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MEA Opinion Piece On 101 Ash in Union-Tribune

MEA General Manager Michael Zucchet had an opinion article published in the San Diego Union Tribune today. The subject matter is the 101 Ash Street building controversy.  MEA took the opportunity to keep the focus on the terrible shape of City employee workplaces, and to call on the City to address the substandard condition of the City’s buildings and facilities.  Here is the article:

Commentary: 101 Ash Street is the Taj Mahal compared to other city property

By Michael Zucchet

Aug. 18, 2020

These days the most famous address of a city building is 101 Ash Street. Based on all the publicity, you might think it is the crummiest building the city owns or leases — riddled with asbestos and saddled with plumbing, electrical and air systems that are past their useful life.

In fact, 101 Ash is the nicest, most modern, functional office space the city controls.

That’s right. Warts and all, 101 Ash is the Taj Mahal compared with the current work environs of city workers. Most of the city’s 10,000 employees currently inhabit the oldest, sickest and least public-friendly buildings anywhere.

Employees are either in the worst office buildings Downtown or are spread out across San Diego in trailers, random leased space and other “temporary” offices that have been their work home for years. “Past its useful life” is the absolute kindest thing you could say about most of the city’s office buildings, not to mention its libraries, recreation centers, fire stations and the rest.

That’s what makes the 101 Ash debacle even more frustrating for city employees and the citizens we serve. 101 Ash was supposed to be the first forward progress for city office space in decades. Long overdue repairs and upgrades to existing city facilities were being canceled because, well, everybody was moving to 101 Ash beginning in 2017!

It’s now 2020, and that future remains uncertain as this episode becomes a political football that every current and aspiring elected official is trying to hang on their political opponent.

We don’t suggest for a moment that the profound frustration of another real estate deal gone bad is misplaced or shouldn’t be investigated and learned from. But we plead with city officials and the public to also keep their eye on the ball that we have to do something — urgently — about the city’s abysmal office and workplace infrastructure. The cost of inaction on that front already has been and will continue to be more expensive for taxpayers than anything that happens at 101 Ash.

San Diego has a rich history of letting politics get in the way of sensible action when it comes to city office space and facilities. Promises to consolidate a potpourri of owned and leased office space into a centralized, city-owned office building complex have come and gone a half-dozen times over the last 30 years. Short-term thinking and a fear of being labeled as a supporter of “a new City Hall” have doomed countless efforts that clearly would have been more cost-effective for taxpayers, not to mention more functional for employees and the public.

Take just one example: the city’s current City Operations Building (affectionately known as COB) is a much smaller building across the street from 101 Ash. COB serves as the workplace of hundreds of city employees, including most of the city’s Development Services Department. Nearly 200,000 building permits and other transactions get processed annually, so COB is also highly trafficked by members of the public. The city’s largest fire station is on the ground floor. Until recently, the city’s Emergency Operations Center occupied the basement.

COB is also the sickest building in San Diego. Built in the 1960s and never updated, COB is full of dust and mold, and it has terrible air quality. The ancient and ever-broken elevators and electrical systems constantly require MacGyver-like fixes because they don’t make parts for systems of that vintage anymore. The public bathrooms are closed regularly because of sewage backups. The office layouts and common spaces are dysfunctional and unwelcoming. Simply put, it is a terrible place to work or visit and has been for more than 20 years.

Those employees were supposed to be among the first to move into 101 Ash. What’s the plan for them now?

To be clear, the challenge of substandard city workplace infrastructure has been accumulating through decades of inaction by multiple mayors and City Councils. The current administration and council inherited this pile of stinky stuff. In fact, we applaud Mayor Kevin Faulconer and this council as the first in a generation to actually attempt do something to address the city’s office space crisis. We hope the city’s current and aspiring leaders maintain that ultimate focus while the flogging over the mistakes of 101 Ash continues to play out.

We must continue the work to solve the workplace infrastructure problem that inhibits the city’s ability to provide quality essential services. City employees deserve better. The citizens we serve deserve better. Let’s work together to make San Diego’s workplaces functional, efficient and modern.

Zucchet is general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association and a former San Diego City Council member who lives in Ocean Beach.