Tenants move into new offices in Santa Rosa’s former AT&T building

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A decade-long effort to breathe life back into the abandoned concrete bunker that was the former AT&T building reached its latest milestone this week when employees of two Santa Rosa-based businesses moved into stylish new offices in the remodeled downtown edifice.

About 100 executive and administrative staff of Luther Burbank Savings took up residence on the fourth and fifth stories of the building early in the week, consolidating operations that had been split among four different Fourth Street office buildings.

“We have room to breathe now, and room to grow,” said John Biggs, CEO of Sonoma County’s largest locally based financial company.

And on Friday, 31 employees of TLCD Architecture made their move-in official with a whimsical chair parade. Workers rolled their desk chairs in the rain from their old offices on Santa Rosa Avenue two blocks north to their open, austere new digs on the second story of a building now known — for the moment — as Museum on the Square.

“I’m almost in a state of suspended disbelief because it’s been so long,” said Don Tomasi, a principal in TLCD Architecture, whose firm has worked on the project for about eight years.

The office portion of the building is now 90 percent leased, assuming a software company takes 60 percent of the third floor as anticipated, developer Hugh Futrell said. That leaves the first floor space, touted as prime restaurant real estate, and the basement, which is being eyed for a possible wine museum, as the main two spaces remaining to be filled.

“I’m pleased,” Futrell said Friday. “It’s been a lengthy journey to get to this point.”

As part of a redevelopment project, the city in 2007 purchased the 82-foot tall, vacant windowless monolith, whose thick concrete walls for years protected sensitive telephone switching gear. City leaders felt if they didn’t act, the blighted building would hamper other downtown revitalization efforts, like the reunification of Old Courthouse Square now underway.

Futrell and Tomasi originally envisioned a gleaming 10-story tower that tacked five stories of apartments onto the stout concrete shell. But the housing bust, demise of redevelopment agencies and tight post-recession lending environment forced them to pare back their plans.

At the time, then-Mayor Scott Bartley called the revision a “Hail Mary attempt” to save the project.

It worked, but only after Luther Burbank Savings stepped up and agreed to take the top two stories of the building. Biggs said he was attracted by the opportunity to consolidate staff in once place — the bank’s downtown retail branch is a half block away on Third and B streets — and the potential to revitalize downtown.

Biggs originally hoped to be in the building three years ago, he said. There were times he thought the deal would fall apart.

“I put a ton of pressure on Hugh,” Biggs said.

Biggs said he’s glad he stuck with it. Employees love the new space, said Jose Casillas, senior vice president.

“It’s a much more collaborative environment and people are just loving the heck out of it,” he said.

To improve the feeling of a connection between the fourth and fifth floor, the bank sawed huge holes in between the stories for a staircase and open lobby, Biggs said.

Soon, a sign will be installed along the side of the building that will be one of the largest in the city, providing significant visibility for the bank, Biggs said.

The visibility from the fifth floor is unmatched. Biggs and Victor Trione, board chairman of Luther Burbank Savings, have offices that look right out onto the square eye-level with the clock tower of the historic Empire Building.

Signs that the building remains a work in progress abound.

The building’s north exterior still needs a paint job.

TLCD’s front door wasn’t in use Friday while a repair was being made. And some windows in the bank space leak, something Futrell said is being addressed and is not unexpected for a project this complicated.

While the bank opted for elegant, finished office space, TLCD went the other direction. The firm’s architects were attached to the industrial feel of the space and strove to preserve that vibe in their office design, Tomasi said.

The 16-foot-high ceilings and full-size windows create an open, airy space that makes for easy collaboration. There’s even a large garage-style door that opens up the side of the conference room for wine Wednesdays, Tomasi said.

The interior renovations qualify for the silver-level certification under the LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — green building standards, he said.

“Reusing a building is the most sustainable thing you can do,” Tomasi said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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