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Up and down Symphony Towers

600,000 square feet wrapped in sunset red

Horace Dietrich: "Unfortunately, the janitors first and security second are the ones suspected. If a tenant calls and says, ‘Horace, my gold watch was stolen out of my desk last night,’ the first thing I will check is the security log."
  • Horace Dietrich: "Unfortunately, the janitors first and security second are the ones suspected. If a tenant calls and says, ‘Horace, my gold watch was stolen out of my desk last night,’ the first thing I will check is the security log."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

“This is almost a little city here,” says Horace Dietrich, manager of the Symphony Towers office building. “There are restaurants and an engineering department that makes the building run; there is security, there is management. And all facets depend on what the others are doing.”

Symphony Towers. “If you find that you’ve come into the stairwell by mistake —every fourth floor here, we have a little box that you can push and call security and say, ‘I’m on the 34th floor, stair three, come and let me out.’"

Symphony Towers. “If you find that you’ve come into the stairwell by mistake —every fourth floor here, we have a little box that you can push and call security and say, ‘I’m on the 34th floor, stair three, come and let me out.’"

If the Symphony Towers were a city, Horace Dietrich would be the mayor. He manages the 600,000-square-foot office tower. I’m in his office on the tenth floor to find out what that entails.

The Symphony Towers complex, designed by the architectural firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill and completed in 1989, occupies the entire block circumscribed by A and B Streets on the north and south and Seventh and Eighth Avenues to the east and west.

Three main components make up the complex: the 27-story Marriott Suites that fronts A Street; the 34-story office tower on B; and the 2255-seat Copley Symphony Hall sandwiched between. Above and structurally independent of Symphony Hall, a five-level parking garage capped by a “sky lobby” bridges the gap between the two towers.

While the outside of the hotel and Symphony Hall is off-white, the office building’s polished-granite exterior is brown — “Sunset Red,” building literature calls it. On each north and south face, two protruding areas of black glass run the height of the building. The east and west sides have one apiece. Between the protrusions on the north and south faces, V-shaped bay windows extend from the ground to the roof, jutting out a few feet once at the 29th floor and again at the 32nd floor. AT&T logos adorn the tops of the east and west faces.

SPP International, a $26 billion pension firm based in Stockholm, Sweden, owns the office tower. They employ Horace Dietrich to manage it and several other properties in the United States. “We own this building and approximately ten other buildings,” Dietrich explains, “and we’re into residential and retail centers throughout the country. Some of the real estate we have in this country we manage in-house. In other words, I work directly for the owner; I’m not a third-party or fee-for-service manager. [In addition to this building], I manage a 24-story office building in the financial district in San Francisco and a 50,000-square-foot, high-end retail center in Chicago on Michigan Avenue with Tiffany, Elizabeth Arden, Florsheim shoes — very high-end.”

Behind a large mahogany desk, Dietrich leans back in his leather office chair and turns toward the window looking over City College and beyond, Golden Hill. “I think the thrust of any management is, one, to create a good, comfortable working environment for the tenants that are here in the building. We are in the service business just like a lot of other organizations. We have to provide a working environment for tenants so they can produce, so they can make a profit, so they can stay in business, and we can legitimately charge a management fee.

“Number two, a building manager is not only responsible for the hospitality issue as far as creating that nice environment for the tenants, but these days — and this seems to be increasing, and I’ve been in the business almost 20 years — he should be imbued with the challenge of creating value for real property.

“If you have an office building,” he explains, “ 1 story, 30 stories, or 80 stories, the owner wants to look forward to a profit. One way, if the economy is good in that market area — and our economy in San Diego seems to be very slowly creeping back to being good — you can raise the rents. But most tenants are on leases, which guarantee the rent for five or ten years, and you don’t have an opportunity to renegotiate with them. So if the owner wants to keep the building and not flip it or sell it, he wants to be able to increase his ownership value in the building. You do that by maintaining the building to the highest standard possible. If you do that, and the building has a good reputation — through the management company or through the tenants in the building — then the value of the building, what the building is worth at any given time, will continue to go up. If you don’t have a good management team like we have here; if you don’t maintain the building—the building needs a coat of paint or the elevators aren’t working properly or the floors don’t look good, they don’t maintain the landscaping, the security is slovenly, the janitors don’t have uniforms — all of these things have a detrimental effect on the property.”

Dietrich’s commitment to good management is reflected in the Symphony Towers vacancy rate, which he says has been 0 for two years and has been less than 4 percent since 1992. During the same period, San Diego’s downtown office vacancy rate has been as high as 23 percent. “Building managers have to analyze their situation,” he continues, twirling his chair to face me. “Is it going to be more advantageous, in trying to properly manage the building, to hire people or to contract with a vendor or supplier to do it? I have to decide whether or not I want to have the engineers working for us as employees or if I want to go out and hire engineers from a contractor. I’ve got to decide whether I want to have my own janitors and security guards here in the building or hire a janitorial or security company. Right now, we feel that we have a good, efficient mix. We’re using a security company, and we are using a janitorial company. But we have our own in-house office staff, our own in-house loading dock master, and our own in-house engineers.”

Is fire a major concern?

“No. Of course, who wants to have a fire? But the reason it’s not an overburdening concern to me is we are very prepared. We have smoke detectors and we have sprinkler heads. Every June, we have a fire drill and a fire warden orientation. There’s one warden for every tenant in the building, and it alternates in case that person is going to be out. We train the wardens to direct the people into the stairwells, to direct the people out of the building in case of a fire emergency. If we smell something or if someone has an electrical connection burning, we call an engineer and get them up right away.

“If someone pulls one of the little pull stations that are around, we send engineers and security there immediately; we are tied into an alarm company, which is tied into the fire department. The fire department would come and respond unless they were told otherwise. In fact....”

Dietrich picks up a small walkie-talkie from his desk. “Security? This is Horace.” “Go ahead, Horace.”

“Don, will you call me on the phone please?” To me he says, “That’s our director of security.”

The phone rings. “Good morning, Symphony Towers. Don, do you know the length of time, when a fire alarm goes off here in the building, that we have to notify the San Diego Fire Department before the trucks roll? Could you find out and let me know? Okay, thanks.”

Horace hangs up and looks toward me. “Okay, we’re tied into San Diego Alarm Company and what happens is, San Diego Alarm picks up the alarm, and they’ll give us the time — one minute or whatever it is— to determine whether the alarm is legitimate or not. That’s on a 24-hour basis. And if they call back, which they always do, and ask, ‘Should the trucks roll or shouldn’t they?’ we have a certain code that we give them to cancel the fire alarm or to have the trucks roll.”

The phone rings again. It’s Don calling back. “I’m going to put you on the speaker phone, Don,” Dietrich says.

“I talked to the alarm company,” Don explains, “and they say you don’t have a set time on it. They say what we tell them to do is what they do. He said that when they have the alarm, they call security. If security doesn’t answer, they dispatch the fire department. If they do get a hold of somebody here, they have to be an authorized person that can hold the fire department, like the engineering department, and I’m on the list now. Otherwise, they do roll them. He gave me a fax number and an ‘attention of ’ if you want to change that.”

“No, I don’t see any need to change that. Don, how often would you say we have a pull station pulled?”

“I think we had four in 1996; all malicious or a door slamming and popping it out or an accident. I had three other alarms caused by a contractor cutting a wire.”

Another issue Dietrich deals with is theft.

“It’s an issue in any place, whether it’s a single-story building or a 34-story building. This past winter, someone was coming in and stealing fire extinguishers. God knows what he was doing with them, but he was stealing fire extinguishers. So the security companies put together a description of him. We have a fax network here in San Diego among all the office buildings, so everybody knows about things like this.”

Did they catch the fire extinguisher bandit?

“No, we missed him. Somebody saw him, and by the time security got on the elevator to get where he was, he had dropped everything and gone. We almost got him. But they caught him in another building. They knew what to look for.”

Dietrich says most theft reported to him by tenants comes from within. “Oddly enough, most theft is internal; people stealing from their own employers, whether it be watches or jewelry or somebody’s got a roll of quarters in his desk that someone takes. So 95,98 percent of the time, it’s internal. Yes, we had a security guard here once—I’ll admit it — that was dishonest, and we caught him on camera stealing something. I’ve got a lot of cameras in this building. Unfortunately, the janitors first and security second are the ones suspected. If a tenant calls and says, ‘Horace, my gold watch was stolen out of my desk last night,’ the first thing I will check is the security log to see if there was anybody working on the floor, like a contractor that maybe had access. Did we have a new security guard on duty? Did the security guard make his rounds? We have checks to make sure. We have little bar codes on all entrance doors where people make the rounds so that we know if that guard was there at 10:30 or 12:30 or whatever. We check the janitors. Was there a new group of janitors? Were the janitors in there late? Were there any employees in there? Did any other janitors see him? We go through a lengthy investigation. If it’s serious enough, we naturally get the police involved. We had a situation here last October where a tenant came to us and he said, ‘I think someone stole my credit cards out of my desk. They are gone and someone is running up big charges—four, five, eight, nine thousand dollars.’

“We got into it, checked all his credit cards, and someone had charged $16,000 on them. I have to get involved because someone could say, ‘Horace, it’s your janitor that did it,’ or, ‘Horace, it was your security guard.’ So the fellow was called and told that there was a charge from some mail-order catalog to be shipped to a P.O. box, and the P.O. box had an address, so we thought it was one of these Mail Boxes Etc. situations. We sent out security to the address and found out that it was a Mail Boxes Etc. situation, and we couldn’t get access to it. It wasn’t a day after that when Nordstrom called and said somebody had made a purchase on that card, and they were coming in to pick up the goods. So they staked out Nordstrom, and the guy comes in, and they nail him. He ends up being a relative and former employee of the guy here in the building. He’d gone in, and he didn’t take the credit card, he took the receipts and everything that was in the guy’s desk, and he took the credit card number.”

Dietrich offers to give me a tour of the building. Just down the hall from his office, I notice a door with a nameplate that reads “Diane Feinstein, United States Senate.” “This is a regional office,” he tells me. “She’s been here I think twice in the past three to four years.”

Hopping on the service elevator, we go up to the 12th floor. On the way up, Dietrich says, “I keep the service elevator clean and I keep the corridor leading to the service elevator clean, because I know that truck drivers and delivery people maybe don’t have as much respect for the property as people who work in or own the property. So I want to keep a nice environment for them because I know if I do, it’s going to pay dividends. They are not going to graffiti a wall that looks nice. If I respect them doing their job, they probably will respect us.”

At the 12th floor, we walk through a large lounge bustling with midday activity; bellhops walk briskly here and there, suited businessmen break for lunch, tourists try to figure out the location of their hotel rooms. Chairs, couches, and tables furnish the middle of the room, and small shops and restaurants line the edges. “This is the Sky Lobby,” Dietrich says. “The Marriott Suites registration desk is in here. We’re kind of like the Wyndham Emerald Shapery complex, in that the hotel and office tower are hooked together by this lobby. Have you ever been up to the University Club?”

I shake my head no.

Dietrich leads me to the main elevator. A musical staff, treble clef, and a few notes grace the wall at the end of the corridor. Horace points at it “We’re lucky. The building has AT&T logos on the tops of the east and west faces, but the building is still known as the Symphony Towers versus being known as the AT&T building. So we do whatever we can do to perpetuate that musical theme.”

Once in the elevator and traveling upward, Dietrich points to the button panels. “You won’t find a 13th floor on here.”

Why not?

“Superstition.”

New standards for handicap access, Dietrich says, are forcing him to move the elevator buttons, which are centered at shoulder level, down to stomach level. The cost: $102,000.

At the 34th floor we get off and walk into the dining room of the University Club, which has a spectacular view of downtown, the bay, and Point Loma. “Hello, Mr. Dietrich,” the dining room staff say in unison.

Dietrich leads me to the south side of the room. A triangular section in the middle of the glass wall juts out over B Street, offering views up and down the street, over the Convention Center, and across the bay to Coronado and the Pacific. “This is nice over here; as a matter of fact, you’re out over the street. The building has these Vs at the top, and we’re out in one. I’ve threatened to put a parking meter right there in the corner,” jokes Dietrich, letting out a jolly laugh.

We head for the opposite side of the building, which affords a view of Balboa Park and Hillcrest. An orange and red Southwest airliner glides past at eye level. “We’re probably standing about 485 feet above mean sea level right here,” Dietrich says, “because the building itself is 500 feet. There’s a code here in town, a restriction that you can’t be over 500 feet above mean sea level. That includes our aircraft warning lights.

“Do you have any desire to go up on the roof?” Dietrich asks me.

I nod and follow him to the stairwell door, where he pulls his walkie-talkie from a belt holster. “Security, this is Horace. I’m going up stairway three to the roof.” Leaning into the door to open it, he says, “If I don’t warn security, an alarm goes off.”

The stairway comes out on a raised concrete platform in the middle of the roof. A circle 25 feet in diameter is painted on the platform. “This is our helipad, but it’s for medical or evacuation emergencies only; it’s not for corporate use. Every 4th of July, we bring the building staff up here. It gives us a 360-degree range, and you can see all of the fireworks —10 or 12 displays. If it’s not El Cajon and La Mesa, it’s Coronado and Point Loma. Plus, they do a big display right here on the harbor.” After soaking in the view, we head back downstairs. “In all high-rise buildings, the stairwells are pressurized, and these doors are locked,” Dietrich says, tugging on a door to demonstrate. “If you find that you’ve come into the stairwell by mistake —which people do, thinking they can walk down or get some exercise — every fourth floor here, we have a little box that you can push and call security and say, ‘I’m on the 34th floor, stair three, come and let me out.’

“The stairwell pressurization is a fire-safety measure. If the building were on fire, and you opened a door to get from a stairway to one of the floors, not knowing that floor was on fire, the pressurization would blow the flames back away from you. If the stairway were not pressurized, flames would be sucked into the draft of the opening door.”

Do they discourage people from walking the stairs?

“We don’t encourage it. We do allow people to do it if they want to get the exercise.” Dietrich unlocks the door to the 34th floor and heads for the elevator. “We just recently rekeyed the building and got ourselves a new set of master keys. We found that we needed different masters—grand masters, tenant secured-area keys, utilitarian keys. We have at least six levels of keying security. It’s healthy to change them every now and then because you don’t know how many people have gotten hold of a master key over the years. Plus, it adds comfort again to the tenants. But it is very expensive.”

How much?

Horace looks at me and pauses. “Seventy-five thousand.”

The elevator arrives on the ground-floor lobby off B Street. We walk across the long room toward the security kiosk, positioned in the middle of the room, next to the wall of windows. Inside the kiosk, one guard stands, decked in gray slacks and a blue blazer. “We put our security in good uniforms rather than have them look like bank guards because we want them to look hospitable and polite,” Dietrich explains.

Dietrich asks the guard to show me the TV monitors behind the kiosk. One screen indicates where each elevator is and if the door is open. Another screen is split into 16 boxes, each showing a view from a different camera. Some of the images are in color, some black-and-white. Dietrich explains that they’re in the process of replacing black-and-white cameras with color. “Don,” Dietrich asks, “can you expand one of these pictures here?”

“Sure.” Don enlarges one of the 16 color images to cover the screen. I recognize it as the service elevator.

“What would you say the percentage in improvement has been in rendition and notice-ability in going from black-and-white to color?”

“A lot,” Don answers. “What we lose in a little bit of detail, we gain in getting true descriptions of an event—someone’s dress, their race, the actual color of a vehicle. It was misleading with the black-and-white because someone with a jacket like this” — he points on screen to a person in a green jacket — “would come out light gray, so you’d have a completely different result.”

We hop back on the elevator and get off at the sixth floor to see the engineering office. Four building engineers on staff are responsible for keeping technical systems running. This includes monitoring and servicing heavy machinery such as two 550-ton chillers (for air-conditioning), four air-handlers (airline-engine-sized fans), two large boilers, an enormous domestic water pump, and the fire alarm and sprinkler system. The engineering office, on the south side of the building, is divided into a kitchen/meeting room with a table, four small offices, a blueprint room, and a room with two computers. All the building’s technical systems can be monitored and adjusted on these computers, Dietrich tells me.

From the sixth floor, we descend to a subterranean level. “This is our lower level, where the haircut salon is, where the dry-cleaner—Johnny Valet’s — is, and the mail room. This is our cafe here,” he opens a door and I stick my head in for a peek, “which is open for breakfast and lunch. These people opened with the building in ’89, and they’ve been here ever since. You have everything you need here. It really is kind of a small city.”

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