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American fury as Foster grabs $120m San Francisco job

Foster + Partners has angered three ‘local’ firms by winning the stimulus-backed renovation of a historic San Francisco landmark

The decision to select a British firm to renovate 50 United Nations Plaza has provoked controversy as the project was made possible by the $130 billion federal stimulus fund for building renovation and construction.

Martin Bovill, vice president of development at Hornberger & Worstell (H & W), one of the firms that missed out, told The Architect’s Newspaper: ‘You’d think that it would make sense to keep the money here rather than send it overseas. It’s not like you’re in Timbuktu. You have very well-qualified firms in the city with experience in San Francisco historic preservation.’

Firms involved in the losing bids - SOM, Architectural Resources Group with HKS, and Hornberger & Worstell with William McDonough - have offices in San Francisco.

The Recovery Act that guides stimulus spending does not state that design and construction work must go to American firms, only that the building materials such as steel have to be produced in the states.

A spokesperson for the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages most federal buildings, told The Architect’s Newspaper: ‘We chose the best bid based on the qualitative factors mandated by the Brooks Act and look forward to moving through the negotiations process with ELS and discovering how much work will be done by local contractors and how many jobs will be created in the Bay Area.’

A six-story, 32,000m² Beaux-Arts building, 50 United Nations Plaza was designed in 1936 by Arthur Brown Jr, who was also behind San Francisco’s City Hall. The building has been vacant since 2007.

The GSA said the project aims to give the building a: ‘seismic upgrade and new electrical, heating, and plumbing systems. Windows will be replaced, elevators improved, and hazardous materials abated. The building will be changed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The interior spaces will also be reconfigured in order to make it more efficient office space.’

Foster & Partners declined to comment.

In a previous statement, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said ‘the decision to restore the beautiful 50 United Nations Plaza Federal Building is good news for San Francisco, for the Civic Center area, and for our city’s economy.’

‘Renovating this building, improving its energy efficiency, and making it more accessible for people with disabilities will create and save jobs for San Franciscans.’

Readers' comments (5)

  • This doesn't sound like anything other than a great deal of destruction, hardly conservation of a historic building.

    So maybe they got the right architect?

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  • Again, the US Congress proves how shortsighted and ineffective they are. They can't even write a bill that spends taxpayers' money so that ALL OF THE WORK goes to USA companies! The stimulus package is funded by American taxpayers to revive their economy and help sagging infrastructure on long delayed projects. The bidding should NEVER have been open to foreign firms. I am familiar with the work of all the San Francisco firms as well as Foster and any of the San Francisco firms could do a beautiful job of restoration work and bringing the building up to earthquake specifications. What buildings has Foster brought up to earthquake specs? Foster could knock it down and do a flying buttress or curving roof! And Pelosi is just covering up for her and Congress' errors in not stating that all money must be spent with US firms and buy US made goods. They'll probably stick some Chinese made steel in anyhow as well as cheap plastic plumbing from China. Just more stupidity.

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  • @anne_laurent c'mon, nearly everything you buy is made in China now. No US government ever stands up to China on human rights because their trade is too valuable. The US would grind to a halt without Chinese imports.

    Your guys, especially the neo-cons trumpeted the glories of the free market... you made your bed, now lie in it.

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  • People from SF who actually think (as opposed to reacting in knee-jerk fashion) are thrilled to have Foster involved.

    The way some are screaming, you'd think that Foster was taking all $130B for itself. The vast majority of the funds will go to local contractors, and yes, local SF architects that will have to be involved as subs and will also take some of the fees.

    What you're seeing is mostly just a bunch of sour grapes because everyone here knows that some of the best and most important architecture in this town in the last decade comes from non-US (and non-SF) firms.

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  • This is a historic building, Foster and Co are not architects known for their conservation credentials. So why choose such a firm? It sounds as though the plan is to wreck the building, not preserve it.

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