Public buildings are the new boondoggle from government.

The other day I was speaking with one of my former clients from the Bay Area of California, and the subject got around to Pelosi’s 18k a month office. He had mentioned that she was paying far above what the local market considers top dog gouge pricing for that neighborhood and it got me to thinking- gee whiz, if she is that much above market, maybe there’s a story there. Who was she paying that money to? Considering that’s about 1.5 times even the most expensive Manhattan dollar/sq. Ft for government office space that seemed out of place.

I did a little research and found something far worse than possibly overpaying rent to a political crony.

public building

Public buildings built to LEED standards are the newest boondoggle

Apparently the building Pelosi is moving to is the new San Francisco Federal building, which is in the Modernist/Green school of architectural design and developed by architects Morphosis, on the Mission and 7th Street corner. The design is centered around a ‘green’ design, which was intended to save the government money is environmental costs, and probably make some sort of liberal statement, like most government buildings constructed in the last 10-15 years.

The building was originally scheduled to be completed in 2005 for an approximate budget of 75-80 million dollars. It wasn’t completed until late 2007 with a final cost figure of over 144 million dollars, and has 18 floors of office space. It is a super high security building, built like a massive concrete bunker, and has been described as the ‘monolith’ by the locals.

144 million dollars is a lot to spend for a brand new building, especially considering it has no air conditioning (well, except for the management offices) and the elevators don’t go to every floor.

The theory behind the lack of air conditioning was that since San Francisco is a relatively cool city the building’s ‘green design’ and environmentally conscious planning would suffice. That is, assuming you don’t mind having to work in a cubicle with an umbrella over it to keep the heat out from the greenhouse style windows- which is what the workers typically do in the summer in the large rows of cubicles that are lucky enough to get a window view of the homeless below. They also seem to have a habit of wearing sunglasses while they work apparently as well, since the glare is so bad. The architects are now in the process of retrofitting a multimillion dollar ‘curtain wall’ to filter out some of the nastier effects of the hot sun.

The design called for opening windows on hot days to alleviate the suffocating heat and stale air of working in a busy government office all day, but the problem is that at 18 stories tall, the wind off the Bay blows papers all over the office, and so can only me partly opened on most days. But don’t worry, the management doesn’t suffer too much. They retrofitted the building after its construction with a heating system and A/C system that goes ONLY to the senior level offices. As is typical of government and Congressional mucky mucks, they deserve the best after all, and the rest of us yahoos can muddle through with peasant level conditions. Much like the Congressional health care package which was left untouched by the new health care bill.

But the worst of it, according to long suffering employees who work there (posted on various bulletin boards and complaint sites) is the fact that the elevators only stop on every third floor, thus forcing you to disembark a floor or two above or below where you want to go and walk through other parts of the building. The architects wanted to make the building more ‘socially conscious’ so that people would interact more when moving from office to office. A boon for productivity and I’m sure the UPS guy loves it too.

To be fair, there IS a single elevator that accesses all the floors for handicapped people. Unfortunately, it’s packed all the time, as frustrated employees use it to avoid tramping up and down flights of stairs all day long, sometimes forcing people to wait for 10 minutes to grab a car. I suppose the guy in the wheelchair waiting for one, could use the freight elevator.

The fun part is after all that waiting for an elevator, you actually have to go across the street to grab a sandwich at the OFFSITE cafeteria. No offense, but if you are going to go offsite in the Bay area to eat, you can do a lot better than the 10 dollar salad lunches offered through a government cafeteria.

The best part is that this disaster of a building is not the first time government designed a building like this.

In the late 50′s and early 60′s, St Louis contracted government architects to build a housing project called the Pruitt-Igoe housing development. It too, was built in the modernist style, and hailed as the ‘future of architecture and ecological preservation”. Similarly, it had the same design flaws- elevators that only traveled to every other floor, no central air conditioning and block, monolithic ‘green’ styling.

It was disaster that was torn down in 1972, and cursed with rampant crime, cost overruns and maintenance problems inherent with a building that had limited elevator access and amenities. Staircase landings would quickly become damaged and run down from overuse while hallway and elevator landings became vacant areas, ripe for criminals to lie in wait for unwary people knowing few people went directly to their floor. The flawed lack of centralized environmental controls made center apartments intolerably cold in the winter while external units were unbearably stuffy and hot. In fact the building was as bad, that when it was torn down in 1972, it was hailed as the final ‘death of modernist architecture and government experiment in design that was horribly flawed from the beginning”

But I suppose the architects at Morphosis solved all those problems. Now the elevators only go to every third floor instead of every other floor, I guess, as a solution. Well, on a positive note, it probably helps people like Pelosi and her staff socially interact more with other offices and feel good about themselves- even if it destroys productivity and just plain common sense.

One taxpayer wrote on a blog:

“All a needed was a measly 12.00 money order…. can’t believe what i just went through… This place is a maze to get to, especially being a civilian just walking in. First I have to go through security, then I have to get in a elevator, down the basement, go through some “fridge” looking doors, turn right, turn left, and wa la! Finally got there…. Ahhhh, I was actually very frustrated having gone through this maze just to get a money order”

This building is an absolute monument to two things: government waste and secondly, the inability to learn from their own previous failures. If there is one thing certain about government is that not only doesn’t it learn from mistakes, it institutionalizes them.

Unfortunately, it’s not much of an environmental solution, though. The building failed to get a platinum rating from the LEED certification program (program that measures a building’s green functions), to which even chief architect Thomas Mayne lamented publicly in interviews. According to the buildings own Website, the design saves 500k a year in energy costs.

So 70 million in cost overruns justifies 500k a year in energy savings? At that rate, the break-even point is about 140 years from now.

Right about the time the vacant office buildings in the neighborhood will be charging 18k a month in rent, I would imagine.