For the past 50 years it has been a Laguna Niguel landmark that draws raves and head shakes from passersby for its Babylon-meets-Buck-Rogers design.
The sprawling six-level structure, officially named for former congressman Chet Holifield, is more commonly called the Ziggurat for its resemblance to similar structures of ancient Mesopotamia, although it could also pass for an over-sized Mayan temple.
For all its futuristic/retro fancy, the massive 1-million-square-foot structure, with its stepped pyramid style, may be headed for the wrecking ball. The U.S. Public Buildings Reform Board plans to sell the building, located on 92 acres of prime federally owned Orange County real estate, as early as next year.
The building is one of 12 “high-value” federal facilities across the country slated to be sold in 2021, according to Andra Higgs, spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees the property. The building — currently at about 50 percent capacity — provides office space for about 3,000 employees from 12 agencies, including about 2,000 from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Federal officials say they are studying various scenarios in the event of a sale and are taking public comments through Sept. 4. A final report will be done after the comment period, and 30 days later a public meeting will be held before a final decision is made by the Public Buildings Reform Board.
The impacts of three options are being studied: selling the building and about two-thirds of the property while constructing a modern federal facility on adjacent land for most of the employees and allowing development of the rest of the property; moving all the employees to leased facilities off-site and selling the entire property; or doing nothing and retaining the building, which the GSA has said “would not meet the purpose and need of the project.”
Local historian Carl Schulkin said he would like to see the Ziggurat saved and reused, but realizes that’s an unlikely outcome.
“The easiest solution is always to knock it down,” said Schulkin, a member of the Laguna Niguel Historical Society, which has been shuttered since the COVID-19 outbreak and has not weighed in.
“In practical terms there is a lot of unused space,” he said. “I would like to see them preserve the building and make better use of the land around it.”
But a report by the GSA to the Office of Management and Budget does not bode well for the Ziggurat, which is described as a “large but obsolete building” … with “substantial repair and building safety requirements,” including a projected $342 million in deferred maintenance expenses and $339 million in future capital expenditures.
Laguna Niguel officials have indicated support for redevelopment of the property and a willingness to work with developers to allow mixed-use projects.
Councilman Fred Minagar, who called the Ziggurat “a monument,” said it is too early to talk about what the city would like to do with the property.
But Minagar said he is open to a variety of scenarios, including those that would save the structure.
“I welcome any mixed-use projects that would provide amenities,” he said.
Jonathan Orduna, Laguna Niguel community development director, said the preferred outcome based on input from the community is that the building be demolished.
Orduna said the land is prime development territory, and that the city’s general plan would allow for 2 million square feet of development.
Locals have been frustrated by the maintenance, which has been so poor that even the parking lots are degraded, he said. With so much of the building going unused, the city rents space in the parking lots for outdoor basketball courts.
Ever since the building went up it has had a star-crossed existence. Its architect, William Perreira, an avid fan of futuristic design, was nationally renowned for his design of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Los Angeles International Airport.
Locally he is known for his involvement with the master plan for the city of Irvine as well as much of the architecture at UC Irvine.
The Ziggurat, however, was doomed almost from the start by shifting politics that extended far beyond aesthetics. Built in 1970, the building was intended as an office and manufacturing plant for North American Rockwell and a potential hub for future housing. The company never moved in, due in part to President Richard Nixon paring defense spending to its lowest level in 20 years.
Also at the time, the more than 100 miles of the proposed Pacific Coast Freeway that would have passed nearby were removed.
The federal government acquired the building in 1974, left it vacant for a decade and tried to sell it before finally putting it to use.
“It was originally constructed as a manufacturing facility and is not particularly well suited for modern office use,” said Higgs of the GSA.
For all its modernity at the time of construction, the building and its equipment have aged, with few upgrades, and no longer meet codes. According to the GSA report, “deficiencies have been documented in all major mechanical and electrical systems, including life-safety, fire protection, and fire sprinkler systems.” Other issues include the presence of asbestos-containing materials and the need for seismic improvements.
Still, at 50 years old, the building has earned historical significance and is eligible for addition to the National Register of Historic Places. That could be the one thing that saves the building, some say. The architectural and historic relevance of the building could make demolition difficult, if not impossible.
The GSA is negotiating with the State Historic Preservation Officer to determine possible deed restrictions, covenants and other requirements for future owners.
“That kind of encumbrance makes it more difficult to sell,” Orduna said, adding that the city would like to see those issues resolved before it would begin to consider rezoning for projects like housing.
There are some, like Schulkin, who think the building is worth saving. He said he can make a strong case for using part of the Ziggurat for a museum because of its design and its importance both historically and architecturally.
Until a final decision is made, the Ziggurat will continue as a partially used government facility and architectural oddity. Or, it could always be used as a backdrop for some dystopian science fiction movie as it was in 1975’s “Death Race 2000.”
Comments on the Draft EIS may be emailed to Osmahn.Kadri@gsa.gov or sent to: Potomac-Hudson Engineering, Inc. Attention: CHFB DraftEIS 77 Upper Rock Circle, Suite 302 Rockville, MD 20850
Source: Orange County Register