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Seeing Red : Raindrops on Metal, Pigeons Overhead Stain Port's Pride

April 02, 1987|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

The distinctive steel framework that six years ago won architectural acclaim for the Port of Los Angeles' headquarters in San Pedro is now a dirty word there.

The exposed network of girders, designed to resemble steel cranes in the harbor, has become a cozy roost for hundreds of pigeons oblivious, as pigeons usually are, to where they relieve themselves.

And the unusual beams, constructed of a steel that is supposed to rust for only a few years and then form a maintenance-free coating, have not stopped rusting, port officials say. The rust has dripped onto the building's concrete foundation, leaving unsightly stains on the showpiece structure and prompting the Harbor Department last year to sue the building's San Francisco architects for $300,000.

"It is not one of the favorite topics of conversation around here," one port employee said.

John Carl Warnecke and Associates, architects for the building, deny responsibility for the rust problem, saying they relied on information about the steel--known as Corten--that was provided by its manufacturer, United States Steel. The architects point out that the building received the prestigious American Institute of Architects award for excellence in design and execution when it opened in 1981, in large part because of the unusual truss.

As for the pigeons, Warnecke consultant Travis Emery had little to say.

"I know nothing about that," said Emery, who served as a Warnecke vice president when the company designed the Harbor Department building.

But employees in the building know more than they want to about pigeons.

They say the panoramic harbor views offered from floor-to-ceiling windows in the port's executive offices are periodically marred by splashes from pigeons, and employees venturing to the partly uncovered second-floor parking garage must step around 12-foot-long slicks of pigeon droppings.

The department's pool cars take a special beating from the pigeons because they are parked beneath the girders. "On a couple of occasions we have all walked out there and said, 'I am not driving those things,' " said Julia Nagano, who works in the public relations office.

Building maintenance crews have stuffed chicken wire into crevices along the steel girders to keep out pigeons, and plans are in the making to construct a canopy over the pool cars to protect them from droppings. Workers now drape large plastic sheets over the cars at night--when the ubiquitous pigeons return from excursions to the harbor and do most of their damage.

"You can't shoot them, you can't poison them, so the only thing you can do is block off their access," said facilities manager Don Williams, explaining that he would not want to harm the birds. At one point Williams called in county pest control officials, who trapped about 200 pigeons and released them away from the harbor. "But they're always having young. They're pretty prolific."

While acknowledging that other buildings in the harbor area also attract pigeons, Williams said the headquarters has a particularly bad problem because of the girders' design and easy access for birds. The girders provide convenient perches for the pigeons, he said. "We have one big family affair up there," Williams said.

But while the pigeons may be annoying, the rust has been embarrassing, port officials said.

Three years ago, when federal officials from Washington came to San Pedro to present a prestigious honor for export achievement, red-faced Harbor Department officials scurried to find ways to hide the dripping rust stains.

'It Was Unsightly'

"It was everywhere," recalled Nagano, who helped arrange a ceremony with the visitors in front of the headquarters. "It was unsightly. It was right after a rain. . . . "

Port officials, eager to show off the new $15-million building, paid an industrial cleaning company about $3,000 to scrub the rust off portions of the concrete that were visible during the ceremony. Around the corner, Nagano said, the stains were as bad as ever.

This month, the department will spend an additional $15,000 to hire the same company to remove stains from concrete throughout the building, particularly in the patio where the rust has turned the concrete posts dark brown. In addition, the company will coat the concrete with a sealer to make future cleanings easier, Williams said.

The lawsuit against the architects and one of their subcontractors was filed last year, and it will be several years before it goes to trial, said Frank Wagner, a deputy city attorney who is handling the case. In the lawsuit, the Harbor Department alleges that "substantial portions" of the headquarters are rusting at "an unusual and excessive rate" because of the design of the steel framework.

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