“In government,” says a longtime city mover and shaker, “real estate is king. And your office is important.”
Former public works boss Mohammed Nuru, who for 20 years served as the right arm of five mayors until his January arrest on federal fraud charges, never had the office he felt was his due.
“It was big, but it wasn’t grand,” the mover and shaker continues, describing Nuru’s third-floor space in City Hall. “Mohammed was always a little pissed he had a shitty office. He had strong opinions about the quality of his office.”
He made them known. And they were adhered to — to many of his colleagues’ chagrin.
The grand office that Nuru never had the chance to move into is located high atop 49 South Van Ness, a graceful 16-story tower sprouting out of the former Goodwill site on South Van Ness and Mission. It will soon house workers from Public Works, the Department of Building Inspection, the Planning Department, and several other permit-granting city agencies. In the not-too-distant future, this will be the city’s one-stop permitting shop; it was, ostensibly, designed with the needs of the public in mind.
But not just the public. While many of the city workers here will be crammed into small spaces in open-layout cubicle plans, Nuru procured himself a top-floor corner office befitting a Mad Men–style CEO.
On a recent tour of the site, the future cubicle-dwelling city workers who’ll soon be toiling on lower stories were led through the 16th floor office and lectured on its amenities. This has more than a whiff of Marie Antoinette about it, but San Francisco remains an unsubtle place. Perhaps the cube-drones can eat cake in the break room.
“It seemed to be larger than offices of Mohammed’s peers at other departments,” offered one worker on the group tour. “There were spectacular views all the way down to AT&T Park and the Bay. And we were also told that this was the side of the building where those views were least likely to be obstructed by any future developments.”
And that’s no accident. Nuru wasn’t simply given this plum space. He took it. He insisted on it and, in a fashion, it was created for him. “Mohammed demanded it and Mohammed got it,” sums up a longtime colleague. “It was pretty well known that Mohammed tended to get what he wanted.”
Fellow city employees sure knew this. They saw Nuru’s behavior in this matter as a vulgar display of power, but a typical one. So, as was also typical, they kept their heads down, seethed, and did nothing. For years.
It turns out you can’t fight City Hall even when you are City Hall.
If San Francisco’s City Family had its way, Nuru would, soon, be ensconced in the space colleagues bitterly referred to as “Mohammed’s Penthouse,” and still doing all the things that put him on the FBI’s radar prior to his Jan. 21 arrest.
The city is, now, taking frantic action to cleanse itself of Nuru’s legacy, at least superficially. But that it was an outside agency that took aim at this city’s culture of casual corruption looms large.
Nuru is out of the picture. But we can now see that picture so much more clearly. The man, like the office he demanded and received before losing it, provides a clear view of San Francisco.
But not such a spectacular one.
Earlier designs for 49 S. Van Ness did not all have an ‘executive floor.’
“I soooooo don’t think he’s going to go for the lounge based meeting. I would be knock-me-over-with-a-feather surprised.”
That’s a snippet from a June 2019 email penned by one of Nuru’s employees tasked with overseeing the layout and decor in his penthouse-to-be. This email chain stretches from June until November and involves some half-a-dozen city employees and three outside furniture, fixtures, and equipment experts.
Nuru’s many underlings worked long and hard on this. One wrote about taking measurements and photos of Nuru’s City Hall desk and tables while the director was out on his lunch break; another paced off the dimensions of the room. At another point, his aides seemed to conspire to mitigate their boss’ more extravagant tastes.
“He is def going to want a meeting table capable of supporting six people in his office,” reads an email note. “Perhaps if we reassure him that the conference room directly adjacent is his and his and his alone, and that we can slip in a fifth chair for five people around … the rectangular table?”
What office layout Nuru opted for in the penthouse is unknown and, frankly, somewhat academic. He’s not around anymore.
Everyone else, however, is still around. Much of the layout of the building, which will house hundreds of employees and serve legions of public visitors daily, is essentially his doing.
That’s because, when the layout here was years ago initially proposed by city experts and outside architects and consultants, there was no “executive floor” on the top, and the departments within were contiguous and “self-contained.”
That makes sense. That’s how you’d design a modern office building in which hundreds of of employees are supposed to work efficiently for the good of the public.
But, for Nuru, this would not do.
“We had the Mohammed-pushing-everyone-around dynamic,” said one city worker involved in the conception and design of 49 South Van Ness. “If Mohammed was involved, things had to go his way.”
Nuru had his allies at City Hall. And he had no problems rolling over his less bellicose and less connected equals like a large boulder. “Mohammed placed a very high value on being in that topmost space,” said one city higher-up.
By 2016, the building’s layout looked pretty much the way Nuru wanted it to look. Now, obviously, there is an executive floor — for Public Works.
And, oddly, the departments housed within this tower are neither contiguous nor self-contained. To wit, while Nuru’s penthouse is isolated on the 16th story, other Public Works employees are several floors below. Other than satiating Nuru’s desire for that topmost floor, there’s no obvious rationale for laying out a building this way.
“What good reason is there for somebody to oversee their staff from a couple of flights away?” asks a veteran city employee rhetorically. “How does that make any sense? Shouldn’t you be with your staff? I don’t know of any way to justify that. From the beginning people thought it was ridiculous.”
And yet it happened. And nobody did anything.
The cube-dwellers given the grand tour of Mohammed’s Penthouse, by the way, are less thrilled with their own meager accommodations.
A certain degree of rancor and envy is to be expected during any office move or allocation of limited resources. But these complaints do add up.
Longtime planners and building inspectors with deep institutional memories say they’re being told that, due to limited space in the new office, they’ll be limited to two bankers’ boxes of materials apiece.
More workers, they say, will be crammed into less space — and there will be fewer restrooms. Employees tasked with serving the public say they will be on floors not served by public elevators. Desks are slated to be smaller than the building plans that will be unrolled atop them — which figures to be a problem.
At the same time, the building features a gorgeous, grand atrium and, inside the South Van Ness entrance, an eight-foot curved LED screen in lieu of a simple sign.
During lean times, “if there are a bunch of burnt-out pixels do you think the city will maintain it in a timely manner?” asks one future office denizen here. “There’s so much on that building that’s an answer to a question nobody asked.”
Well, someone asked. Demanded, more like.
A situation in which the powerful and well-connected are served at the expense of everyone else is an unsubtle metaphor for the city writ large.
San Francisco remains an unsubtle place.
Last week, Nuru’s interim successor, Alaric Degrafinried, stood and addressed a Board of Supervisors committee about the practices of his predecessor.
Degrafinried has a solid reputation around the city — “a choirboy,” says one City Hall observer. But this was still a frustrating hearing. He offered technical answers to technical questions, but, having only been in the director’s seat since Jan. 28, there was only so much he could say.
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It seemed clear where the supes wanted to go, though. Supervisor Aaron Peskin noted that fully one-half of the higher-ups on the Public Works organization chart were “acting” directors (not even including Degrafinried, who also meets this criteria).
“My concern is that it’s a lot easier to manipulate ‘acting’ people than permanent,” Peskin said. “No disrespect to Willie Lewis Brown, Jr., but he would not reappoint commissioners, so he allowed them to stay on on a day-to-day basis; he could get rid of them.”
Supervisor Matt Haney took things further. Recounting conversations with front-line Public Works employees, he relayed their allegation that the department had been hiring workers with minimal civil service protections or contracting out jobs that could be handled in-house — and that Nuru was heavily involved in this hiring process.
The scenario being painted here is clear. Nuru, who had no problems leaning on his City Hall connections to bulldoze even his ostensible equals, was surrounded by pliant Public Works deputies. He also put in place front-line workers who could be easily dismissed and were less inclined to question orders. In short, the man who made a career out of doing all the things mayors asked him to do — even and especially things he shouldn’t have done and shouldn’t have been asked to do — allegedly created his own personal army (on the city’s dime) to serve that purpose.
Degrafinried, of course, had explanations for the supervisors’ queries. There are a lot of acting directors because of a domino effect of leaders moving upwards. Lots of at-will workers are hired because of seasonal-type jobs like road-grading.
The acting director has a reputation for honesty and these are an honest man’s answers. But Public Works is run via a system that could be — and, frankly, was — exploited by a less-honest leader.
Following the hearing, Degrafinried told your humble narrator that, to his own surprise, he’s now inclined to apply to keep the Public Works job full-time. This unscripted announcement seemed to please his top lieutenants who were standing alongside him; one spontaneously clapped her hands upon hearing it.
It remains to be seen if he will change the system that was created to serve another man’s needs.
It remains to be seen if he will sit in the penthouse that was created to fulfill another man’s desires.
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