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Building Puts Form Over Bodily Function

December 26, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

With its eye-popping architecture and energy-conserving louvered screens, state employees say, the massive new Caltrans district headquarters in downtown Los Angeles makes them feel special.

They only wish designers of the $190-million environmentally friendly edifice on 1st Street had paid more attention to basic human needs.

"A lot of employees are pretty upset that a lot of money was spent on the award-winning design but little was spent on things like water and restrooms," said Stephen Beck, a consultant with the Professional Engineers of California Government union.

The 13-story, 716,200-square-foot structure has four drinking fountains, all on the ground floor. And at each end of each floor there are two bathrooms, one for women and one for men. The problem: only four urinals on each level.

Then there is the question of glare. Although the building's windows are shaded on the south and north, there is no protection on the east and west against the rising and setting sun.

"Management tells us everything is up to code," said engineer and union representative Arturo Salazar. "But a lot of our union members are banging the door for us to take legal action.

"Clearly, the intent here was to make this building as environmentally friendly as possible. But it's not employee-friendly. The union is pursuing these complaints and studying its options."

In the meantime, employees are taking bottled water to work and shielding their desks with makeshift shades of cardboard and drafting paper -- or moving away from the windows.

For some state engineers and architects, the shortcomings have become a source of amusement. "If you're thirsty, we've got a sink with a faucet in the kitchenette down the hall," joked one engineer, "but you've got to scoop the water up with your hands."

Building designer Thom Mayne was unavailable for comment. But his spokeswoman, Silvia Kuhle, insisted that all applicable codes and requirements have been met.

She also took exception to the complaints of employees who she said had grown used to the "huge, hostile bathrooms" in their previous district offices at Spring and 2nd streets.

"We thought it would be more humane to give them smaller, more intimate bathrooms, with more privacy," she said.

"It made perfect sense to me that people would prefer bottled water" over "ugly, dusty, nonworking drinking fountains," Kuhle added.

Jim Hammer, deputy district director of administration for the California Department of Transportation, put it another way.

"We are looking at trying to better understand whether these are valid needs being expressed by employees or just a small group of people complaining," he said. "Personally, I think the biggest thing going on here is people experiencing change."

About 1,400 Caltrans workers began moving into their new home in early September. They will soon be joined by about 400 Los Angeles Department of Transportation workers.

Eventually, the first floor will feature a public restaurant and an art gallery behind a courtyard designed to hold as many as 1,000 people for civic events.

Hammer acknowledged that the building's ultra-modern exterior "does not provide adequate shading at sunrise, and we have made that a high priority."

Caltrans plans to install additional shades, he said, at a cost of roughly $400,000.

"The vast majority of our people," Hammer said, "are very pleased, comfortable and appreciative that they are in a building like this one."

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