“Green” Renaissance Brings Honors Anew to 1989 Mills Building

December 1, 2011 | 4:07pm

And the 2011 Building of the Year Award goes to...the James R. Mills Building.

Also called Trolley Towers, the striking grey and red transit hub and County office building with a 15-story clock tower is a Ball Park District landmark.

Before you complain, “This news is so 1989,” let us explain.

The 22-year-old edifice on Imperial Avenue was indeed showered with honors when it first opened, including a 1989 San Diego Architectural Foundation “Orchid” for building design.

But the new award, “The Outstanding Building of the Year,”—aka, a TOBY— is all about how well the Mills Building is managed today. The San Diego Building and Owners Management Association bestowed the honor in a recent ceremony, with Mills winning in the “government” category.

The TOBYs recognize excellence in both building operations and property management, and they’re the most prominent and comprehensive awards for the local commercial real estate industry.  

Mills was picked in part because of recently-completed energy, water and cost-saving upgrades that mark a kind of “green” renaissance for the building.

The improvements are expected to reduce the building’s annual energy costs by about $74,000.

 “The award recognizes that the County’s making efforts to make sure its buildings are run in the most efficient way possible,” said John Kross, Deputy Director of Real Property with the County’s Department of General Services. 

The recent energy-saving upgrades include new air conditioning units to cool the Health and Human Services Agency’s computer room, new hot water heater timers on every floor and reprogrammed software to control the climate and ventilation systems for the 180,000 square-foot building.  

Kross said a San Diego Gas & Electric program for large office buildings that offers rebates and incentives for upgrades aided many of the improvements. As part of the program, consultants evaluated the property’s initial energy use and made recommendations for retrofits and upgrades.

Other changes that have helped make Mills a paragon among government buildings include new low-water fixtures in all the bathrooms and low-water use landscaping. Large agave plants, wispy native grasses, hearty succulents and flowering sage bushes are among the rainbow of drought-tolerant plants lining the pedestrian areas these days.

The building also recently got an upgraded fire emergency alarm system, elevator improvements and improved security, including visitor screening and new digital surveillance cameras.

Despite all the improvements, the cost of operating the building has dropped for two years in a row.

The Mills building is owned by the San Diego Regional Building Authority—a joint agency comprising the County of San Diego and The Metropolitan Transit System. Its day-to-day operations are handled by Colliers International Real Estate Management, with overall financial and asset management directed by MTS and the County’s General Services Department.