Buy American?

Buy American?

A drawing of the Arthur Brown Jr.-designed 50 UN Plaza.
Courtesy SMWM

It seemed to counteract the spirit—if not the goal—of the stimulus bill, when one of the largest Recovery Act projects to date in San Francisco was going to the team of Berkeley’s ELS and London’s Foster + Partners. A project of the General Services Administration (GSA), the renovation of 50 UN Plaza, a historic federal building in the Civic Center area, was a $121 million project. But since AN leaked news about the decision last month, the GSA has apparently reversed course. Foster has been given the boot, and the GSA is now in negotiations with one of the San Francisco firms on the original shortlist.

The massive 350,000-square-foot Beaux Arts Building will be renovated with $121 million in recovery act money.

GSA spokeswoman Sahar Wali could only say the news that ELS and Foster was going to get the contract was “outdated,” but that new details would be forthcoming soon. Architectural Resources Group with HKS is the heir apparent at the moment; the other two—SOM and Hornberger + Worstell with William McDonough—had not been contacted by the GSA at press time.

Back when the original decision came to light, Martin Bovill, vice president of development at Hornberger + Worstell, whose projects include the rejuvenation of Ghirardelli Square, said what others in the San Francisco design community were thinking: “You’d think that it would make sense to keep the money here rather than send it overseas…You have very well-qualified firms in the city with experience in San Francisco historic preservation.”

The GSA, which manages all federal buildings aside from military property, was given $5.55 billion in the stimulus package to upgrade federal office buildings, courthouses, and ports.

Originally, the GSA had pointed to the Brooks Act (a federal law that states that the government must select architecture firms based on qualifications, not price ) as part of its decision, while emphasizing that the contract was still being negotiated. The Recovery Act does not state that design and construction work must go to American firms, only that building materials such as steel must be produced in the states. But at this point, it’s hard not to imagine that political exigency gave the agency pause. 

The six-story, 350,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts UN Plaza building was designed in 1936 by Arthur Brown Jr., who was also the architect of San Francisco’s City Hall. It was shuttered after the new Morphosis-designed Federal Building opened in 2007. The GSA’s intent is to modernize the utilities, put in new bathrooms, and open up the interior workspaces, while leaving the historic facade and corridors in place.

Update 8/14/09:

On August 7, the agency awarded a $7.9 million contract to San Francisco–based Architectural Resources Group with HKS, one of the four teams on the original shortlist.

According to a statement from the GSA, the HKS/ARG team includes 18 additional local consulting engineers and building specialists. Design work is expected to begin this month, with completion set for September 2010.