Orange County officials finally are revealing the design they approved for a new $299 million building at the county Civic Center, over two months after county supervisors agreed to require taxpayers to pay for it and weeks after the county showed the design to potential investors and issued the publicly-funded debt for the building.
For months, top county officials have had renderings of the new Building 16, but kept them under wraps from the public, including before and after county supervisors signed off May 9 on issuing an estimated $315 million in taxpayer-funded bond debt.
The bond debt ended up being $290.6 million, plus $8.6 million in demolition and design costs, according to county staff.
Voice of OC raised questions about the lack of public disclosure, and county officials said they wouldn’t reveal the design for several months, until after the supervisors approve construction documents this fall.
But after Voice of OC filed a Public Records Act request for the design photos and internal communications, county officials moved up those plans and provided the visuals to a reporter Monday in an interview. A general news release from the county is scheduled to be sent out Tuesday.
Officials say the new, six-story building in downtown Santa Ana will feature large glass panels to let in natural light, a flexible open floor plan, two floors of underground parking, and a community event space for up to 240 people.
A “one stop” public counter will allow members of the public to handle their county business in one place, including paying taxes or getting building plans approved, officials say. Plans call for 13 different county departments to have a presence at the counter.
“You can go into one location and do it all, which is a very time- and cost-efficient service to the public,” said Roger Torriero, CEO of Griffin Structures. The company was chosen by the county to develop Building 16 and the rest of an overhaul of the county Civic Center.
Within Building 16, the vast majority of the workspace will be open, allowing the daylight to be “shared by everybody in the building,” said Dan Heinfeld, president of LPA, the architecture firm that designed the project.
Heinfeld, Torriero and top officials with the county said the structure was designed based on extensive outreach to county departments about their workspace needs, and will include collaboration rooms where various staff members can work together.
The 250,000 square-foot building is expected to become the headquarters for four county departments: Waste and Recycling, Public Works, Treasurer-Tax Collector, and the Auditor-Controller’s Office.
It will be built at the corner of Ross Street and Civic Center Drive, across from the county homeless shelter known as the Courtyard, and is slated to open in early 2020.
Two county supervisors, Shawn Nelson and Andrew Do, were closely involved in shaping the Civic Center building plan in private meetings with county staff, who they oversee.
Asked why the county didn’t make the design public before approving the project and issuing the debt for it, and whether that was based on direction from county supervisors, there was a few seconds of silence before an answer.
Public Works Director Shane Silsby responded that officials couldn’t determine the cost of the building and issue the debt until the design was complete.
“We had to be very judicious” about that process, Silsby said. “I don’t think there was ever any conscious effort to do anything but be open about it.”
Supervisors approved the debt on May 9, two months before making the design public. And the debt itself was issued on June 22, almost a month before the design was released.
Visualizations of the building, including the inside, were available within the county before the May 9 debt approval, according to county Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery.
And after the interview Monday, Voice of OC discovered the county showed two of the main design photos to potential investors in mid June, while withholding them from the general public for another month.
The photos are included in a June 13 document known as the “official statement” for potential bondholders.
It wasn’t immediately clear who has invested in the building by purchasing the bond debt.
While Griffin is the project’s developer, much of the construction work will be handled by subcontractors.
Instead of being chosen by a county bidding panel, the subcontractors will be selected by a private company, Swinerton Builders, that Griffin hired as the project’s lead construction firm.
The county still will have a seat at the table for choosing the vendors, according to Torriero, the Griffin chief executive. It’s unclear how much influence the county would have.
The plan for new Civic Center buildings is a public-private partnership, so “we have a certain amount of flexibility” in selecting subcontractors, Torriero said. The Griffin team will be conducting the bidding and following county bidding procedures, he said.
County officials indicated they would not publicly announce which companies are selected as subcontractors for the $152 million direct cost of the project.
But officials said they would reveal the chosen vendors if asked. “It’s public information,” said Scott Mayer, the county’s chief real estate officer.
It will be the county government’s first new Civic Center building in decades, and the first part of a multi-decade plan to replace the county’s aging Civic Center buildings.
County officials say their current Civic Center buildings are an average of 48 years old and expensive for taxpayers to maintain. They said it would be difficult to estimate the county’s net savings from moving into Building 16, because of the variety of elements that would go into such a calculation.
The overall Civic Center master plan was developed in secret by Do and Nelson and publicly revealed last year when it was approved by the full Board of Supervisors.
The plan calls for replacing buildings in four phases over the coming decades. About 5,000 county employees work in the Civic Center and occupy about 1.5 million square feet of building space, Mayer said.
Griffin was chosen as the county’s private-sector developer for the master plan, which involves creating the overall plan with county staff, designing each building, and then managing the construction in consultation with county officials.
The developer and county officials met with all of the county departments based at the Civic Center to learn how they could better occupy their space and about their future needs for workspaces.
“There was quite a lot of diligence undertaken” by county staff and the Griffin team, Mayer said.
Staff felt it was important to include the Board of Supervisors in the discussions, and a working group was created that included Nelson, Do, CEO Frank Kim, CFO Michelle Aguirre and the county’s chief technology officer.
Those discussions included direction to county staff that ultimately led to the Civic Center master plan that was approved last year, Mayer said.
Torriero said all the fees for the Building 16 development team are already set, so there is no incentive for change orders that increase the project’s cost.
The only potential change orders, he said, would be if the county expands the project’s scope, which he said is not expected. The risk if the project goes above cost is on Griffin, he said.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the building’s excavation is scheduled for late July or early August.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story cited the county's May staff report which described the building as costing $315 million. After the article was published, county staff said the total bond cost ended up being $290.6 million, due to lower interest costs than projected, plus $8.6 million in demolition and design costs, for a revised estimated total of $299.2 million.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.