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MWD to spend more than $20M on seismic upgrades for its HQ

The MWD headquarters building, opened in 1998,
The MWD headquarters building, opened in 1998, "would experience significant damage during a major earthquake,” according to General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger.
Karen Foshay/KPCC

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After a structural analysis found the Metropolitan Water District's headquarters could become uninhabitable after a major earthquake, the agency’s board Tuesday unanimously approved a plan to spend $20-25 million to strengthen the 12-story high-rise in downtown Los Angeles. The board appropriated $3.4 million for a final design of the upgrades, which would begin in October of 2015.

The board still needs to take a final vote on the plan, but rarely reverses itself after approving money for a final design. The upgrades include "carbon fiber strengthening of structural elements such as beams and diaphragms," according to a staff report.

MWD officials acknowledge the work would fail to bring the building up to current code requirements for an “essential facility,” which would ensure that the building remains functional after a major earthquake. To do that, the MWD would need to spend more than $90 million.

MWD’s headquarters plays a critical role in the business operations of the mammoth water agency, but its closure would not affect water deliveries, according to Chief Engineer Gordon Johnson.

“The functions at headquarters don’t keep the water flowing on a day-to-day basis,” Johnson told KPCC. “That happens at our treatment plants and pumping stations.”

Nineteen million people rely on water from the MWD, a cooperative of 26 cities and water agencies in the region.

The agency spent more than $100 million in taxpayer dollars constructing its headquarters, which opened in 1998. Johnson said MWD officials believed they were paying for a building that met essential facility standards. He said the agency considered legal action against the builders after MWD staff found sagging and cracking in several beams in 2008. But the statute of limitations had expired.

Johnson also said he and his staff had a difficult time determining who was to blame — the designer, the structural engineer, the builder or some combination of them.

MWD signed a development agreement with Union Station Partners to build its headquarters next to Union Station in the 1990s. The partnership was comprised of Charles Pankow Builders, Ltd., and Catellus-Union Station, Inc., according to MWD spokesman Bob Muir.

“We don’t know what party bore the most responsibility” for not providing a building that met essential facility code requirements, Johnson said.

Earlier this year, Charles Pankow Builders Chief Operating Officer Dick Walterhouse defended his company’s role in constructing MWD headquarters.

"I can tell you the building was built in accordance with the codes applicable at the time," Walterhouse said.