            We probably agree more that you would ever suspect. I just can’t paint all county employees with a broad brush – there are exceptions. I know many talented, dedicated hard working people that I respect deeply. That said, there is the predictable percentage of slackers and complete losers – there are protected waste of space types in the private sector as well.