Insider Job

Insider Job

In tough times, even small jobs are worth fighting for. In March, when the city’s Recreation and Parks Department put out a bid for a $21 million contract to spruce up the city’s Palega Park, 11 local architecture firms responded to the RFQ/RFP, only to come up against the powerful Local 21.

The union, which represents the architects and engineers employed by the city, insisted loudly that the project be kept in-house. In April, Parks  took their case to the Civil Service Commission, the city’s official arbiter on such matters, and won, rewarding the contract to architect Mark Cavagnero. But that was only after Local 21 managed to delay the project until this month.

The incident highlights an ongoing debate about who gets to design city buildings. The city of San Francisco runs an architecture department that is atypically large. Within the Department of Public Works (DPW), the Bureau of Architecture has a 65-person staff, including 27 licensed architects, 28 associates and assistants, and ten support staff.

Among private firms in San Francisco, DPW would definitely be one of the larger operations. It is in charge of maintaining some 400 buildings owned by the city, and does design work and project management for construction of new city buildings. Of the bureau’s 134 current projects, 70 percent are designed by the bureau, the rest by consultants. Twenty of the city’s largest projects, like Laguna Honda Hospital, are handled by a separate group, the Bureau of Project Management.

It’s not uncommon for cities to have an architecture department, but not all major metropolises have evolved in the same way. LA has an architectural division of about 80 people, which contracts out about 50 percent of its design work. Meanwhile, in New York and Chicago, nearly all new building design is contracted out.

Many architects agree that outsourcing is a great way to support small firms while guaranteeing high-quality work. Craig Hartman of SOM, who worked in Chicago before coming to San Francisco in 1990, said in an interview, “You certainly need a city advocate for architecture, to help the city commission architects who can provide the best design quality and services.

But is it the right thing to have a public architecture firm, operating on taxpayer dollars, that has no competition? Fire stations and libraries are the kinds of projects that would be perfect for the city’s small, highly talented design firms. In any economy, you want to have architects that are competing based on architectural excellence and their ability to deliver projects on time and within budget.”

While private architects are loath to speak critically about the bureau because of their interest in getting work from the city, landscape designer Topher Delaney has publicly raised issues about the quality of the bureau’s designs. At a February SF Arts Commission meeting, Delaney commented that the bureau’s proposed structures for the Public Utilities Commission didn’t “measure up to work being done around the world.”

The Bureau of Architecture has been even larger in the past: In the early ‘90s, it doubled to about 100 people after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. There was lots of seismic retrofitting to be done: the renovation of the City Hall, Opera House, and Civic Auditorium, along with several police and fire stations. For the last three years, the bureau has been helmed by Gary Hoy.

With the organization since 1991, Hoy believes the current level of staffing is “appropriate.” The “city has the authority to do its own architecture, there is consistency in the level of quality they get, and they can save money over the private sector,” Hoy said. “Part of the reason I joined is to help the city be a good client to the private sector.”

One way that the department could speed work to outside firms would be to have a list of prequalified architects and contractors, as other municipalities have done. The department is working on a proposal but has not formally submitted it to the city board for consideration. Of the current RFP/RFQ process, Hoy admitted: “We don’t rate design criteria as highly as the quality of service provided: things like change orders, errors and omissions, and delivering on time. Those aspects are far more important to the city, because they’re about controlling costs.”

Much of the bureau’s work is not very glamorous: interior renovations of courthouses, bringing holding cells up to code, ADA upgrades, and public utilities boxes. But these days, that work might sound pretty good to San Francisco’s struggling firms. “There’s contention [about public work allocation] during downtimes,” said Charles Higueras, an architect who spent 25 years in private practice before joining the Bureau of Project Management. “When everyone’s busy, no one cares.”


A version of this article appeared in AN 08_10.28.2009_CA.