When San Diego County burst into flames in October 2007, firefighters rushed to protect threatened areas, police moved to manage traffic and prevent looting, and city officials mobilized to organize evacuations and shelters. Keeping all those balls in the air required careful coordination, and the hub of all that activity—the city of San Diego's portion of it—was an unprepossessing subbasement in the City Operations Building known as the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
The room is filled with rows of tables and computers. At one end are three large-screen projectors, each of which can split into additional video feeds. In an emergency, city staff wearing color-coded vests can gather data from across the region, coordinate with the county or the state via video conference and track expenses. Along one row of tables, planning staff tries to stay 12 to 24 hours ahead of any emergency, locating additional resources for combating the disaster or getting ready for the recovery. Well before the first fires in 2007 were controlled, the recovery was already being planned.
But if San Diego builds a new civic center as proposed by developer Gerding Edlen, the EOC will, eventually, be demolished. Gerding Edlen's broadest proposal does not have a place for an emergency operations center anywhere in it. Then again, neither did nine rejected competing proposals. Before the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) asked for proposals, it commissioned a study to assess what the city needed in a new city hall, and the study (PDF) found that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to have an emergency center so close to the heart of San Diego, and on an active fault. So when it came time to ask for designs, CCDC didn't ask (PDF) for an EOC at all. And when the firms Jones Lang LaSalle and Ernst & Young did financial projections for the project, they didn't consider the expense of replacing the EOC.
But Mayor Jerry Sanders has predicated his support for a new city hall on whether it's less expensive than doing nothing. Of the options within Gerding Edlen's proposal, the one that saves the city money the soonest saves $30 million in the first 10 years. While city officials haven't made any cost estimates for a new EOC, other cities have built new structures, and the price tag is high. Austin just completed a $40-million standalone EOC, and San Antonio built one that cost $70 million. Both cities are sharing their EOCs with their counties. But add $40 million in costs to $30 million in savings, and suddenly the city is down $10 million.
Then again, those are savings compared with a so-called “hold steady” alternative. That's the one where the city buys time by making minimal improvements to the existing civic center complex to keep it functional for another 10 years and then starts the proposal process from scratch later on. As CCDC Vice President Jeff Graham points out, the hold-steady scenario also does not include the cost of a new EOC. For Sanders spokesperson Rachel Laing, this is a key point.
“Even under the Hold Steady scenario, [the City Operations Building] is slated for redevelopment within 15 years, which is the same time frame that Phase 3 of a new [civic center] would occur,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The EOC is undoubtedly functional at this point, but everyone agrees it has its limitations that we'll want to address within 15 years.”
Therefore, any expenses, she argues, would have to be applied to all scenarios involved, and it's all a wash.
It's true that the city's EOC is not perfect. When CityBeat toured it, Donna Faller, program manager for San Diego's Office of Homeland Security, pointed out that the room is too small to hold all the staff needed, and it has no side rooms for meetings. The EOC has only two exits, and one of them is on the wrong side of several locked doors, and the other is up a short, narrow flight of stairs. Faller also worries that its location Downtown could make it hard to get to in an emergency that might include burning or destroyed buildings, and that freeway access is limited. On top of that, the building is located near an active fault, although it has some structural protection against earthquakes.
But the city doesn't have to build a whole new building. City officials are toying with the idea of sharing space with San Diego County at the county's Kearny Mesa site, though county officials have not yet been approached. Constructed in 1998 for $6 million, the county's building is more secure, has access to three major freeways and was built on an independent foundation that provides stability to the building in earthquakes measuring up to 7.0 on the Richter Scale (the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in the Bay Area was a 6.9).
Locating the new EOC there would be a far cheaper alternative if the county is interested. Faller said the city had an offer to move the EOC to a different building last year but that the $1.5-million price tag for moving the technology put the cost beyond the limits of the cash-strapped city. Still, it's a far lower number than the cost of building from scratch. In either case, Laing points out that there may be state or federal grants that could help defray the costs.
She also said that if a version of the civic center complex goes before voters, a cost estimate for a new EOC would be included in the ballot information.