The Woodlawn headquarters of the Social Security Administration is set to receive a $150 million overhaul to remove dangerous lead paint and asbestos, rip out corroded plumbing and modernize the 10-story building for 21st-century technology.
Extensive interior and external improvements are planned in coming years for the 56-year-old Arthur J. Altmeyer Building, named for the agency's first commissioner. Nearly 500 employees work there.
"You and I know that the Altmeyer Building right this minute is a dump and it borders in certain places on a Superfund site," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland told an auditorium filled with about 250 workers recently. "This place was built when we had rotary phones. Remember typewriters and carbon paper?"
Officials declined requests by The Baltimore Sun to tour the building but outlined plans to update the 250,000-square-foot facility with new elevators, modern office layouts with more open space, and windows and insulation that better regulate the temperature. The building is not open to the public.
Chris Molander, the associate commissioner who oversees the agency's facilities, said the need to bring the building up to code and replace aging mechanical systems is driving the renovation. It will be the building's first major overhaul since it was constructed in 1959.
Design work is beginning, he said. No timetable has been set for the project, and Molander said he could not estimate how long it will take.
"We have a continuing commitment to staying in the Woodlawn community," he said. "This reinforces that commitment."
Developing the plans will cost about $11 million, leaving $139 million for construction.
Money for the project was included in the $1.1 trillion bipartisan budget bill that President Barack Obama signed last month. The spending package includes other significant investments for Maryland, such as $390 million for a new FBI headquarters that officials are trying to lure to Prince George's County and billions of dollars for medical research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and land conservation to help the Chesapeake Bay.
Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Social Security workers at the recent gathering that they deserve a better work environment than the Altmeyer Building.
"We know it's been lead paint, it's asbestos, electrical circuits are out of date," she said. "We're very concerned about your health, about your safety. A modern social insurance company — which you are — deserves to be in a facility where we can bring in the technology that makes your job more efficient and helps you be more effective."
Molander said the building poses no threat to workers' health or safety. All of the asbestos is contained (most of it is in the ceilings), and the lead paint is not "an overriding concern," he said. If coated properly, he said, the old paint won't cause problems.
The facility is monitored daily, Molander said, and safety officials must sign off before work can start on spaces that contain hazardous materials. The overarching problems, he said, are the lack of insulation, corroded plumbing and an antiquated heating and cooling system.
"As you walk though the building, cosmetically it looks pretty nice," Molander said. "Behind the scenes, that's where the problems are."
The cafeteria facilities were shut down for a time last fall, but spokesman William "BJ" Jarrett said it was not related to any structural problems. An internal inspection found problematic housekeeping conditions that were resolved after a day, Jarrett said.
The Altmeyer Building is one of several at the agency's Woodlawn campus, where about 11,000 employees work. The Social Security Administration is Baltimore County's largest employer.
Molander said the building's 475 workers will be transferred to a spot elsewhere on the campus that become available when the agency's new data center opened in Urbana. Work is expected to continue without interruption during the construction.
The American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents many Social Security Administration workers, did not comment on working conditions inside the Altmeyer Building.
Molander said the most common complaint is the inconsistent temperature: One side of the building gets too hot and the other gets too cold. Adjusting the temperature when the weather changes suddenly is difficult.
Architects say the reinforced concrete structure has "good bones," but the brick facade that lines the outside walls will be removed, insulation added and a new outer layer installed. The color or design of the exterior has not been determined.
"If you think of it like a human body, we're replacing the skin and every organ that goes inside, but the skeleton is still sound," Molander said. "This isn't a wrecking-ball demolition."
Another big change, he said, will be the way the office space is configured. With new furniture, a different layout and smaller executive offices, he said, the building will accommodate twice as many people.
The new design is to feature spaces created in the style of California tech companies that popularized open rooms that workers can share, Molander said. The floor plan will be mixed in with more traditional styles.
Mikulski told workers she believes the investment from Congress sends a signal.
"The Social Security trust fund is here to stay; we'll make it viable and undeniable," she said. "And the Social Security headquarters will stay in Woodlawn."