SSA headquarters to get $96 million makeover

Woodlawn building work to include fiber optics, new ventilation system

March 04, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

For years, the 13,000 workers at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn have had to deal with quirky heating and air conditioning, poor ventilation, desks built when computers took up entire rooms -- and all the other limitations of a building that had received no major renovations since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

But that's about to change.

A $96.9 million renovation plan for the main building on the Social Security campus, the first comprehensive overhaul since it was constructed in 1959, was announced yesterday by federal officials. Improvements will range from a fiber-optics network to the addition of skylights under the plan outlined by U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes.

Social Security Commissioner Jo Ann Barnhardt and the senators promised to make the building more compatible with modern technology and telecommunications, more energy-efficient and more aesthetically pleasing.

But what elicited a collective "oooh" from the crowd of Social Security workers who gathered for the announcement was the promise of a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for the building.

"I know a lot has happened in 40 years," Mikulski said. "Music has begun to rock, but we don't want the building to rock as well."

Barnhardt said the building isn't falling apart, but it was designed when Social Security business was handled differently. Instead of computer workstations, old-fashioned wooden desks fill many of the offices, and the building isn't well suited to the installation of computer networks.

"It's not a building that's equipped to handle the way we do business now," she said.

John Gaige, president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system in the building has been a major concern for employees. Some patches of the building are chronically hot, others cold, he said.

Employees also have frequently complained about air quality in the building, and many have reported respiratory problems over the years, Gaige said.

"We've gone through so many temporary fixes on problems," he said. "The Band-Aid approach really wasn't working. We're just so appreciative."

The planned renovations to the main operations building are scheduled to begin this summer and to be completed by 2007. Other recent renovations have added a child care center to the campus and have spruced up an auxiliary building.

Sarbanes, a member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, helped get the renovation plan on the books, and Mikulski, a member of the Appropriations Committee, helped get it in this year's federal budget.

Contractors will remove all known hazardous materials from the building; install energy-efficient lighting and a fiber-optic computer network; and replace aging mechanical and electrical systems. The plan also calls for a redesign of the building to add skylights and atria to allow more natural light into the offices.

"It's long overdue," Sarbanes said.

Both senators took the opportunity to praise the employees who work at the headquarters and express their support for the Social Security program. Both said they believe the system should be maintained largely in its present structure and not privatized.

"When we complete this, we really will have an up-to-date, modern complex that will match the dedication and skill of our employees," Sarbanes said. "We are fierce defenders of this program and of the people who make it possible."

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