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 tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.