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Awaiting Toxic Cleanup at Permanent Site : Ad Agency 'Camping' in Venice Warehouse

January 31, 1988|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

The artists and copywriters who work for one of the nation's leading advertising agencies are settling into their new, albeit temporary, corporate headquarters: a cavernous, remodeled warehouse in the heart of Venice.

Amid much fanfare from local politicians and business leaders, the Chiat/Day agency has begun its move to Venice, delayed until now by the discovery of toxic waste on a planned construction site.

The cleanup of the contaminated site is under way. The agency, meanwhile, has set up shop in a converted warehouse on Hampton Drive and will also use the former site of Antioch University on Rose Avenue once renovations there are completed.

Agency founder Jay Chiat expects to be quartered at the warehouse for at least two years while work at the future permanent site, a block away at 340 Main St., continues. There, Chiat plans to build a $15-million, 75,000-square-foot complex designed by architect Frank Gehry.

Work on the Main Street site came to an abrupt halt in mid-1986 when a powerful stench began wafting from the ground. Workers and neighbors complained of nausea and headaches, and county and state health officials were called in.

Tests revealed that the site was contaminated by coal-tar residues left by a heating gas plant that had operated there in the early 1900s.

The plant was a predecessor to Southern California Edison Co., which during the ensuing months spent $1.5 million to conduct studies and remove approximately 5,000 tons of toxic, tar-like muck found four feet underground.

The state Health Services Department recently approved another plan to excavate about 30,000 tons of additional "lightly contaminated" soil that is not considered hazardous, said Jim Smith, manager of the department's toxic-substance control division.

Some "not very widespread" ground-water contamination was also detected and is being studied, he said.

Smith said health officials will monitor the coming excavation and also look at possible contamination on adjoining sites. He said the excavation is scheduled to take less than a month.

"The faster the better, because there is some potential for exposure and nuisance (foul smells)," he said. "They'll do it as fast as possible while being very careful."

Further sampling of the soil will be necessary to allow Chiat/Day to begin construction.

Jay Chiat, 55, a 12-year resident of the Venice area, said the building will be an unusual "marriage of art and architecture."

A huge sculpture of a pair of binoculars, by artist Claes Oldenburg, will serve as the entrance. The facade will feature a "forest" of copper and glass.

Architect Gehry also designed the remodeling of the warehouse, which Chiat said was intended to create a raw, stripped-away look, with "interesting views" but no fancy offices.

Exposed insulation lines the ceiling, from which metal air-conditioning ducts are suspended. Employees, including Chiat himself, work in wooden pods on a concrete floor. One conference room is shaped like a hollowed-out, headless, tailless fish. The sparse colors tend toward silvers, yellows and browns, with an occasional splash of green or red.

Some Venice businessmen have suggested that the arrival of Chiat/Day, which says it is one of the nation's top 20 advertising agencies, would be a boon to the neighborhood.

But Jay Chiat sees the agency's move to Venice as a kind of benign addition to an already arty, eclectic community.

"Venice has gone through a lot of transition in the last 40 years. I don't think 200 fairly well-behaved people will hurt too much," he said.

"A lot of the attraction of the area is in what it has been. We have no desire to make it something else. I see Venice as more of a little European seaside town than a California real estate development. The eclectic . . . spirit is what we have tried to capture."

Eventually, however, he thinks, Chiat/Day employees, about half of whom live in the Venice area, will carry over their "creative energy" into local cultural and public issues.

Not everyone in the Venice area is delighted with Chiat/Day's arrival.

Arnold Springer, a member of the Venice Town Council residents group, said some neighbors remain skeptical about the cleanup of the contaminated site and are unhappy about "overbuilding" in the area.

"An office is not a use that a lot of us thought was appropriate for a beach community," he said. "I would have rather not seen Chiat/Day build there."

When the ad agency was first obtaining city permits, residents fought for and won an agreement from Chiat/Day to open its parking lots on weekends to beachgoers, according to Cheri Leslie, head of the Town Council's planning committee.

She said the group also asked to be allowed to review architectural plans because of what she called Gehry's "controversial" style. But that request was refused.

Chiat said his firm worked to allay the "natural suspicion toward development" of some Venice residents who raised concerns that the new offices would generate more traffic in an already congested area.

One tactic was to gain the early support of Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who last week was a co-host of a festive welcoming reception at the City of Angels Brewing Co. in Santa Monica. Close to 300 local political, civic and business leaders attended.

Hayden hailed Chiat/Day's move to Venice as "a positive force on the Westside, and in the Venice community, that is needed."

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