San Diego may save Big Hole from sinking into regulatory abyss

Thousands of new college students took their very first look at the campus of Santa Monica College, and for many, it started with a gaping hole in the ground. A ten-foot high wall surrounds the 40 feet deep construction site that stretches from 17th to 20th Streets along Pico Blvd., and stretches south nearly halfway down to Pearl Street.

Faded names of Board of Trustees members and construction companies printed proudly on the wall a couple years ago are now obscured by winding ivy. A sun-bleached sign posted at the site shows a radically futuristic rendering of a building, captioned: “Student Services Building.”

What should exist there is an environmentally friendly facility to house more than 30 student service related offices, support for bikes and buses, and 500 additional parking spaces; but delays at the state level have kept construction static for more than two years.

Returning students like second year cosmetology student Tanya Jones, are already used to the excavation. “It’s not really good because it’s been like that so long, and it’s not very pretty,” she says.

The $80 million construction project has received accolades from Next L.A. Design, the Chicago Athenaeum, and the American Architecture Award. So what’s taking so long?

According to reports by the school, responsibility for the delay falls in the hands of the Los Angeles office of the Department of State Architecture.

It is the DSA’s job to provide design and construction oversight for K–12 schools and community colleges throughout the State of California, according to their website.

Chief architect for the Student Services Building, David Heart, of the L.A. based Steinberg Group, states via email that a delay like this is unusual.

“We have taken more than 100 projects through DSA and have never had this sort of challenge,” he says.  “It is the first time we have ever heard of a project being moved from one DSA office (Los Angeles) to another office (San Diego) by the State Architect because of a failure of DSA staff to complete a review.”

Mr. Heart further explains that structural engineers at the firm used advanced computer modeling to design more efficient and safe structures. This is especially important to understand how a structure would behave in seismic activities.

Heart says that reviewers in Los Angeles were “challenged” when it came to navigating the model.

“I was surprised to learn there is a gap between the design industry and the plan reviewers in the DSA L.A. office,” he says. We met with DSA before submitting the project to them for review on multiple occasions and they had no issues with the structural design approach.”

Representatives from the DSA could not be reached for comment.

Despite nearly two years of delay, the design is nearing approval to clear the DSA, according to their website. According to Heart, no alterations were required and they are now ready to move on to the bidding phase where several pre-approved construction firms will vie for the contract.

SMC Public Information Officer Bruce Smith states that the college is now only waiting on the completion of two “back checks” before the design gets the DSA seal of approval.

According to the DSA, a back check is a “Face-to-face meeting held at DSA Regional Office after all corrections have been made to drawings and specifications,” The DSA website shows that one of the two back checks was completed on August 22.

Heart estimates that it will take another two-and-a-half to three months after final DSA approval for construction to begin, and then another two-and-a-half to three years for completion, putting the estimated opening of the Student Services Building sometime in 2015.