In San Jose, Securing the New City Hall

Security weighed heavily on the minds of San Jose officials as they designed their new City Hall against the national backdrop of an ongoing war against terrorism and the memories of assassinated public officials.

Although some focused on aesthetics and energy efficiency, others like San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis thought of George Moscone, Harvey Milk and James Davis.

Moscone, a San Francisco mayor, and Milk, a supervisor and gay activist, were gunned down at City Hall in 1978 by a former colleague. Davis, a New York City councilman, was shot to death at a public meeting in City Hall in 2003 by a political rival.

"We are all very concerned that we have lost one Bay Area mayor here, even though it was 25 years ago," Chief Davis said. "And you only have to go back to New York two years ago to see why we would have security concerns."

The deadly truck bombings of a federal building in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center in New York in the 1990s, as well as the Sept. 11 hijackings that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, heightened those worries, Davis said.

Even so, designers had to keep in mind that a city hall is a public building, not a bunker.

"The challenge for a building like this is to keep it secure but to maintain some sense of openness," said Michael Palladino, the lead Los Angeles-based architect on the project. "You want to be able to provide measures to secure the site from the awful experiences we're having in this day and age, but you don't want it to appear like a fortress where you're trying to keep people out."

To that end, City Hall has:

  • Concrete artistic features including a water fountain and boulders outside the building that create a barrier, blocking vehicles from driving into the tower or rotunda.
  • Parking restrictions around the building that prohibit anyone from leaving a car close enough to detonate a bomb that could damage the building. Of 372 underground parking stalls, the 72 directly below the tower are reserved for employees.
  • "Panic buttons" throughout the building, enabling staff to summon security quickly in an emergency.
  • Security cameras in key locations throughout the building.
  • Controlled access to all office floors through a lobby, restricting entry to registered visitors and employees with electronic key cards.
  • Employee-only elevators.

Davis and an expert consulted by the architect helped develop the building's security plans, said Randy Turner, deputy director of public works. There was considerable discussion about whether to include metal detectors like those used at courthouses to help keep weapons out, he said. City officials decided to design the building to accommodate metal detectors if they decide to use them.

Experts say metal detectors are uncommon at city halls, and don't guarantee security. New York has them, but had let city officials and their guests bypass them. Davis, the New York councilman, escorted his assassin around the devices. Now, everyone must go through them in New York's City Hall.

San Jose's old City Hall had a few troubling security incidents. On Halloween 2001, police closed it for three hours after a worried staff member reported a masked man with a gun roaming the halls. The weapon was a toy and the man was a government worker in costume.

Earlier that year, an activist with a sledgehammer attacked a marble statue of explorer Christopher Columbus in the building's lobby. It cost $66,000 to repair the statue, which was a gift to the city from Italian-Americans.

Turner said barriers will discourage similar attacks on the statue when it is relocated to the new City Hall's lobby.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press